By them, nevertheless, must have been inspired -- in fitful and irregular afflatus -- some of the prose-poetry of Herman Melville's sea-romances. Ocean breezes blow from his tales of Atlantic and Pacific cruises. Instead of landsman's grey goose quill, he seems to have plucked a quill from skimming curlew, or to have snatched it, a fearful joy, from hovering albatross, if not from the wings of the wind itself. The superstition of life on the waves has no abler interpreter, unequal and undisciplined as he is -- that superstition almost inevitably engendered among men who live, as it has been said, "under a solemn sense of eternal danger, one inch only of plank (often worm-eaten) between themselves and the grave; and who see for ever one wilderness of waters." His intimacy with the sights and sounds of that wilderness, almost entitles him to the reversion of the mystic "blue cloak" of Keats's submarine greybeard....
A landsman, somewhere observes Mr. Tuckerman, can have no conception of the fondness a ship may inspire, before he listens, on a moonlight night, amid the lonely sea, to the details of her build and workings, unfolded by a complacent tar. Moonlight and midseas are much, and a complacent tar is something; but we "calculate" a landsman can get some conception of the true-blue enthusiasm in question, and even become slightly inoculated with it in his own terra firma person, under the tuition of a Herman Melville. This graphic narrator assures us, and there needs no additional witness to make the assurance doubly sure, that his sea adventures have often served, when spun as a yarn, not only to relieve the weariness of many a night-watch, but to excite the warmest sympathies of his shipmates. Not that we vouch for the fact of his having experienced the adventures in literal truth, or even of being the pet of the fo'castle as yarn-spinner extraordinary. But we do recognise in him and in his narratives (the earlier ones, at least) a "capital" fund of even untold "interest," and so richly veined a nugget of the ben trovato as to "take the shine out of" many a golden [truth]. Readers there are, who, having been enchanted by a perusal of Typee and Omoo, have turned again and rent the author, when they heard a surmise, or an assertion, that his tales were more or less imagination. Others there are, and we are of them, whose enjoyment of the history was little affected by a suspicion of the kind during perusal (which few can evade), or an affirmation of it afterwards. "And if a little more romantic than truth may warrant, it will be no harm," is Miles Coverdale's morality, when projecting a chronicle of life at Blithedale. Miles [is correct].
But to Mr. Melville. And in a new, and not improved aspect. Exit Omoo; enter Mardi. And the cry is ... changed enough to threaten an exeunt omnes of his quondam admirers. The first part of Mardi is worthy of its antecedents; but too soon we are hurried whither we would not, and subjected to the caprices ... of one who, of malice aforethought, ... bores us with his "sea of troubles," and provokes us to take arms against, and (if possible) by opposing, end them. Yet do some prefer his new shade of marine blue, and exult in this his "sea-change into something rich and strange." And the author of Nile Notes defines Mardi, as a whole, to be unrhymed poetry, rhythmical and measured -- the swell of its sentences having a low, lapping cadence, like the dip of the sun-stilled, Pacific waves, -- and sometimes the grave music of Bacon's Essays! Thou wert right, O Howadji, to add, "Who but an American could have written them." Alas, Cis-Atlantic criticism compared them to Foote's "What, no soap? So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber," -- with the wedding concomitants of the Picninnies and Great Panjandrum and gunpowder-heeled terpsichorics -- Foote being, moreover, preferred to Melville, on the score of superiority in sense, diversion, and brevity. Nevertheless, subsequent productions have proved the author of Mardi to plume himself on his craze, and love to have it so . And what will he do in the end thereof?
In tone and taste Redburn was an improvement upon Mardi, but was as deficient as the latter was overfraught with romance and adventure. Whether fiction or fact, this narrative of the first voyage of Wellingborough Redburn, a New York merchant's son, as sailor-boy in a merchant-vessel, is even prosy, bald, and eventless; and would be dull beyond redemption, as a story, were not the author gifted with a scrutinising gaze, and a habit of taking notes as well as "prenting" them, which ensures his readers against absolute common-place. It is true, he more than once plunges into episodic extravaganzas -- such as the gambling-house frenzy of Harry Bolton -- but these are, in effect, the dullest of all his moods; and tend to produce, what surely they are inspired by, blue devils. Nor is he over chary of introducing the repulsive, -- notwithstanding his disclaimer, "Such is the fastidiousness of some readers, that, many times, they must lose the most striking incidents in a narrative like mine:" for not only some, but most readers, are too fastidious to enjoy such scenes as that of the starving, dying mother and children in a Liverpool cellar, and that of the dead mariner, from whose lips darted out, when the light touched them "threads of greenish fire, like a forked tongue," till the cadaverous face was "crawled over by a swarm of worm-like flames" -- a hideous picture, as deserving of a letter of remonstrance on esthetic grounds, as Mr. Dickens' spontaneous combustion case (Krook) on physical. Apart from these exceptions, the experiences of Redburn during his "first voyage" are singularly free from excitement, and even incident....
Next came White Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War. The hero's soubriquet is derived from his -- shirt, or "white duck frock," his only wrap-rascal -- a garment patched with old socks and old trouser-legs, bedarned and bequilted till stiff as King James's cotton-stuffed and dagger-proof doublet -- provided, moreover with a great variety of pockets, pantries, clothes-presses, and cupboards, and "several unseen recesses behind the arras," -- insomuch, exclaims the proud, glad owner, "that my jacket, like an old castle, was full of winding stairs, and mysterious closets, crypts, and cabinets; and like a confidential writing-desk, abounded in snug little out-of-the-way lairs and hiding-places, for the storage of valuables." The adventures of the adventurous proprietor of this encyclopaedic toga, this cheap magazine of a coat, are detailed with that eager vivacity, and sometimes that unlicensed extravagance, which are characteristic of the scribe. Some of the sea-pictures are worthy of his highest mood -- when a fine imagination over-rides and represses the chaos of a wanton fancy. Give him to describe a storm on the wide waters -- the gallant ship labouring for life and against hope -- the gigantic masts snapping almost under the strain of the top-sails -- the ship's bell dismally tolling, and this at murk midnight -- the rampant billows curling their crests in triumph -- the gale flattening the mariners against the rigging as they toil upwards, while a hurricane of slanting sleet and hail pelts them in savage wrath: and he will thrill us quiet landsmen who dwell at home at ease.
For so successful a trader in "marine stores" as Mr. Melville, The Whale seemed a speculation every way big with promise. From such a master of his harpoon might have been expected a prodigious hit. There was about blubber and spermaceti something unctuously suggestive, with him for whaleman. And his three volumes entitled The Whale undoubtedly contain much vigorous description, much wild power, many striking details. But the effect is distressingly marred throughout by an extravagant treatment of the subject. The style is maniacal -- mad as a March hare -- mowing, gibbering, screaming, like an incurable Bedlamite, reckless of keeper or strait-waistcoat. Now it vaults on stilts, and performs Bombastes Furioso with contortions of figure, and straining strides, and swashbuckler fustian, far beyond Pistol in that Ancient's happiest mood. Now it is seized with spasms, acute and convulsive enough to excite bewilderment in all beholders. When he pleases, Mr. Melville can be so lucid, straightforward, hearty, and unaffected, and displays so unmistakable a shrewdness, and satirical sense of the ridiculous, that it is hard to suppose that he can have indited the rhodomontade to which we allude. Surely the man is a Doppelganger -- a dual number incarnate (singular though he be, in and out of all conscience): -- surely he is two single gentlemen rolled into one, but retaining their respective idiosyncrasies -- the one sensible, sagacious, observant, graphic, and producing admirable matter -- the other maundering, drivelling, subject to paroxysms, cramps, and total collapse, and penning exceeding many pages of unaccountable "bosh." So that in tackling every new chapter, one is disposed to question it beforehand, "Under which king, Bezonian?" -- the sane or the insane; the constitutional and legitimate, or the absolute and usurping? Writing of Leviathan, he exclaims, "Unconsciously my chirography expands into placard capitals. Give me a condor's quill! Give me Vesuvius' crater for an inkstand ! Friends, hold my arms !" Oh that his friends had obeyed that summons ! They might have saved society from a huge dose of hyperbolical slang, maudlin sentimentalism, and tragi-comic bubble and squeak.
His Yankeeisms are plentiful as blackberries. "I am tormented," quoth he, "with an everlasting itch for things remote." Remote, too frequently, from good taste, good manners, and good sense. We need not pause at such expressions as "looking a sort of diabolically funny;" -- "beefsteaks done rare ;" -- "a speechlessly quick chaotic bundling of a man into eternity;" -- "bidding adieu to circumspect life, to exist only in a delirious throb." But why wax fast and furious in a thousand such paragraphs as these: -- "In landlessness alone resides the highest truth, indefinite as the Almighty.... Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demi-god! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing -- straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!" -- "Thou [scil. Spirit of Equality] great God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne!" -- "If such a furious trope may stand, his [Capt. Ahab's] special lunacy stormed his general sanity, and carried it, and turned all its concentrated cannon upon its own mad mark.... then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing made him mad." -- "And the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed [to a diving negro] his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God's foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad."
The story itself is a strange, wild, furibund thing -- about Captain Ahab's vow of revenge against one Moby Dick. And who is Moby Dick? A fellow of a whale, who has made free with the captain's leg; so that the captain now stumps on ivory, and goes circumnavigating the globe in quest of the old offender, and raves by the hour in a lingo borrowed from Rabelais, Carlyle, Emerson, newspapers transcendental and transatlantic, and the magnificent proems of our Christmas pantomimes. Captain Ahab is introduced with prodigious efforts at preparation; and there is really no lack of rude power and character about his presentment -- spoiled, however, by the Cambyses' vein in which he dissipates his vigour. His portrait is striking -- "looking like a man cut away from the stake, when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them, or taking away one particle from their compacted aged robustness" -- a man with a brow gaunt and ribbed, like the black sand beach after some stormy tide has been gnawing it, without being able to drag the firm thing from its place. Ever since his fell encounter with Moby Dick, this impassioned veteran has cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, frantically identifying with him not only all his bodily woes, but all his feelings of exasperation -- so that the White Whale swims before him "as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung." The amiable cannibal Queequeg occasions some stirring and some humorous scenes, and is probably the most reasonable and cultivated creature of the ship's company. Starbuck and Stubb are both tiresome, in different ways. The book is rich with facts connected with the natural history of the whale, and the whole art and process of whaling; and with spirited descriptions of that process, which betray an intense straining at effect. The climax of the three days' chase after Moby Dick is highly wrought and sternly exciting -- but the catastrophe, in its whirl of waters and fancies, resembles one of Turner's later nebulous transgressions in gamboge.
Speaking of the passengers on board Redburn's ship Highlander, Mr. Melville significantly and curtly observes, "As for the ladies, I have nothing to say concerning them, for ladies are like creeds; if you cannot speak well of them, say nothing." He will pardon us for including in this somewhat arbitrary classification of forms of beauty and forms of faith, his own, last, and worst production, Pierre; or, the Ambiguities.
O author of Typee and Omoo, we admire so cordially the proven capacity of your pen, that we entreat you to doff the "non-natural sense" of your late lucubrations -- to put off your worser self -- and to do your better, real self, that justice which its "potentiality" deserves.
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