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Melville the Poet Introduction ELIZABETH RENKER The Ohio State University and DOUGLAS ROBILLARD University of New Haven, Emeritus “T he poet Herman Melville”—the words still strike us as an odd surprise. The general public, aware of Melville as a great American author even if they have not read his work, associates him exclusively with fiction. Scholars, including scholars of American literature, are often unfamiliar with his poetry or unaware of his extensive work in the genre. While most of his fiction was published between 1846 and 1857—a scant (and phenomenal) eleven years—he wrote and published poems almost exclusively for over three decades, beginning in the late 1850s. Though we cannot be sure, Melville’s earliest writings as an adolescent may have been poems. It is evident, however, that from his early days, he read and studied poems, incorporating them into his prose: “Fragments From a Writing Desk” (1839), for instance, quotes poems by Campbell, Byron, Milton, and Shakespeare; Mardi (1849) includes samples of his own poetry. As he published his prose fictions, he continued to work on his poetry. By 1860 he compiled a volume of poems, which he tried, unsuccessfully, to have published. A few years later, he mentioned the subject in a wry aside to his brother Tom, writing that he had sold off his manuscripts to a trunk-maker. “So when you buy a new trunk again,” he wrote, “just peep at the lining & perhaps you may be rewarded by some glorious stanza stareing [sic] you in the face & claiming admiration” (NN Correspondence 377). By the time he composed this letter in 1862, he was writing some of the poems that would make up his first published poetry volume, Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866). Having given up publishing fiction, and working from 1866 in the New York Customs Office, Melville expended great efforts in writing Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), a long and supremely confident narrative that drew together many of the ideas then current in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. Retired from his daily job in 1885, he returned to C  2007 The Authors Journal compilation C  2007 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 9 R E N K E R A N D R O B I L L A R D writing, revising, and assembling his poems into publishable volumes. John Marr and Other Sailors appeared in 1888, and Timoleon, Etc. came out in 1891, only months before his death. Impatient, probably, with the troublesome interference of mainstream publishers, Melville turned to the smaller house of De Vinne and, virtually becoming his own publisher, paid for the limited-run printing of small paperback editions issued for private circulation. Among his papers at his death were an almost complete manuscript volume titled Weeds and Wildings Chiefly: with a Rose or Two and numerous manuscript poems, many showing signs of much revision. American literary scholarship stands in the quirky position in which one of its unequivocally great authors spent much of his career writing texts that few scholars have read or even heard of. Therein hangs both a tale and an opportunity. Those of us committed to studying Melville the poet face the paradoxical challenge of bringing to wider attention the stubbornly noncanonical work of our perhaps most highly canonical American author. It became a foundational gesture of the canon wars of the 1980s to recover unknown authors and to trace how and why their work had fallen into dusty corners. The recovery of Melville the poet presents a different kind of canonical challenge. Melville the author does not need “recovery”; however, Melville the poet surely does. In the aftermath of the canon wars, we who read Melville the poet face the question: what are we to make of this aberrant case? In her work on nineteenth-century American women writers, Judith Fetterley proposes that the recovery process includes two necessary stages (“Commentary: Nineteenth-Century American Women Writers...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 9-15
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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