(1888). This collection of nineteen poems, written and privately published
in twenty-five copies by Herman Melville* (1819–1891), is made up of four
disparate parts, all linked by the sea. Following an “Inscription Epistolary”
to W. Clark Russell, the British sea-fiction writer, the book proper begins
with “John Marr,” preceded by a prose introduction and followed by three
poems named for, as well as spoken by or addressed to, other individual
sailors. The next section, “Sea-Pieces,” is the shortest, consisting only of
“The Haglets” (pub. 1885 in Boston and New York newspapers in a shorter
version as “The Admiral of the White”) and “The Aeolian Harp.” “Minor
Sea-Pieces,” the third section, contains twelve poems, most notably “The
Tuft of Kelp,” “The Maldive Shark,” and “The Berg.” The book ends with
seven brief, numbered stanzas under the title “Pebbles.”
John Marr is heavily autobiographical, alluding repeatedly to Melville’s
days as a sailor in the era before steamships, as it does, for example, in “To
Ned,” an allusion to Toby Greene of Melville’s first book Typee* (1846). It
suggests Melville’s current life in “Bridegroom Dick,” whose relationship
with his wife of many years reflects in some ways that of Melville with his
wife, Elizabeth. John Marr is, clearly, a version of Melville himself, a bereaved, lonely man whose neighbors know little of the sea and care even
less. The anthropomorphized “Tuft of Kelp,” cast ashore by a “lonely” sea,
may, paradoxically, be both purer and more bitter for the experience of sea
and shore.
Poetic art and philosophical musings are other contexts. “The Aeolian
Harp” wails as sea winds pass across its strings, its sound like Ariel’s versions
of reality in The Tempest (1623). The poem goes on to compare this artistic
rendering with reality itself, a ship’s sighting of a wreck: a drifting, waterlogged lumber schooner, which while it cannot sink, is a perpetually shifting
danger to all others. The wailing harp expresses, as language cannot, the awful thoughts evoked by this symbol. As seen in a dream in “The Berg,”
a vessel of war, as if deliberately steered, crashes headlong into an iceberg
and immediately sinks. This disaster, apparently caused by human irrationality, has hardly the slightest effect on the cold iceberg, a symbol of natural
and perhaps metaphysical indifference to human events, as is “The Maldive
Shark.” That poem implies the speaker’s horror at instinctual voraciousness,
embodied in the ravening white shark.
The seven parts of “Pebbles,” evoking the questions and speculations with
which Melville was concerned throughout his career, may be John Marr’s
coming to terms with paradoxicality. It praises the pitiless, implacable, inhuman sea, while finding in the seashore rosemary a symbol of healing.
“Pebbles” ends a book that expresses in fewer than fifty pages of mature
poetry the results of Melville’s lifelong engagement with the sea.