August 26, 2016
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“It is curious, how a man may travel along a country road, and yet miss the grandest, or sweetest of prospects, by reason of an intervening hedge, so like all other hedges, as in no way to hint of the wide landscape beyond.”
Melville’s claim never to have closely read Shakespeare before finding the edition in “glorious great” type is comparable to this statement. It all seems part of a larger intent to celebrate reading and assert the wealth of art and literature available to any one inclined to seek it out. The passion and commitment with which he read Shakespeare and Hawthorne should perhaps be considered in this spirit. The assertion also parallels, in a general way, Melville’s characteristic belief that there are layers to reality and meaning, and that most of us spend our time on the surface rather than diving beneath.
[“Monsieur du Miroir”]
“Monsieur du Miroir” is a lovely piece on the mysteries of the Self, with many romantic applications to psychological themes and motifs we covered together last term. You can examine Melville’s marginalia to this and other tales in the collection by consulting the digital copy of Mosses from an Old Manse.
This passage was studied/referred to within class last semester and it is one that I have thought about many times as I’ve read books/stories, or seen movies that seem to be lacking this “darkness” within any character. Similar to Melville, I have noticed that I also tend to be most interested in the characters that aren’t simply “white knights.”
This passage is even more interesting to me when I consider the way in which Melville recognizes the truth within the madness, which is certainly reflected within Moby Dick. It is interesting to see the distinct inspiration/attraction Melville felt to writing in such a way– a way that is clearly inspired by dark themes. Especially when considering the previous paragraph that touches on Original Sin – another theme found within his work.
When one considers the previous paragraph alongside his analysis of the beauty and finesse of the “darkness”, it seems that Melville is commenting on Hawthorne’s ability to weave it within his stories, but not forcing it in the face of his readers. It seems that he admires the subtlety. Perhaps this is why Melville seem to take a tone of dark humor and a sense of self-aware irony, rather than writing in a way that is absolute self-serious depression. If he were writing on Poe, it would probably be a very different story.
On the subject of subtlety (as it pertains to the darkness of truth-seeking), it appears to me that Melville laments how withholding Shakespeare was about exploring “the sane madness of vital truth.” It is curious, then, knowing his opinions of Shakespeare and Hawthorne, to study the degree to which Melville incorporated darkness into his own works. I would argue that Melville is not so subtle–the latter half of Moby-Dick (as well the former, but to a lesser degree) is rich with philosophical and existential digressions and monologues. One of my favorite, not-so-subtle confrontations with the profoundly shadowed nature of truth-seeking comes in the latter half of Chapter 119, “The Candles,” wherein Ahab is fully realized as a “dark character” whose monologuing shows him at the cusp of madness and truth.
I agree with you about the darkness found within Moby Dick. The narration in particular is very forthright about the outlook being dark right from the outset of the novel.
But I want to bring up your analysis of Melville’s opinion of Shakespeare. He surely seems to be willing to give him praise and it seems to me that (especially within the first half of this section) he believes that it is within those glimpses of “dark truth” that the genius resides, in fact, he calls them “the things that make Shakespeare, Shakespeare.” However, as you pointed out, it doesn’t seem that Melville is falling into the common approach to Shakespeare that seems to exalt him and his work. This is especially evident within the following 3 or so paragraphs. In fact, he rejects the honoring of Shakespeare quite boldly (and humorously, in my opinion. But, to your point, he does say that these glimpses are only snatching at truth. I think Melville’s opinion of Hawthorne v. Shakespeare is definitely evident as an influence in his work since, as you said, the “dark truth” is found as an overarching theme within his work.
Beyond its status as an American, literary epic, Moby-Dick unintentionally serves as a time-lapse that illustrates the development of Melville’s intellectual interests and purpose over the course of his work on the famous romance. An understanding of the structure of Moby-Dick–the disparity between its potboiler foundation (the original captains, Bildad and Peleg; the strange case of Bulkington), to the apex of Ahab’s combative and existential arc–can be deepened by observing a chronology of formative events in Melville’s life.
Biographical criticism holds that a reintroduction to Shakespeare, a change of location, and an invigorating and intellectual relationship with Hawthorne are all factors that, somewhere in mid-draft, compelled Melville to reconceptualize Moby-Dick, not as a crowd-pleasing adventure, but as one of the first distinctly American works of literature.
“Hawthorne and His Mosses” is a crucial piece of writing for understanding the process behind Moby-Dick. Melville’s essay (written somewhere in the middle of the composition of Moby-Dick) is, in addition to being a critical celebration of Hawthorne’s mind and writing, a well-crafted call for American literature. The connection between this call to action and Melville’s own reimagining of Moby-Dick is clear. Furthermore, it is no accident that Melville (who, if his essay hadn’t clued you in, had a great deal of Shakespeare on the brain) refocuses the narrative of Moby-Dick to a suspiciously Shakespearean, “dark character”: Ahab.
It is my estimation that Ahab is a composite of the “innate depravity” Melville saw in Hawthorne as well as the Shakespearean “dark character” that, as Melville asserts, is the greater part of Shakespeare’s genius. As further evidence, the saturation of Ahab’s monologues (many of which are tonally Shakespearean but Romantically existential) in the later half of the romance strongly suggest that Melville is consciously riding the line between crafting a distinctly American literary work while also borrowing the darkness found in great minds (like Shakespeare’s, like Hawthorne’s).
I definitely associate this particular passage with Melville’s later musings on William Shakespeare. Indeed, the hedge itself seems to be the now timeless presence of Shakespeare, and his impact on literature as we know it. The obstruction that it causes is brought about by the dated mentality Melville mentions in a later passage: “You must believe in Shakespeare’s unapproachability, or quit the country.” The legacy of William Shakespeare has created a hesitation in man that such greatness can never again be achieved – but Melville does not agree. He argues that, if we marvel indefinitely at Shakespeare’s accomplishments, we will never appreciate new minds that may very well be of an equal stature.
You make a very intriguing point, Benjamin. Perhaps I’m letting my imagination wander, but I see Bildad and Peleg as archetypes of the “traditional author:” two aged, wise men whose presence of the ship extends beyond their physical presence. A key point in the novel that would support this metaphor is the moment they take their leave of the Pequod following its departure. There is a melancholy hesitation in their actions, as they surrender their control of the ship to Ahab and his crew. Ahab, here, would be the “new author,” who borrows from the techniques of his predecessors (Shakespeare), yet brings his own unique approach to create something entirely new – the narrative of which is properly deemed “The Great American Novel.”
What a beautiful passage! It is quite fitting that Melville would introduce us to Hawthorne’s writing with this particular quote. In essence, this describes the entire plight of the reader, and certainly English scholars such as ourselves. This is the core of why we read – “Rest, in a life of trouble!” This makes me think of the earliest days in my youth when I truly began to love reading. Hawthorne has tapped into a universal truth here – a truth that Melville would carry on in his own writings for generations of readers to come.
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January 12, 2017 at 5:22 pm
See in context
January 12, 2017 at 5:14 pm
January 12, 2017 at 5:00 pm
January 12, 2017 at 12:34 am
January 11, 2017 at 7:29 pm
January 11, 2017 at 6:34 pm
January 10, 2017 at 7:05 am
January 9, 2017 at 4:55 pm
January 9, 2017 at 4:26 pm
May 17, 2018 at 2:53 pm
A majority of this stanza seems to draw a lot of inspiration from the tragedy Romeo and Juliet. The two things that particularly caught my attention were “Heard Melodies are sweet, but those unheard / Are sweeter” and “She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss / for ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”.
The heard and unheard melodies remind me of Tennyson’s “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all” meaning, though Romeo and Juliet’s love was short and forbidden, it doesn’t make it any less valid, and this stanza, and the ending of R&J, basically argue that those factors make it better.
The last two lines strike me as references to when Romeo first comes upon Juliet when he thinks she’s dead but is only sleeping. He describes her as “Death, that hath suck’d the honey of thy breath, Hath had no power yet upon thy beauty“ which falls in with, “For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!” and the romanticization of the dead and dying that was popular in Elizabethan and Grecian times, which this is an ode to.
May 17, 2018 at 1:26 pm
[What little town by river or sea shore] It’s interesting that here the speaker reflects on what is not portrayed on the urn, but what he has intuited through imaginative interaction with it. This capacity of art to “activate” our own imaginative capacities is I think central to Keats’s conception of negative capability, which surpasses the calcified nature of plodding sequential logic by enlivening our conceptions with personal power and agency–drawing us in to the transcendent properties of artistic experience. Notice though that his conceptions of the town bear the stamp of his all-too-human state of isolation and uncertainty. In this life we ourselves are like the abandoned town, afflicted by a sense of abandonment and loss.
May 17, 2018 at 4:16 am
Keats takes special interest in the connection between Beauty and Truth. We have seen this in this poem as well as his letters. I believe this speaks to his views on the arts and how, in communicating beauty and emotion, we might see truths of life beyond the written word or simple logic. The Grecian Urn is an example of how wisdom is reflected in the beauty, and simplicity of this object which is often overlooked.
May 17, 2018 at 3:59 am
It would seem that Keats believes that poetry is not intended to be logical but to be emotional and beautiful. In this letter he seems to define a line between him and his acquaintances, in that they are unable to look past logic because they are uncomfortable with uncertainty. This would be a quality which Keats may not enjoy in the company he keeps. One of the more intriguing and defining characteristics of poetry, and poets themselves, would be negative capability. Poetry is not often confined by anything but imagination and so it is necessary to look past uncertainty, or mystery, in order to see the beauty of it.
May 10, 2018 at 3:12 pm
In Keat’s letter to Bailey, he speaks with great importance, of their friendship. Keats seems to have a great understanding of Man’s nature. An example of this is in the line, “… two Minds meet and do not understand each other time enough to prevent any shock or surprise at the conduct of either part…”. Keat’s uses Bailey’s conflict with Haydon to present the idea that many are unable to see beyond their first impression of another. To dwell on first impressions will likely cause hurt from either party. He seems to know both Bailey and Haydon well enough to have decided that Haydon was not a valuable acquaintance while Bailey is a great friend. Keats goes on in his letter to propose that “Men of Genius” do not have any individuality. This may be because a mind overflowing with logic may not allow themselves to emote strongly, they seem to lack passion and imagination. It seems to follow, that the greatest minds are those that possess both logic and passion. He relates this idea back to Bailey and Haydon’s conflict in the line, “Can it be that even the greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections?” Keats questions the value looking past objections as this might lead to a greater conclusion. This leads to the question of whether sensation or thought will lead to the happiest life. He seems to conclude that both sensation and thought are essential for eternal Happiness. He ends the letter begging Bailey to look past any surface impression of coldness to see that it is only a short tragic affliction and not to be attributed to his feelings toward Bailey. It seems we may surmise that Bailey could not see past a cold attitude from Hayden as his mind was likely one drowning in logic rather than passion. It is likely Keat’s hope to display his and Bailey’s ability to balance both logic and passion in order to overcome conflict in initial impressions. In his way he is saying that Imaginative, complex minds may have greater success in achieving eternal Happiness.
May 9, 2018 at 5:14 pm
[this head I have hung over my Books]
What a nice act to ponder as we set about our work of marking up Keats’ marginalia to Shakespeare. The “head” probably refers to a portrait rather than a bust, since he refers to hanging it. That Keats has selected it for prominent display over his books in his workspace really conveys his enthusiasm for the Bard, and the desire for inspiration that comes from admiration for a major artistic predecessor. Think of it, at this stage (April 1817) he had not yet written ANY of the poems that we read and discussed in ENGL 268–they won’t come until several years later. He was reading Shakespeare, though–closely, and by this point he had inscribed most or all of the marginalia into the edition we’re studying. According to the front inscription in Vol. 1, he presented the heavily marked set as a gift to his friend Joseph Severn the very month he wrote this letter. It was Severn who painted the picture of Keats displayed at the project gutenberg edition of his letters, with (guess who?) hanging on the wall above.
By the way, the complete set of Shakespeare can be viewed here (it takes a moment to load): https://iiif.lib.harvard.edu/manifests/view/drs:14637636$1i
March 15, 2017 at 10:44 pm
Very good evidence! Make sure that gets into your notes. We’ll want to compile any and all marked content not mentioned by Lewis that helps to support his thesis.
March 15, 2017 at 10:38 pm
Nice points, Kenzington. Lewis likely gravitated toward the marginalia he could most easily make sense of–in terms of the connections to “Hawthorne and His Mosses” and to Moby-Dick. Other marginalia in the set may be more difficult to make construe in that context–and correspond more closely to the sort of evidence Lewis puts under the “bafflement” column–but that’s where the opportunity to reveal new insights and observations will be strongest.
March 9, 2017 at 3:43 am
One of the final markings within my section of The Odyssey is found on 1.297. http://melvillesmarginalia.org/tool.php?id=117&vu=y
The entire final half of the page pertains to the sea. However, the passage marked by Melville definitely pertains far more to Lewis’s previous claim that Melville had a focus on death and the relationship between God and man. I find it interesting because this seems like a fairly obvious omission of a marked passage that seems to support previous claims so well.
March 9, 2017 at 3:27 am
I have to constantly remind myself that I am most likely falling into confirmation bias regarding how we read Homer’s reading. Interestingly enough, there are multiple sections marked within my section that pertain to Calypso and Circe. I can’t help but wonder why Melville would find them interesting enough to mark, but I’ve realized that I often find myself “reading” into his readings and assigning meanings that are not backed by tangible evidence. Of course, I can make certain arguments, but when one considers a more concrete perspective I can’t help but consider myself presumptuous.