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Poet as Editor: Melville’s Ironic Muse in the Burgundy Club Materials EDGAR A. DRYDEN University of Arizona L ike Timoleon, Etc.—Melville’s last published volume of poetry—“At the Hostelry,” “Naples in the Time of Bomba,” and the series of prose sketches associated with these two poems focus on the Arnoldian concerns of the bewildering confusion of the present moment and the ways in which poetry, instead of providing relief from turmoil, has become a part of it. In this age of what Matthew Arnold called “poetrylessness” (Lowry 126)—a time when the poetic vocation is no longer enabled by traditional outside agencies, such as the muse, inspiration, or vision—the aspiring poet is threatened by the hollowness and conventionality that mark the modern spirit. “The House of the Tragic Poet,” the sketch that Melville apparently at one point considered using as a preface to what Melville scholars call the Burgundy Club materials, suggests his attitude toward Arnold’s description of the “confusion of present times” and the effect that that confusion has on the young writer who attempts to “escape the danger of producing poetical works conceived in the spirit of passing time, and which partake in its transitoriness” (Arnold xxiv, xxviii). The sketch, marked by the same tropes that shape the other Burgundy Club materials, is a satiric representation of Melville’s contemporary literary scene where merit is determined by “Popular Opinion and the popular taste” (“House of the Tragic Poet” 5).1 Here, as he had done years before in Israel Potter, Melville represents himself as an editor whose activities, like those of the writer of “The House of the Tragic Poet,” consist in “the transcribing and editing of the Pieces contained in this volume” but who lays “no claim to authorship” (5). As with the “Most devoted and obsequious” editor of Israel Potter, the voice is at once defensively self-effacing and aggressively ironic (NN IP vii). On the one hand, like Hawthorne in the Preface to Twice-Told Tales, he presents himself as a man of “unconquerable reserve” (Hawthorne 5); he is, in Melville’s words, a “tyroeditor ” rather than a published “veteran,” one who has previously occupied a “studious shadowy solitude” (HTP 5) but who, as Hawthorne would put it, now hopes to “open an intercourse with the world” (Hawthorne 6) by making his reader a “confidant” and “friend” (HTP 5). But at once invoking c  2012 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing, Inc. 24 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 P O E T A S E D I T O R and replacing the genial tone of Hawthorne’s familiar preface is one of the “grim merriment of the man who knows how it is himself” (HTP 5), that of an ironist who can not only distance himself from the institutions of his time but also turn his ironic gaze on himself as well when he for the first time “bethink[s himself] of publication” (5). For in the public realm, the “friend” has no place, since the public is not a group of individuals each reading for himself or herself but rather an undefined collective presence that assimilates everything while mistakenly thinking itself “highly cultivated,” at once professing to know everything while in fact knowing nothing. Hence, it needs to be “educated up” if it is to appreciate anything “not in the current,” anything that does not reflect “Popular Opinion and the popular taste” (5). The author’s ironic prefatory sketch, which will establish the conventions , in the sense of the propriety or protocol regulating the relation between the editor’s Italian materials and his contemporary American audience, begins with a description of one of the famous “disinterred houses of Pompeii” (HTP 4), in the “vestibule” of which the “visitor starts” at a “life-like mosaic” of “a large black dog, his chain attached to a spiked collar, in act apparently of fiercely springing upon him.” “To moderns this abode is known as ‘The House of the Tragic Poet’; a hypothetical...


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