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From the Mast-Head T hose who know Melville—but who really mean they know Moby-Dick only—are likely to be bemused, if not shocked (Shocked!), to learn that Melville was also a poet. The bemusement would derive from the long-held understanding that Moby-Dick itself is something of a prosepoem , and that Melville could so deftly squeeze poetry out of blubber. But what is not generally known, and more than just bemusing, is that Melville was fundamentally a poet, and, in fact, spent thirty of his forty-year writing career publishing poems. For almost a century, scholars devoted to the totality of Melville’s work have known about Melville’s commitment to poetry, despite the fact that Melville’s poems have yet to penetrate fully the critical community. But even scholars might quibble over the words “career” and “publishing” used above. People with careers like to think they make money off what they do, and Melville (so far as I know) made not a cent from his poetry. But, then, as William Charvat disclosed decades ago, what poet ever did? Even Longfellow had a day job. But, for Melville, writing was a lifelong activity, and that (including his poeticizing) is career enough for me. Let it be said, Melville made a career of writing poems. But “publishing”? Was Melville ever, seriously, a publishing poet? His first volume, to be titled Poems by Herman Melville, failed to interest a publisher in 1860: it was decidedly not published. Later volumes—Clarel (1876), John Marr and Other Sailors (1888), and Timoleon, Etc. (1891)—were done through subventions and twice by specialty presses, and in such limited numbers that some have assumed Melville was reduced to vanity publication. Only BattlePieces and Aspects of the War (1866), Melville’s first volume of poetry to appear in print, found a mainstream publisher (Harper’s), and yet it enjoyed paltry circulation (500 or so sold) and blistering reviews. Compared to Byron, Longfellow, Browning, or Whitman, whose poems sold and sold, Melville’s circulation records are infinitesimal. But then again poems can circulate, often do circulate, by means other than mechanical print. Emily Dickinson, in 1859 (just as Melville too was beginning to circulate his poems privately), was stitching her manuscript poems into fascicles for a select few to read. Melville and Dickinson had venerable models for non-print circulation, for the likes of 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 3 F R O M T H E M A S T - H E A D Shakespeare and Donne were, in their day, also satisfied to distribute poems in hand-written form only, and only to certain friends. We falsely assume that “to publish” means “to print, bind, and sell,” but it also means “to make public,” even if your “public” is only one or two by-standers, or even if no one is listening. But with Melville there is always yet another angle. Simply put, he reviled the public. Consider Lemsford, White-Jacket’s gun-deck poet who stashed his current work in progress—titled Songs of the Sirens—in the muzzle of a canon only to witness their unintended distribution (and simultaneous immolation) into thin air at an unscheduled firing of the guns. Unexpectedly, Lemsford is jubilant over this “Publishing of Poetry in a Man-of-War” (WJ, Ch. 45) because his previous experience in the conventional publishing of his fiery rhetoric had led to his work being excoriated by the critics and his being sued by the publisher. “The public is a monster,” he cries out to Jack Chase. But the democratic Chase objects to Lemsford’s castigation of the public: on shore, he says, he is part of the public. However, in his own defense, Lemsford explains: Jack, he says, you are part of the “people”; “The public is one thing, Jack, and the people another.” If Lemsford speaks for Melville—and plenty of evidence suggests he does...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1750-1849
Print ISSN
1525-6995
Pages
pp. 3-7
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-29
Open Access
No
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