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The Mystery of Iniquity

The Mystery of Iniquity: Melville as Poet, 1857--1891

William H. Shurr
Copyright Date: 1972
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Mystery of Iniquity
    Book Description:

    This book is the first to consider the work of Herman Melville's later years as a whole, in the light of his life and reading during those years and of the intellectual and artistic ambience of the later nineteenth century. With the exception ofBilly Budd, almost all of the writing Melville produced between 1857 and 1891 is poetry. Until now little attention has been given to the poetry and it has been customary to view Melville's final masterpiece,Billy Budd, against the background of the earlier fiction -- almost as if the writing of the intervening thirty-four years had not existed.

    William H. Shurr, who has studied the poems with close attention to the Melville manuscripts in the Houghton Library at Harvard University, contends that Melville's poetry merits more attention and appreciation than has hitherto been accorded it. Concerned principally with the maturation of Melville's darker themes, he has been the first to study the carefully designed sequences in which Melville published his poems. He has also discovered in the poems thematic patterns -- among them Melville's heterodox Christology and his concept of a particular kind of individualism found in what he calls the "transcendent act" -- that shed new light on the complexities ofBilly Budd.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6463-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-10)

    Our understanding of Herman Melville rests at the moment at a peculiar stage of incompleteness. Nearly all the critical attention given to him has been concentrated on one decade of his literary life. The fierce energy that produced ten such works of fiction in eleven years is among the most impressive accomplishments in American letters, but even the casual student of American literature must be puzzled to learn that there were three and a half decades left, that Melville continued to write and publish during these years, and that—as one scholar has pointed out—there was more poetry published...

    (pp. 11-44)

    For many years individual poems have been excerptedBattle-Piecesfor anthologies, but evidence in the book itself makes clear that Melville saw the series as an organic whole. In the Preface he says, “They were composed without reference to collective arrangement” (and some were published separately in Harper’sNew Monthly Magazine¹ ) “but, being brought together in review, naturally fall the order assumed.” The problem for the reader is to find this natural order. One critic has said that the organization ofBattle-Pieceschronological, and that this is the only principle of organization to found in the book.² This is...

    (pp. 45-76)

    Melville published hisClarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Landin 1876. It is a long poem of some 18, 000 lines, nearly twice as long as Virgil’sAeneid.Behind the poem lies Melville’s own experience as a pilgrim in the Holy Land during the winter of 1856-1857. He kept a journal of the trip¹ and some of the seeds ofClarelare clearly discernible in it. Twenty years of reading and reflection added a great deal more, until the finished poem can very nearly be called a case study of the nineteenth-century representative man.

    The poem, however,...

    (pp. 77-124)

    One of the qualities ofClarelthat emerges from my analysis of the major static symbols is the highly emblematic landscape. This is a new venture for Melville: not even inMardidoes physical description of place so mirror universal realities as they impinge upon the consciousness of narrator and character. For a Christian in the nineteenth century the most attractive way of looking at the Holy Land was through apocalyptic literature. One could thus think of it as a land flowing with milk and honey, filled with memorials to the actual operations of a benevolent God among men, and...

    (pp. 125-148)

    Twelve years were to pass betweenClareland Melville’s next venture into publication, theJohn Marrvolume of 1888. The book was printed privately, in a small edition of twenty-five copies, to be used mainly as gifts for friends. Publication was possible since the Melvilles were now at last financially comfortable because of recent bequests. The book gathers the firstfruits of Melville’s leisure after his retirement from the Customs Office in December 1885. It is a slight gathering when one considers the many fine poems he had available, but the volume is a deliberately organized one. Melville seems to have...

    (pp. 149-180)

    In the final year of his life Melville managed to see through the press still another volume of his poems.Timoleon, Etc.was published in a small edition, asJohn Marrhad been three years earlier. There is bitterness in such a gesture: one thrusts oneself into print knowing there will be no public. As late as 1921 there were still enough copies remaining in the possession of the family for one to be used as a gift.¹

    Melville roughly divided the book in halves. Twenty-two poems follow the title poem; then there is a blank page and a page...

    (pp. 181-204)

    When melville died he left still another collection of poetry very nearly ready for the printer; but it was not actually published until 1924, in the Constable edition of his complete works. Each poem had been carefully written out and the dedicatory prose passage was finished. Four tables of contents are extant among his manuscripts, showing that conscious selection and arrangement were a necessary part of the act of composition here also.

    The dedication, “To Winnefred,” is obviously to his wife, Lizzie. Less obvious is Melville’s reason for choosing this nickname; I believe that this is the only place where...

    (pp. 205-238)

    TheBurgundy Clubsketches consist of seven prose pieces of varying length and two long poems. After Melville’s death they remained in the possession of his family and were not published until 1924. The most careful analysis of these materials, with regard to their arrangement and date of composition, has been made by Merton M. Sealts, Jr.¹ He has concluded that Melville worked on the materials during 1876–1877, the year afterClarelwas published, and again during the years of his retirement, constantly trying to find a shape for the public presentation of these sketches. The poems are written...

    (pp. 239-262)

    I take “the art of poetry” to mean the techniques of literary construction, much in the sense that Aristotle used the term “poetics.” Any generalizations that can validly be made will have an obvious bearing on Melville’s final literary work. Melville approachesBilly Buddwith a complex technique worked out—one that is not obvious, however, to the reader who knows only the great fiction written more than three decades earlier. If we are fully to know this last work, it must be as the final flowering of a long and cumulative effort. The great mind of the man is...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 263-274)
    (pp. 275-280)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 281-284)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-285)