Books, plays and essays on literary topics
Upon a semi-cirque of turf-clad ground,
The hidden nook discovered to our view
A mass of rock, resembling, as it lay
Right at the foot of that moist precipice,
A stranded ship, with keel upturned, that rests
Fearless of winds and waves.
The mound rose in the middle; a bare heap
Of finest sand, like that unverdured heap
Found at the bottom of an hour-glass run out.
At its head stood the cross of withered sticks;
The dry, peeled bark still fraying from it;
Its transverse limb tied up with rope, and
Forlornly adroop in the silent air.
Long lines of cliff breaking have left a chasm;
And in the chasm are foam and yellow sands;
Beyond, red roofs about a narrow wharf
In cluster; then a moulder’d church; and higher
A long street climbs to one tall-tower’d mill;
And high in heaven behind it a gray down
With Danish barrows; and a hazelwood,
By autumn nutters haunted, flourishes
Green in a cuplike hollow of the down.
Reading some short stories by Herman Melville and struck by something in his prose that seemed to give it a special resonance, I stopped and read again and realised that it was blank verse. Not the blank verse of Shakespeare, but of Melville’s contemporaries, the Romantic poets who wrote in verse about the things that Melville wrote about in prose. One of the three passages above is from Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, one from Wordsworth’s The Excursion and one is a passage from Melville’s short story, The Encantadas, divided into lines of verse, lines into which it falls quite naturally.
What this reveals is not only the inherent poetry in Melville’s prose, but something inherently prosaic in the iambic pentameter. It is a metre that imitates the natural speech rhythm of the English language and can be modulated up or down as the writer chooses. All three passages could have been set out in continuous prose, which is in fact how they should be read, the narrative line – the narrator’s voice – being as important in Wordsworth (1) and Tennyson (3) as they are in Melville (2).
Before I came to The Encantadas, I read Bartleby, a very different kind of story, one that, as others have observed, could have been written by Gogol, a first person narrative in which the narrator, ‘a rather elderly man’, a member of the legal profession, describes but is unable to explain the strange behaviour of one of his clerks or ‘scriveners’. It has also been compared to Conrad’s Secret Sharer and, although Bartleby is not a sea-faring story, Melville and Conrad both spent time at sea and drew on that experience in their later careers as writers. The Encantadas is made up of ten ‘sketches’, each of which is essentially a seaman’s yarn recounting his own experiences and stories that other seamen tell about the ‘Enchanted Isles’, otherwise known as the Galapagos Islands.
Bartleby is a kind of yarn too and, although the narrative style is very different (no hint of blank verse, just plain prose), there is something in the character of Bartleby, his single-mindedness, his solitariness, his impassiveness, which Melville brings out too in his description of the three Galapagos Island tortoises that are caught and left on deck in Sketch Second – Two Sides to a Tortoise.
As I lay in my hammock that night, overhead I heard the slow weary draggings of the three ponderous strangers along the encumbered deck. Their stupidity or their resolution was so great, that they never went aside for any impediment. One ceased his movements altogether just before the mid-watch. At sunrise I found him butted like a battering-ram against the immovable foot of the foremast, and still striving, tooth and nail, to force the impossible passage.
The alliteration in the last sentence is striking but, that aside, what we should notice is Melville’s obsession with obsession. Whether it’s Captain Ahab, Bartleby, Claggart or a tortoise, what Melville sees but can never explain other than as a fact of life, the fate to which our own nature condemns us, is blind obsession. The rest of his description of the tortoise’s futile struggle against an immovable obstacle makes it plain that he is not really writing about tortoises but about humanity.
That these tortoises are the victims of a penal, or malignant, or perhaps a downright diabolical enchanter, seems in nothing more likely than in that strange infatuation of hopeless toil which so often possesses them. I have known them in their journeyings ram themselves heroically against rocks, and long abide there, nudging, wriggling, wedging, in order to displace them, and so hold on their inflexible path. Their crowning curse is their drudging impulse to straight-forwardness in a belittered world.
Melville’s prose is never far from poetry, whether it’s blank verse, alliteration or just phrases like ‘that strange infatuation of hopeless toil’. In their stupidity and their resolution there is nothing much to choose between a tortoise and a man.
The next post, on 23 July, will be about Longfellow.
That will be followed on 30 July by another Reader’s Diary.