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MALICE RECONCILED; A NOTE ON MELVILLE'S BILLY BUDD CHARLES WEIR, }R. Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil, Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled, Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars; And silent answers crept across the stars. Hart Crane, "At Melville's Tomb." THE attitude of the critic toward the later work of Herman Melville has, during the past twenty years, undergone a happy change. There were always those, to be sure, who were fascinated by the perplexities of Pierre or The Confidence Man; but today it is not merely the attraction of esotericism which predisposes the general reader or the scholar to accept those books which follow Moby-Dick, if not as a perfecting and strengthening of Melville's craft, at least as an organic development of it. It is true that Melville's poetry remains almost unread and unappreciated , but the later prose has been at least tacitly accepted, one today would maintain, as did an earlier generation, that it is the work of an unbalanced mind. But though the legend of Melville 's insanity has been pretty thoroughly exploded, in the main, it is still in terms of Moby-Dick and the vo]umes preceding it that Melville is discussed and evaluated. In part, the reasons for this placing of emphasis are not hard to understand. The passion for Freudian interpretation which sent the biographers of the twenties digging into Pierre has waned; and the even more ambiguous and difficult Confidence Man seems to-offer the critic a challenge that few have been bold enough to accept. At the same time, Melville has in general attracted only romantic natures, who inevitably :find in the somewhat confused brilliance of Moby-Dick the greatest expression of his genius. It is by no means atypical that one of the most promising students of Melville in· the last decade wound up by deserting him for Dostoevsky. The exceptions to these generalizations have been rare; it is not so much that they have spoken unheard as that they have hardly spoken. Dr. Yvor Winters, for example, who seems to me to have written as profoundly of Melville as any other critic with whose work I am acquainted, though 276 MALICE RECONCILED 277 perfectly aware of the importance of such a book as Billy Budd, is tantalizingly laconic in his discussion of it. Actually, Billy Bud_ci is well worth discussing. A final word after long silence, no matter what that word may be, assumes an oracular character. Billy Budd, however, is a culmination in more than a chronological sense: simple as it seems in essence and almost artless in form, ·as compared with the bravura quality of MobyDick , it completes the pattern of Melville's work, a pattern which is not to be understood without it. The details of its composition, between 1888 and 1891, its discovery, and its. publication in 1924 need not concern us here. Though generally spoken of as a novel, it is by far the shortest of Melville's major works. The reader's first impression is that of a synopsis or rough draft: the action is simple and rapid, and the characterization and description are accomplished with a restraint and a bareness that. surprises and generally disappoints anyone fresh from the luxuriance of Moby-Dick. Stripped to its bare bones, I the tale has the quality of a parable, which indeed it is. It has also, and this has not been so often remarked, the quality of a tragic action in the classic sense. Billy Budd, a simple, unsuspicious sailor, having been impressed to serve on board the British man-ofwar Indomitable during the Napoleonic Wars, incurs the hatred of Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms. Claggart's agents attempt to implicate Billy in a conspiracy to mutiny, and when his natural innocence enables him temporarily to avoid the trap, Claggart falsely accuses him of sedition. The charge is a particularly serious one: Vere, the captain, is expecting to be engaged in battle at any moment, and the memories of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore are still fresh. Confronted with his accuser in Vere's cabin, Billy is unable...


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pp. 276-285
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