John Haydock
Hampton University

Originally published in Melville Society Extracts (No. 104, March 1996, pp. 2-13).
Reprinted by permission of the Melville Society.

Professor Haydock welcomes your comments, arguments and criticism by E Mail at

Melville had in his library at the time of his death fifteen books of short stories and novels by Honoré de Balzac. One of them was the "philosophical study" Séraphita (1). The novel represents the third and culminating volume of Balzac's trilogy on the power of human will that begins with The Magic Skin and Louis Lambert, both of which Melville also kept on his bookshelf (MR, 153). Melville had always read philosophy, but in his later years, philosophy became an absorbing interest (MR, 130). As always, he was insistently curious about the relationship between free will and necessity, between individual freedom and impersonal fate. These three novels by Balzac deal profoundly with the advantages of strengthening and managing individual will to achieve specialized ends in and beyond ordinary life. Although in our time readers frequently sidetrack Séraphita as unessential to The Human Comedy, Balzac's correspondence makes clear that he intended Séraphita to be his definitive statement about individual moral evolution. It is one of his most misunderstood works, and has been interpreted from being a cranky pseudo-philosophic exercise to an endorsement of homosexuality.

Séraphita cannot be forced into the realistic categories of the majority of his fiction. Balzac felt it separate from the rest of his work, in a way similar to Melville's protectiveness of his first philosophic romance, Mardi (2). My contention is that the concept and demonstration of will in Séraphita, with certain attendant images, structures and ideas, are reflected directly in the later revisions of Billy Budd, Sailor and offer a significant clue to the interpretation of at least part of the novel's meaning (3).

One can easily verify Melville's late reading of Balzac and related critical works. Sealts dates Melville's collecting of Balzac volumes from 1870, with an edition of Eugénie Grandet (MR, 131). Additionally, Melville owned a book by H. H. Walker printed in 1879 called The Comédie Humaine and Its Author, which Melville annotated with personal responses. The book contains short story translations along with English commentary and the original French (MR, 224). Although it is not precisely recorded when he purchased this book, Melville definitely owned a critical biography of Balzac in 1885. The book was a gift to him from his wife Elizabeth for his birthday on August 1 of that year and bears Melville's personal reading marks (MR, 210).

In light of recent research on Melville's alleged domestic abuse, and if indeed "Lizzie" was dreadfully concerned to please her husband, as Renker contends (4), she probably would have offered him a gift related to his reading interest and not risk his displeasure or even anger by selecting an unfamiliar author. Further, Elizabeth Melville also demonstrated devotion to her husband and to his profession as a writer that must have stemmed from other feelings than "dread:" She continued to rework and edit his writing after his death, when apparently much of the rest of his family wished him and his life gone and forgotten (Renker, 127). Therefore, the choice of Balzac, particularly so soon after its publication in 1884, probably reflects a genuine preference of Herman himself as well as a safe choice for her. It seems natural that his wife again addressed his attachment to Balzac by giving him a copy of Balzac's correspondence for his birthday in 1889, apparently responding to a sustained interest, particularly since this volume also contains a newspaper clipping about the French writer (MR, 152).

Hayford and Sealts determined that Melville wrote the first version of Billy Budd between 1886-1887 and expanded it into a 150-leaf manuscript by November, 1888. From that time to his death in 1891, Melville continued to work on the narrative and elaborate it until written pages more than doubled in number (5). This latter period is precisely when he was accumulating Balzac's novels, although the exact order of receipt is as yet unknown (MR, 131). Sealts found that Melville tended to read translated, modern versions of foreign authors that were inexpensive and easily available (MS, 10). Roberts Publishers of Boston began distributing the readable but often careless translations of Balzac's complete Comédie Humaine by Katherine Prescott Wormeley that fit these requirements in the late '80s. Melville obtained his collection, either one by one as they came out or in a partial set (MR, 131). His extant edition of Séraphita is one of these volumes, which came to Melville sometime in 1889 or later, and is marked with his characteristic underlining (MR, 153).

It is probable, then, that Melville was reading (or rereading) Séraphita during the stages Hayford and Sealts have labeled "F," "G," and the pencil corrections (BB, 271-273). But he also could have known of the strange central figure Séraphitus, according to this evidence, as early as 1879. Further, before Sealts published his check list, which has tended since to restrict source studies to his listed contents of Melville's last library, both Newton Arvin and Van Wyck Brooks proposed Melville's use of Séraphitus as a model for Isabel, the mysteriously sexual half-sister in Pierre, sketched as far back as 1852 (6). But it is sufficient for now to establish that certainly during the last stages of revision and possibly even at or before the conception of Billy Budd, Melville definitely would have been familiar with the plot and characters of Balzac's Séraphita.


Séraphita is a story about an androgynous youth (first called Séraphitus, later Séraphita) who possesses great spiritual and physical beauty, and dies, by ordinary interpretation, an untimely and unwarranted death voluntarily, quietly and fully self-aware. This individual has cultivated personal will so completely that he supersedes the intellect and the ordinary limitations of harsh life, represented by the novel's setting in a Norwegian winter. His actions depict Balzac's "specialist," who is intent on moving beyond the material world of negativity and pain and deterministic law to a totally "other" plane above earth's unreasonable regulations. Séraphitus's purity and innocence are innate; he lacks the need for "experience" in his present circumstances in order to practice unhesitating benevolence. He is loved by both a man and a woman and is opposed by a jealous paster named Becker, who is intent on exposing Séraphitus as a fraud, but who himself is deftly out-argued by the truthful adolescent.

At the core of this novel is what Balzac learned from Swedenborg concerning "angelic spirits," which he has Parson Becker explain from his Protestant point of view (as Wormeley translates it):

     Swedenborg applies the term `Spiritual Angel' to
     beings who in this world are prepared for heaven,
     where they become angels. According to him, God
     has not created angels; none exist that have not
     been men upon earth. (7)

For Balzac, "heaven" meant the state of being in perfected human qualities and no longer having to struggle with imperfection on earth (8). The action of the novel follows the central character in the final process and struggle that lead to physical annihilation to effect a permanent transformation, despite the vehement protests of Wilfrid, Séraphitus's male suitor, and Minna, his girlfriend. The androgyne counsels against active resistance to death, even to an "unjust" death, for the principal success of this conscious evolution is dependent on "resignation."

     . . . at the zenith of all virtue is
     Resignation . . . Resignation is the fruit
     that ripens at the gates of Heaven. How
     powerful, how glorious the calm smile, the
     pure brow of the resigned human creature. . .
     This earth on which we live is but a single
     sheaf of the great harvest; humanity is but a
     species in the vast garden where flowers of
     heaven are cultivated. . . . (S, 183-184)

Séraphitus's "suicide" is a form of euthanasia, -- a peaceful dying -- as the spirit cultivated by will exerts itself in total separation from life without any expectation of its continuance. Séraphita/ Séraphitus, as he is seen in another dimension to be a winged angel, leaves the lovers together with a new and secure understanding of the true outcome of life.

Accompanying the text in the Roberts edition is a long and detailed Introduction by George Frederic Parsons, who attempts to clarify the philosophy about will and metempsychosis dramatized by Balzac. This part of the volume is significant to an examination of Melville's technique, because in it lie many suggestive passages that have responses in Billy Budd, Sailor.

First, Parsons clarifies the position of Séraphitus/ Séraphita as a creature representing innate Altruism, "the highest and noblest works the human race possesses" (S, xii). The charismatic will that lures both Minna and Wilfrid represents the androgyne's power to make all "normal" humans love him and his enemies, like Becker, to wish to destroy him. The proper home of this perfection Parsons identifies as "the Shechinah [sic] -- the Sanctuary of exiled Unselfish Love" (S, xiii).

     In [Séraphitus] we see the consummation of the long
     process of transformation and evolution through and by
     which the mortal puts on immortality, the merely Human
     blossoms into the celestial. (S, lvi)

Parsons explains that for Balzac in Séraphita humans in gestation passes through three distinct phases. There are then three kinds of persons in his scheme, distinguished by their levels of strength of will: the Instinctive, who function on the level of the animal needs and desires; the Abstractive, who depend on regulation and logic; and the Divine, who exist in purity, love, and the wisdom of the human heart (9).

     Human destiny, according to this theory, is a painful
     course of elevation and emancipation; a working out of
     what we call Matter into what we call Spirit, -- but
     which really is merely different conditions of one
     primal substance. (S, xii)

The Introduction in Melville's edition also strongly connects the concept of will in Séraphita with the philosophy of Schopenhauer, including the belief in reincarnation and the absolute necessity for volition to subdue the instinctive "will-to-live" (S, xx, ff). Other researchers have noted that at his death, Melville was reading Schopenhauer with Balzac while working on the leaves of Billy Budd (10). Since Melville apparently did not borrow or purchase books by Schopenhauer until after January, 1891 (MR, 130) and his copy of Séraphita was published in 1889, Melville could have been directed to the philosopher by Parsons's writing, which caused him to pursue lines of thought he had already encountered in Balzac. These include such common concerns as euthanasia, consciousness as it is inspired by crisis, the effects of unjust actions on the innocent, and the recognition that ". . . humanity is the only stage at which the will can deny itself, and completely turn away from life" (11).

For Schopenhauer, Buddhism embodied the best institutional expression of this willed transformation of matter (WW, 504, 604), and in his Introduction, Parsons, after acknowledging Swedenborg's contribution to Séraphita, moves to an examination of Buddhism. Melville studied Buddhism for many years, as Mardi demonstrates, and by having written a poem called "Buddha" himself (BB, 198), he would likely have been interested in Parsons's observations. Parsons quotes a poem about the Buddha's "dark night of the soul" in comparing Séraphita's night before her death with the great Teacher's:

           . . .  all hating Buddh,
     Seeking to shake his mind: nor knoweth one,
     Not even the wisest, how those fiends of Hell
     Battled that night to keep the truth from Buddh.
     (S, xliv)

The quotation reflects Billy Budd's implied struggle the night before his execution (BB, Chapter 24). Also, investigators have emphasized relations between Billy Budd and Buddhism, noting ideas touched on by Parsons in this edition of Séraphita (12).

Parsons closes his essay with a survey of the Kabbalah and shows that to understand fully what is happening in Séraphita, one must have some knowledge of esoteric philosophy (S, lix). He explains Séraphitus's sexual ambiguity as representing the philosophic unity of worldly opposites prior to divine ascension (S, xviii), and the youth's appeal to both sexes as a Platonic yearning for a version of alchemical perfection. Since the composition of Mardi, Melville had displayed his knowledge of esoteric undercurrents in literature, and no doubt felt very familiar with these aspects of Balzac's philosophic system and could draw upon them also (13).

Therefore, in both the Introduction and the text proper of the Roberts Séraphita, which Melville owned and marked during the last three stages of work on the Billy Budd manuscript, one can find reference extensively to the philosophic conception that in phenomenal cases the power of will can overcome the unjust elements of material life.


Hayford and Sealts point out that Billy Budd has been called a "testament of acceptance" and conversely a "testament of resistance" (BB, 193 - 194) by opposing readers; but it could also rightly be called, like Séraphita, a "testament of will." It is a story of a navy captain's willfulness, the secret will of a master-at-arms, the innocent will of an angelic foretopman. Billy is an impressed sailor, one of those, Vere says, "forced to fight for the King against their will. Against their conscience, for all we know" (BB, 112), who displays the highest performance of individual self control: acquiescing with ease to his physical annihilation while making a beautiful demonstration of human conscience, blessing his executioner. This ideal character is named in full at only one place in the novel, when turned in for unjust punishment. The emphatic repetition at that point is significant. Claggart goes on to connect Billy not only to personal will but also to the general will of the ship:

     "You say that there is at least one dangerous
     man aboard. Name him." [said Captain Vere.]
     "William Budd, a foretopman, your honor." 
     "William Budd!" repeated Captain Vere with unfeigned
     astonishment. . .
     "The same, your honor: but for all his youth
     and good looks, a deep one. Not for nothing
     does he insinuate himself into the good will
     of his shipmates, since at the last they will
     at a pinch say -- all hands will -- a good
     word for him, and at all hazards . . . ." (BB, 94)

The name "Will-I-am" contains in kabbalistic form both the primary syllable "will" and individual fulfillment in "I am" (14). There is likewise a suggestion of divine being -- in Old Testament terms, the "I Am," or inmost name of God. William Budd represents that inward life in man Melville had recognized in Clarel (15), but now this life relates directly to a clear, active expression: personal will. Yet Billy's will is not as far along in evolution as Séraphitus's; his is not yet a "blossom" (16). According to Hayford and Sealts, Melville added this passage to the manuscript in the final stage of production save for pencil revisions, level "Ga" (BB, 367). We may safely interpret it as an emphatic key to the nearly finished story as Melville then conceived it.

Other important actions in Billy Budd are assigned motivation from volition, or the lack of it. Billy has never willed malice (BB, 78); Claggart lacks will to annul the evil in himself (BB, 78) and voluntarily cuts himself off from enlightenment or disillusion (BB, 80), yet he can subvert the will of his subordinates (BB, 67) and Billy when need be (BB, 98); Billy is unconscious of the sources of ill will, while basking in the good will of his companions (BB, 88-89); he voluntarily withholds the evidence of his encounter with the alleged mutineer (BB, 107); and Vere, though not "mesmerically," enforces his will on the drumhead court and Billy himself by abstract logic. Also, the crowd is "without volition" (BB, 123), and "involuntarily" echo Billy's benediction to Vere at the end (BB, 126). Only the will power of Vere and his mastery of conventional forms, with the piping down and the drum beats, (BB, 127), holds at bay the mob grumbling over Billy's execution.

These multiple considerations of will might appear only incidental, had Melville not also seen fit to include at a late interim stage of writing, levels "F/G" (BB, 266), a direct discussion of will power associated with Billy's execution. The clue resides in a conversation between the doctor and the purser in Chapter 26, where like classical gods debating a hero's fate, they try to settle on the meaning of the sacrificial ritual of Billy's execution (BB, 412). The jovial purser credits Billy's calm death to will power, but the saturnine doctor objects.

     "Your pardon, Mr. Purser. In a hanging
     scientifically conducted -- and under 
     special orders I myself directed how Budd's
     was to be effected -- any movement following
     the completed suspension and originating in
     the body suspended, such movement indicates
     mechanical spasm in the muscular system.
     Hence the absence of that is no more
     attributable to will power, as you call it,
     than to horsepower -- begging your pardon."

A man more attached clearly to the heart than the head, the purser finally gets the "sparse" scientist to admit that the calmness of Budd's death was exceptional; and he forces the doctor to the limits of his science, leaving prejudice his only escape from facing the truth.
         "But tell me, my dear sir," pertinaciously
     continued the other, "was the man's death
     affected by the halter, or was it a species of
         "Euthanasia, Mr. Purser, is something like
     your will power: I doubt its authenticity as
     a scientific term -- begging your pardon
     again. It is at once imaginative and
     metaphysical -- in short, Greek. -- But,"
     abruptly changing his tone, "there is a case
     in the sick bay that I do not care to leave
     to my assistants. Beg your pardon, but excuse
     me." And rising from the mess he formally
     withdrew. (BB, 125)

The satirical intent seems evident here: the officious repetition of "begging pardon," the making of excuses, the egotism, the materialism -- all tend to weaken the credibility of (this version of) the surgeon and give substance to the questions of the purser. We are not to take this surgeon seriously. Moreover, Billy (through the agency of the Handsome Sailor) has been continually described in Greek terms -- Greek heroes (BB, 44, 51, 71, 77,), Greek gods (BB, 48, 51, 68, 88, 99), "reposeful" Greek sculpture (BB, 51) -- so a Greek interpretation should be an organic one, especially on a mission taking place in the Mediterranean Sea. This is one of many examples of Melville's narrator playing with ambiguity and working against his own "reporting." In truth, Billy is meant to be "the prodigy of repose in the form suspended in air" (BB, 127).


A close reading of Billy Budd, Sailor reveals many details that support the direct influence of Parsons's and Wormeley's rendering of Balzac's Séraphita beyond an overriding consideration of will and the voluntary surrender of life by euthanasia. It appears that as Melville continued with his composition, Billy Budd came closer and closer to being his own working out of the philosophy portrayed in their book. Hayford and Sealts indicate that after forming the character of Billy, Melville turned to contrasting him with the other principal participants in the story, Claggart and Vere (BB, 8). Showing how these characters interact in light of the ideal types of Balzac in Séraphita gives us another angle on how Melville was working.

Billy possesses, intentionally or not at the end of the first stage of writing, the being of Balzac's Divine type. Like Séraphitus, Billy, consistent with his name, evokes flowers, blooms, and budding as well as celestial ideals. Like the "flower of humanity" defined by Balzac, Billy is called "the flower of [the] flock" (BB, 48); Billy's complexion is often compared to lilies and roses (e.g., BB, 50). Claggart sees a mantrap under his sun flowers, or "daisies" (BB, 95). Furthermore, Billy is foreshadowed by his foil, the "Handsome Sailor," who is abundantly described in sidereal and divine terms: those primarily of light, stars, and heavenly objects, just as Balzac associated Séraphitus with similar celestial descriptors (17). The very first simile applied to the prototype is that of "Aldebaran among the lesser lights of his constellation" (BB, 43). Aldebaran was one of the fifteen "fixed stars" of the middle ages and is the "eye" of the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. The image affixes itself to Billy in Chapter Nine, when he is called "bully boy" (BB, 69), and is clarified by reference to the worshipped bull of the Assyrians (BB, 44). According to this tradition the bull is born of the sun, and expresses the idea of divininty. This is also, of course, a sacrificial bull, killed for ritual purposes by the priests and people and forming a "communicating link between heaven and earth" (18). Even Melville's language of Billy's impressment carries connotations of religious specialty: he is "elected" to join the crew of the Bellipotent (BB, 45). Ratcliffe calls Billy Apollo (BB, 48). He is a foundling with no parents (like Séraphitus after the age of 9), whose "lineage is in direct contradiction to his lot" (BB, 51): Séraphitus was also of higher birth. The narrator says Budd is a prelapsarian Adam (BB, 52), a young Achilles to the Dansker's Chiron (BB, 71), and a Hyperion, Titan progenitor of Apollo (BB, 88). He is twice called a "peacemaker" (BB, 27, 28), which of course elicits the promise given in Matthew 5, 9: "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall become sons of God." Appropriately, Ratcliffe assigns Billy to a post superior to ordinary humanity on the ship, to the foretop. The narrator tells us that Billy would spin yarns with his friends in his aerial club "like the lazy gods" (BB, 68); when he poises to strike Claggart he "gave an expression to the face like that of a condemned vestal priestess in the moment of being buried alive" (BB, 99). Most directly, the captain perceives him as "an angel of God" (BB, 101). Again, Sealts and Hayford assign this attribution to Melville's very last stages of work on Billy Budd, level "G" and the final pencil corrections (BB, 379), apparently to further what Weaver called long ago Billy's "seraphic impulse" (19).

In developing Claggart, Melville appears to illustrate the Balzacian Instinctive type as illustrated in Séraphita by Pastor Becker. Although the nature of Billy's essence evades Claggart, -- Melville says perhaps willfully (BB, 79) -- Budd is clearly delineated from the covert will of the master-at-arms as well as the hierarchical will of the distant King interpreted through Captain Vere. Claggart is one of those naturally depraved individuals that Balzac would oppose to the higher nature of Billy. He is "the direct reverse of a saint" (BB, 74). He is subject to the type of cold depravity "dominated by intellectuality" (BB, 75) -- not by the objectifying intellect of the Abstractive, but one monitored by a conscience that was "but the lawyer to his will" (BB, 80). His depravity is of essence, "born with him and innate" (BB, 76). The very word "instinctive" describes Claggart at his lower points (BB, 88). He fits the type Parsons explains in his comments to Séraphita:

     Instinctive Man not only deliberately prefers his
     inferiority, but regards with positive enmity all who
     evince a desire to ascend the scale of existence. This
     enmity is in part automatic and literally instinctive,
     and resembles the resistance which an air-breathing
     creature offers to immersion in the water. 
     (S, lxxvii)

So functions Claggart's malignant will power against Billy's innocent will, albeit much of the time "unconsciously" because of his firm attachment to enforcement (he is the ship's policeman) and his separation from the issues of the heart. Significantly, Billy destroys Claggart with a blow to his devious intellectuality -- to his forehead, "so shapely and intellectual-looking a feature in the master-at-arms" (BB, 99).

Of particular importance in Séraphita is the character of Wilfrid, who after his experiences with Séraphitus becomes a devoted follower of the idea of human evolution. He portrays much the same manliness and vehemence as Captain Vere in Billy Budd. Like Wilfrid, Vere is the Abstractive type, who has not yet gained fully the understanding of the issues of the heart but has begun to experience some intuitions of immortality and fate. Because of his Abstractive nature, Vere can only operate from conventional forms (i.e., BB, 128; cf. note 8 above), a weakness Melville stresses. The word "intuition" appears several times in relation to the captain and his ability to make sound and perceptive decisions rapidly. He "leans toward everything intellectual" (BB, 62) but this nature in him is not evil but only "pedantic" and "bookish" (BB, 63). He is at a stage of transition in metempsychosis that puts him between the Instinctive intellectual and the intuitive Divine. That Vere is Billy's "follower" on the celestial journey, and moves "toward" him, in a fashion similar to that of Wilfrid in Séraphita is clear also by the language that describes him. Vere is morally inconstant, like the moon, to Billy's constant sun:

     Slowly he uncovered his face; and the effect
     was as if the moon emerging from eclipse
     should reappear with quite another aspect
     than that which had gone into hiding. 
     (BB, 101)

He is a "bachelor" (like Wilfrid) and so holds, no close family commitments (BB, 60). He is first identified with Nelson; and the narrator tells how "a star [was] inserted in the Victory's quarter-deck designating the spot where the Great Sailor fell" (BB, 57). This act in proxy puts Vere among the celestial affiliations with Billy, while Claggart, of course, is never connected with the sky or heavenly imagery. Vere is even afforded the epithet "starry Vere," which remains with him until his death (BB, 61). Reading Nelson as the same sort of foil for Vere as the Handsome Sailor is for Billy, Vere's theistic role is, at least at first, to represent the absent King, a stand-in for God:
     If under the presentiment of the most magnificent of
     all victories to be crowned by his [Nelson's] own
     glorious death, a sort of priestly motive led him to
     dress his person in the jewelled vouchers of his own
     shining deeds . . . . (BB, 58)

The priest allusion plays well with that language previously mentioned depicting Billy as a sacrificial offering, particularly as Graveling calls Billy his "jewel" (BB, 47). Vere bends to those writers who "philosophize upon realities" (BB, 62) and he opposes novel opinion as "at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind" (BB, 63); hints that again mark him as a Balzacian Abstractive. He possesses that sort of intuition Balzac ascribes to the near-specialist in the affairs of humanity: Though unaware of Billy's stuttering disorder, for example, he "immediately divined it" (BB, 99). Finally, the last words on Vere's lips are "Billy Budd, Billy Budd" and not in "the accents of remorse" (BB, 129), suggesting that Billy's death and Vere's own reflect the relationship of the worshipped forerunner (foretopman, the sun) to the follower (the moon).

After this recognition of such close parallels, the reader can tell that the structure of the interactions in the two novels ultimately becomes the same. One can diagram the characters of Séraphita and their relationships as below. The actors associate in a triangle of both attachment and opposition to each other. While Séraphita/us serves as a neutralizing spirit above them, the lovers and Becker share a dependence on intellectual activities, but at positive and negative poles:

A triangle of the same sort can be sketched for Billy Budd. In this case, Billy is "Divine" to a lesser degree than Séraphitus, but his function is the same in relation to the other characters. Both Claggart and Vere are drawn to Billy, as it were, at "opposite ends" of his character, yet they also touch on each other's personalities like Wilfrid and Becker, through this tendency to intellectualize:

Finally, the wise, old Dansker (i.e., Dane or dweller of the North like Balzac's Norwegians) plays much the same role as the old servant David in Séraphita. He is the wise and interpretive substitute grandfather, who shelters his charge but does not interfere in the accomplishment of what is determined for the maturing of "Baby Budd" (BB, 73).


Parsons recounts the legend that Balzac conceived of Séraphita while gazing at the statue of a finely carved angel in the studio of a friend (S, viii). One of the first comparisons Melville makes about Billy Budd is his resemblance to sculpture (BB, 51). Similarly, Billy and Séraphitus are both compared to painted angels of classical art. In describing Billy's aspect after his "illumination" the night before his death, Melville recounts the legend of the Roman Germanicus, who brought to the Pope some captives of the British people (of which Billy is a prime specimen, according to the narrator):

     [The Pope said:] "Angles do you call them?
     And is it because they look so like angels?"
     Had it been later in time, one would think
     that the Pope had in mind Fra Angelico's
     seraphs, some of whom, plucking apples in     
     gardens of the Hesperides, have the faint
     rosebud complexion of the more beautiful
     English girls. (BB, 120-121)

It is telling to observe that Melville here, in the last fair copy before his final revisions -- stage "Fa," (BB, 407) -- chose the word "seraph" as the angel type to link with Billy Budd. In a very similar passage Balzac describes the beauty of Séraphitus:
     No known type conveys an image of that form
     so majestically male to Minna, but which to
     the eyes of a man would have eclipsed in
     womanly grace the fairest of Raphael's
     creations. That painter of heaven has ever
     put a tranquil joy, a loving sweetness, into
     the lines of his angelic conceptions; but
     what soul, unless it contemplated Séraphitus
     himself, could have conceived the ineffable
     emotions imprinted on his face? (S, 20)


Melville also creates a stage for apotheosis of his character reminiscent of Balzac's scene of angelic ascension in Séraphita, though it is less overtly mystical. Unlike Séraphitus, who passes through the gate of death with uninterrupted awareness, Billy undergoes the action of "holy oblivion" (BB, 115), Schopenhauer's "Lethe" (WW, 501), because he lacks in this life any conscious knowledge of the spiritual sphere of human interactions (BB, 107). But like Schopenhauer's monad educated through reincarnation, Billy's volition certainly has a grounding in the ideas of divine perfection, though he cannot articulate them. Although his will is still "unconscious," (as Schopenhauer terms this condition of incomplete development) it is nonetheless efficacious.

One paragraph in Séraphita that Melville apparently scored more than any other is particularly significant in this regard (ML, 830). I give the passage in full because of its importance, particularly since the "lisp" links with Billy's stuttering, and the passage overtly mentions the "scaffold." Seraphitus is speaking to the others in a chapter Wormley titles "The Path to Heaven."

     When a human soul draws its first furrow straight,
     the rest will follow surely. One thought borne inward,
     one prayer uplifted, one suffering endured, one echo
     of the Word within us, and our souls are forever changed.
     All ends in God; and many are the ways to find him
     by walking straight before us. When the happy day
     arrives in which you set your feet upon the Path and
     begin your pilgrimage. the world will have nothing of
     it; earth no longer understands you; you no longer
     understand each other. Men who attain  to a knowledge
     of these things, who lisp a few syllables of the Word,
     often have not to lay their head; hunted like beasts 
     they perish on the scaffold, to the joy of assembled
     peoples. while Angels open to them the gates of heaven.
     Therefore, your destiny is a secret between yourself
     and God, just as love between two hearts. You may be
     the buried treasure, trodden under the feet of men
     thirsting for gold yet all-unknowing that you are there
     beneath them. (S, 177-178) [Scoring and
     underscoring is Melville's](20)

To accomplish his death, Billy must climb skyward, like the cynosure he is, so that his shipmates may observe his physical demise, as Séraphitus needs an audience for his departure. Just as the witnesses see a great transformation in Séraphitus to a perfected human spirit, so does Billy cast aside his obvious weakness of stuttering, to depart only with perfected qualities.

     . . . not unenhanced by the rare personal
     beauty of the young sailor, spiritualized now
     through the late experiences so poignantly
     profound. (BB, 123)

He is the "deep one" coming into his proper atmosphere.

Moreover, this "spiritualization" comes by facing execution; and better still for these purposes, an arbitrary and unjust one. Séraphitus's lovers feel the same arbitrariness and injustice in his euthanasia. Most important, the figurative language of Billy's death reveals the closeness of Melville's parallel thinking to Balzac's. Balzac's hero has a "falcon eye" and is a "blossom" transformed into a "bird" by achieving apparent spiritual wings (S, 190).

     Her soul, like a white dove, remained for 
     an instant poised above that body whose
     exhausted substances were about to be annihilated . . . . 
     (S, 186)

Billy is compared to "a singing bird on the point of launching from the twig" (BB, 123). As the young man/girl in Séraphita is gently giving up the temporal body for eternal existence, the being has a mystical vision and sings:
     Grant me a glorious martyrdom in which to
     proclaim thy Word! Rejected, I  will bless
     thy justice!. . . Let us sing at the gates of
     the Sanctuary; our songs shall drive away the
     final clouds. With one accord let us hail the
     Dawn of the Eternal Day. Behold the rising of
     the one True Light! . . .   (S, 184-185)

This description is the "mystical vision" spoken of by the narrator in Billy Budd as he relates Billy's "martyrdom:"
     At the same moment [Billy Budd was hanged] it
     chanced that the vapory fleece hanging low in
     the East was shot through with a soft glory
     as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in
     mystical vision, and simultaneously
     therewith, watched by the wedged mass of
     upturned  faces, Billy ascended; and,
     ascending, took the full rose of the dawn. 
     (BB, 124)

Melville had originally written here "the full shekinah of that grand dawn" and only excised it with his final pencil corrections (BB, 412), perhaps to make his point less obvious, since at the same stage he changed the description of Billy's death from an "ascension" to a less revealing "execution" (BB, 414). This "shekinah" in the kabbalah represents the indwelling presence of the divine in matter, identified with the tenth sephira, Malkuth, called also the Gate, the Gate of Death, the Gate of the Shadow of Death, echoing directly Balzac's "gates of the sanctuary" (21). We have already seen, too, that Parsons, in his introduction to Séraphita, had suggested that the shekinah was the true home of "exiled unselfish love," which love is surely ascribed to Billy. It is also identified with the Buddhistic annihilation in Nirvana, a concept long pondered, and used, by Melville (22). The most meaningful clue in this regard, however, is the hint that Billy's death is not "the end." An earlier passage describing the filial relationship of Vere and Billy suggests that Budd yet may return to "flower:"
     . . . and holy oblivion, the sequel to each
     diviner magnanimity, providentially covers
     all at last. (BB, 115)

The use of the comparative "diviner" can refer to the metempsychosis in Séraphita (and Schopenhauer), the gradual perfecting of self through sequential human existences. These passages were all composed at stage "Fa," part of the "third and final stage of development" of the manuscript according to Hayford and Sealts (BB, 8), and after Melville began studying Balzac.


Finally, both novels also share the expression of what might be considered prominent imagery of sexual ambiguity. Séraphitus is mistaken for a woman, Billy is "all but feminine in purity of natural complexion" (BB, 50) and is compared to a beautiful woman in a Hawthorne tale (BB, 53). Billy, like Séraphitus, exemplifies the externally beautiful, which Balzac believed to reflect moral perfection within:

     If some able physiologist had studied this
     being . . . he would undoubtedly had believed 
     either in some phosphoric fluid of the nerves  
     shining beneath the cuticle, or in the
     constant presence of an inward luminary,
     whose rays issued through the being of
     Séraphitus like a light through an alabaster
     vase . . . Séraphitus appeared to grow in
     stature as he turned fully round and seemed
     about to spring upward. His hair, curled by a
     fairy's hand and waving to the breeze,
     increased the illusion produced by this
     aerial attitude; yet his bearing, wholly
     without conscious effort, was the result far
     more of a moral phenomenon than of a
     corporeal habit." (S, 20)

Melville shares the belief that "the moral nature is seldom out of keeping with the physical make: (BB, 44)"
     He was young; and despite his all but fully
     developed frame, in aspect looked even
     younger than he really was, owing to a
     lingering adolescent expression in the yet
     smooth face all but feminine in purity of
     natural  complexion but where, thanks to his
     seagoing, the lily  was quite suppressed and
     the rose has some ado visibly to flush
     through the tan . . .              
     But the form of Billy Budd was heroic; . . .
     The bonfire in his heart made luminous the
     rose-tan in his cheek. (BB, 50, 77)

In Balzac's novel, the central character is the subject of the love of almost all around him, particularly Minna, Wilfrid, and the old servant, David. When Billy first appears, the narrator lets the reader know, through the captain of the Rights of Man, that a ruffian "really loves Billy -- loves him or is the biggest hypocrite that ever I heard of" (BB, 47) and we read later, that "Claggart could even have loved Billy but for fate and ban" (BB, 88).

If the homosexual "camp" readings of Melville by contemporary critics like Robert K. Martin and James Creech (23) are valid meters of Melville's sexual tendencies and the intuition of Brooks and Arvin is true, that Melville read Séraphita long before 1889, Melville's interest in Séraphita could prove to be more evasive than what can be traced from the evidence here. His modeling Budd's abiguous sexuality on Séraphita could be more than philosophic romance; it could be a repeated personal identification at some psycho-social level of literary subterfuge. Balzac's novel may embody for Melville a very private reading that haunted him much of his life, one resonated with homoerotic feelings that according to these critics shaped many of his writing experiences.

This being considered, I nonetheless side with Parsons and view both Séraphita's and Billy Budd's sexuality as devised impersonally on the level of philosophy and in light of the esoteric tradition that informed both men rather than from repressed instincts or political statements about same-sex relationships. If my reading genuinely reflects Melville's convictions while finishing Billy Budd, an "absorbing interest" in this philosophy, his self indulging in instinct, even vicariously, would be unlikely. Besides, without any direct proof that Melville read Séraphita before 1889, we cannot connect empirically with this line of reasoning, which is supported primarily by earlier works, and we must be satisfied that the relationship between Séraphita and Billy Budd is primarily philosophical and aesthetic.


Although Billy Budd, Sailor can be read as a "testament of will," it is not necessarily Melville's "last will and testament." In fact, it need not be more than another of the writer's experiments in philosophic romance writing, this time exploring the ambiguities of free will and necessity through his version of a drama of types as Balzac delineated it in Séraphita. As an eclectic novelist, Melville took philosophic ideas that appealed to him in his reading and from his idealistic hope for the endurance of mankind's better nature in an uncertain, hostile world and tested their inherent values in his fiction. In the case of Billy Budd, his interest this time happened to be not Rabelais or Shakespeare, but Balzac, shored up by the articulation and credibility of Schopenhauer. As an allegory for the human comedy, Billy Budd implies that mankind is like a crew of "impressed sailors" on an isolated ship characterized by beauty and power (Bellipotent) whose laws, be they karmic or arbitrary, are out of our control and far from the ruling King. Although there is not much we can do about those things "outside," one can control the evolution of the "inside" by subverting the vehemence and selfishness of the "will-to-live." This would be an appropriate meaning for a man so close to his own death to work out in his imagination as best he could, knowing that the "real story" would be distorted however it be told.


1. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., Melville's Reading (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988), 131. Future references to this work will be cited parenthetically within the text by the designation MR. It is important to remember at the outset Mary K. Bercaw's warning based on something she attributes to Sealts: ". . . there are two possible misuses of his checklist: concluding that Melville in fact read all the books listed there, or that he did not read the books not so listed." Mary K. Bercaw, Melville's Sources (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1987), 14; (emphasis hers). This warning becomes important when considering the fact that Melville, with help from someone near him who knew French could have read Séraphîta (Fr) quite early: it was published in 1835. Future references to Bercaw will be designated in the text as MS. Return to text

2. Honoré de Balzac, The Correspondence of Honoré de Balzac, tr. C. Lamb Kenny (London: Bentley & Son, 1878) vol II, 2. This is the edition Melville owned, and Balzac's letter to Mme. Hanska of his hopeless struggling with the writing of Séraphita could have come to his attention with only a casual glance. It would have struck a sympathetic note, for it echoes Melville's own letter to Murray about his frustration over the composition and expected reception of Mardi. Jay Leyda in The Melville Log (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1951), Volume II, pp. 815 & 816 reproduces (out of context) some lines Melville scored. The following are of particular interest, considering that Melville had finished a draft of Billy Budd by the time he received the translation of the Balzac letters.

     . . . I reply, that every man has only a certain amount of
     strength of blood, of courage, of hope, and my store of all
     these is exhausted. My revenge is to write `Les Petits
     Bourgeois' in the `Debats'. It is thus that I make my
     enemies say with rage, `At the moment when people thought he
     had written himself out, he publishes a master-piece!' 
     . . . before I fall into that long sleep where one rests
     from all things at last, and especially from oneself.

Further reference to Leyda's work will be designated ML. Return to text

3. Leon Chai has proposed a similar idea in The Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987). However, I do not follow his line because he made two fatal errors in his considering Melville's relation to Balzac's theory of will. First, he references the original French as proof, and he seems to be presenting to the reader his own translations into English, which were of course NOT the ones read or interpreted by Melville. He even uses the French spelling of the title (Séraphîta) to shore up his thesis. This lapse has far-reaching consequences, since it fails to take into account the heavy Theosophical coating of the American translation read by Melville; for it was, after all, just after the wild success of The Secret Doctrine, and there was an atmosphere of Blavatskian ideas (no longer the Brahmins) in New England at the time. Just one telling example will do: In the version Melville read, the philosophic direction or way (chemin), which also could mean a common road, is translated "Path" (with capital "P"), which just happened to be the title of the journal of the American Branch of the Theosophical Society and a buzz word bandied about quite freely in popular philosophy, dragging with it many connotations unbeknownst to Balzac fifty years earlier.

Second, he neglects to account for the mitigating "third force" of Schopenhauer's philosophy of will, the argument of another author Melville was reading intensely during the same period. And even Schopenhauer was interpreted, if not introduced to Melville through the theosophist Parsons. Again it seems obvious that Balzac's ideas on will never reached Melville in the "pure" state Chai's thesis demands, and I think he makes far too much of speculative and abstract similarities, which I strive to connect by traces of direct parallels. Return to text

4. Elizabeth Renker, "Herman Melville, Wife Beating, and the Written Page" in American Literature, LXVI, 1 (1994) 123-150. Return to text

5. Herman Melville, Billy Budd, Sailor, eds. Harrison Hayford and Merton M. Sealts, Jr. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962) 2. Further references to this edition and the attendant research and commentary will be marked in the text with BB. Return to text

6. Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1972), 227. According to Arvin, the characters of Pierre are simply stock types out of the fiction and poetry of the romantic movement. "Isabel glides straight out of . . . the Balzac of Séraphita; . . ." His misreading is typical of that of the fifties. Brooks is not much more generous: "Isabel was perhaps suggested by Balzac's Seraphita [sic], whom she strikingly resembled, but she no more existed as a person than the [other characters] . . . in the book who were all vaguely stylized after Shakespeare." This quotation is from Van Wyck Brooks, The Times of Melville and Whitman (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1947), 169. Return to text

7. Honor de Balzac, Séraphita, tr. Katherine Prescott Wormeley with an Introduction by George Frederic Parsons. (Boston: Roberts, 1889) 74. Later references to this novel will be given the abbreviation S in the text. Return to text

8. Honoré de Balzac, Louis Lambert, tr. Katherine Prescott Wormeley; Introduction by George Frederic Parsons (Boston: Roberts, 1887, 1896) 58. It is Louis Lambert who writes the famous "Treatise on Will" which informs these three novels and which is quoted in part in The Magic Skin. Characters from Lambert's philosophic "cenacle" appear throughout the Comédie Humaine, including in The Two Brothers, the book Melville was reading during his last illness. The exact statement is "`Heaven,' [Lambert] said to me, `must be the survival of our perfected faculties, and hell the nothingness into which imperfected faculties return.'" Return to text

9. Precisely, "The sphere of Instinct is that in which Thought is little exercised, volition is weak, the animal tendencies are strong, and the man is little more than one of the automatons of Descartes . . . In the sphere of the Abstractive, government by arbitrary formula is the best that can be attained" (LL, lxiv - lxv). Return to text

10. See essays in F. Barron Freeman, ed. Melville's Billy Budd. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948); R.K. Gupta, "Billy Budd and Schopenhauer," Schopenhauer-Jarbuch (1992) 73, 91-97; along with several others listed in MS, 115-116. Return to text

11. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation (Clinton, MA: Falcon Wing's Press, 1958), 637. Future references to this text will be marked WW in parentheses. Return to text

12. Walter Sutton, "Melville and the Great God Budd," in Prairie Schooner, XXXIV (Summer, 1960), 128-33; Olive L. Fite, "Billy Budd, Claggart, and Schopenhauer," Nineteenth Century Fiction, 23 (Dec. 1968), 336-43, for example. Return to text

13. See particularly Maxine Moore, That Lonely Game, (Columbia: University of Missouri, 1975); and William B. Dillingham, "The Confidence Man and Alchemy," in Melville's Later Novels (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1986), 338 - 364. (Further note is made as LN.) There is also much alchemical imagery and language in Billy Budd, particularly of the Labyrinth, that enforces this concept of androgyny over that I treat later in this essay. Return to text

14. Dillingham in LN, in his chapter on Billy Budd stresses Melville's interest in fulfilling "youthful dreams" of individual perfection and the presence of this reminder inscribed at the author's writing desk. In relation to the critic's suggestions, "William" may also have the connotation that one really does not exist until one has accomplished some level of mastery of one's negative instinctive inclinations. Return to text

15. Stan Goldman, Melville's Protest Theism (DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1993), 164 ff. According to Goldman's extensive and convincing analysis, at the time he had completed Clarel, Melville had ascended to a stage of his thinking that was fundamentally active, one that allowed him a stance between faith and doubt that Goldman calls "protest theism:" a philosophy that according to the critic appears in summary at the poem's epilogue:

     Then keep thy heart, though yet but ill-resigned --
     Clarel, thy heart, the issues there but mind;
     That like the crocus budding through the snow --
     That like a swimmer rising from the deep --
     That like a burning secret which doth go
     Even from the bosom that would hoard and keep
     Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
     And prove that death but routs life into victory.

The phrase "ill-resigned" signals that at this stage of his thinking, Melville has accepted aspects of some undefined "resignation;" however, the prefix "ill" denotes that his acceptance is not complete. The two images of the crocus budding through the snow (cf. the first chapter of Séraphita, where the same image appears) and the swimmer rising from the deep (Billy is a deep one) are significant in their negation of the natural inhibitions that prevent most individuals from rising above adversity and oppression. Both the flower and the swimmer must exert exceptional individual effort to reach their proper being; but they do. Such observations show that Melville was very close to Balzac's philosophy even before his late reading and could easily have assimilated its nuances. Readers of Peter Washington's Madame Blavatsky's Baboon (New York: Schocken Books, 1995) will recognize that such a theosophic attitude was not unfamiliar in New York intellectual circles by the 1890's. Return to text

16. The vocabulary of blossoming is rampant in Séraphita and pertains to the same idea that Melville seemes to be getting at by having is character of will named Budd. The most direct expression comes from Séraphita's father:

     This child will remain a blossom, it will not grow old; 
     you will see it pass away. You exist, but our child has
     life; you have outward senses, the child has none, its being
     is all inward. (S, 88)

Séraphita's blossoming means her death; Billy is "nipped in the bud" before his time.It is Billy Budd's death that constitutes the primary philosophic predicament of Melville's novel in the same way that Séraphitus's death is the principal material of Balzac's. Return to text

17. In the opening incident of the narrative, Séraphitus and Minna have been climbing the highest peak in Norway, one covered heavily and thoroughly with frozen snow, when they happen across a sheltered, green meadow. It is there he finds a flower amid the cold, white wasteland that he wishes to make a reminding factor for his companion in the spiritual journey:

     . . . he gave her the hybrid plant his falcon
     eye had seen amid the tufts of gentian aucaulis and
     saxifrages, -- a marvel, brought to bloom by the breath
     of angels. . . .
     Here and there from this green ground [of petals] rose
     pure whitestars edged with a line of gold, and from their
     throats came crimson anthers but no pistils. A fragrance,
     blended of roses and of orange-blossoms, yet ethereal
     and fugitive, gave something as it were celestial to
     that mysterious flower . . .  (S, 16-17)

Thus the freshly bloomed androgynous bud transformed into a celestial flower shaped like a star becomes the primary image that informs Balzac's Séraphita. It is a "hybrid" plant, suggesting some element of intention is involved in its mutation, even if that consciousness comes from within itself. Return to text

18. J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, 1983) 39. Return to text

19. Raymond Weaver, "The Highest Kind of Happiness," in Milder, Robert, ed. Critical Essays on Melville's Billy Budd, Sailor (Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1989) 37. Later references to this collection are made parenthetically in the text as CE. Return to text

20. Here again, as in a number of other instances, Schopenhauer's ideas would have tended to support those of Balzac if read together in a similar context, as Melville was doing.

     I have mentioned in the text that the great and rapid
     revolutionary change in man's innermost nature, which has
     here been considered and has hitherto been entirely
     neglected by philosophers, occurs most frequently when,
     fully conscious, he goes out to a violent and certain death,
     as in the case of executions. (WW, 631)

Return to text

21. Dion Fortune, The Mystical Qabalah, (New York: Ibis Books, 1979) 265. It is also identified with Shiva, or the destructive side of the Hindu deity. According to Cirlot in his article on the symbolism of the shekinah:

     It should not be forgotten, in this case [identifying the
     shekinah with Shiva] that destruction is only concerned with
     the phenomenic side of beings, and, in reality, it is
     transformation, renovation and rebirth. (Cirlot, 293)

Return to text

22. In Melville's poem "Buddha," the following lines occur: "Nirvana! absorb us in your skies,/ Annul us unto thee" (BB, note 198). Additionally, Schopenhauer offers another clarification to Billy's Balzacian "change of state:"

     But the Buddhists with complete frankness describe the
     matter only negatively as Nirvana, which is the
     negation of this world or of Samsara. If
     Nirvana is defined as nothing, this means only that
     Samsara contains no single element that could serve
     to define or construct Nirvana. (WW, 608)

In this context, Billy Budd is not only a son of God as his designation of peacemaker implies, but he also may be intended to be divinity in a very specific case. Parsons spends several pages in the Introduction to Louis Lambert discussing Nirvana and its place in the scheme used by Balzac (LL, lxxv-lxxviii). Return to text

23. Robert K. Martin, Hero, Captain, and Stranger (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986) 107-124; James Creech, Closet Writing/ Gay Reading (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 7-18. Return to text