Monday, August 16, 2010

Pale ravener of horrible meat - poetic Melville

The response to bibliographing nicole’s readalong of Clarel, Herman Melville’s massive 1876 epic poem of faith-and-doubt, has been fantastic, far above my expectations.  As for the poem, having read just a bit, it is more or less as I expected, dense and complex.  The sheer amount of stuff in the poem is the primary complication, but I had thought it would also be obscure, perhaps bafflingly so, and I was, I am happy to say, wrong about that. Melville’s poetry is, it turns out, often clearer than his prose.  It’s often less poetic than his prose!

For example, this passage nicole found in Pierre (1852):

No Cornwall miner ever sunk so deep
A shaft beneath the sea, as Love will sink
Beneath the floatings of the eyes. Love sees
Ten million fathoms down, till dazzled by
The floor of pearls. The eye is Love’s own mag-
Ic glass, where all things that are not of earth,
Glide in supernatural light. There are
Not so many fishes in the sea,
As there are sweet images in lovers’ eyes.

And there’s more where this came from.  Pierre is a novel; this is prose.  I added the linebreaks and capitalization – but the first six lines really are perfect blank verse, although I am not so happy with the split in “magic”.  An extreme case, maybe, but Melville’s actual poetry is rarely like this.

Or maybe it is:

The Maldive Shark (1888)

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In triple white tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!

They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat –
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.

The poem is about the shark, as the title suggests, but from the odd point of view of the pilot-fish, which is why the shark is all mouth, why the mouth is metaphorically described six times in sixteen lines.  Or, really, the perspective is the poet watching the pilot-fish direct the shark.  I’ve read this before, in Chapter 18 of Mardi (1849), “My Lord Shark and His Pages,” where the “dotard lethargic and dull” is instead “[a] clumsy lethargic monster.”  I have no idea when Melville wrote the poem, but the publication dates are forty years apart.

Melville’s poetry is decidedly not beautiful.  I’ve become suspicious of literary beauty, actually, so I’m not to be trusted on this, but the effects of this poem surely come from something else.  Melville can be plenty clumsy, too.  I have my doubts about “charnel of maw,” for example, or the intrusion of the Fates.  But – “Pale ravener of horrible meat”!  That’s the stuff, or the poem is nothing.  Or “They are friends” – after all of those teeth, that’s a deeply weird line.  Friends!


  1. I know, the response was fantastic, wasn't it? I was super surprised.

    I share your impressions entirely. Clarel is much less obscure than expected, but definitely complex. Also, not terribly beautiful. I'm not suspicious of literary beauty (am I? I don't think so), and I think Melville's prose writing is some of the most beautiful around. So that is one disappointment for me in his poetry, I guess. I want Clarel to sound much more beautiful than it does. But I am quite liking it all the same...I think.

  2. Am I missing something? Where do I find this fantastic response? I know there were a few of us saying, good luck, hardy sailors, we look forward to hearing about your journey! But are there scores of bloggers reading Clarel right now that I don't know about, or is it you two guys?

    Or is it just that no one thought you were crazy to try to read it at all?

    At any rate, you guys are awesome, and I'm glad that it's manageable. Good old 19th century. Looking forward to further reports.

  3. I figured one of us would drop out. So: fantastic!

    That whole "beauty" thing is an idea I should work out more, probably before mentioning it rather than after. Oh well.

    Now here, I say that Melville is not so poetic and then go for the clearly poetic "Maldive Shark". Not the way to make the case. But it's true, isn't it? Melville's formally structured poetic language is often much simpler than his baroque prose.

    Often, I see why (the battlefield elegies, for example). But not always.

  4. "Pale ravener of horrible meat." Attention-grabbing, definitely! "Charnel of maw." Questionable at best, you're right. Liked the trick you pulled with that "poem" from Pierre, by the way!

  5. Plus, who figured anyone else would even care? Not me. But look: we are "awesome"!

    I don't want to say this definitively, but I feel like Melville uses both "maw" and "charnel" at a higher rate than the average writer. Certainly his subject matter could have something to do with it, but ugh.

  6. My favorite passage from _Pierre_

    "Man or woman who has never loved, nor once looked deep down
    into their own lover's eyes,
    they know not the sweetest and loftiest religion of this earth. Love is both Creator's and Savior's gospel to mankind; a volume bound in roseleaves, clasped with violets, and by the beaks of humming-birds printed with peach-juice on the leaves of lilies."

    -- Herman Melville --
    from Pierre: or, The Ambiguities

  7. Now that, Fred, is a fine shade of purple. Beaks of hummingbirds printed with peach juice! Magnificent and nuts.

    Nabokov taught me the prose-as-poem trick, by the way. See the end of the Chernyshevsky chapter of The Gift.

    Using the Gutenberg text, I see that "maw" appears only three times in Moby-Dick. What do I mean, only? Three times is plenty. And "jaw" appears almost 90 times: "Up helm, I say--ye fools, the jaw! the jaw!"

  8. When I first encountered those beaks of humming-birds with the peach juice, I had to stop and reread it. I actually read it several times and went back occasionally to make sure I wasn't hallucinating. Melville?

  9. I love the passage Nicole found!

  10. Those Pierre passages - the peachy hummingbirds and floor of pearls and so on - are fantastic. Not the only kind of great prose, thank goodness, but one kind.