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
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June 22, 2018 at 3:42 pm
The idea that poetry should appear “almost as a remembrance” strikes the heart of not only Keats interactions with Shakespeare’s plays but with his exploration of humanity and the soul in his own poems. In the plays (pardon me while I liberally interpret the word “poetry” ) there are instances where Keats underlines parts of sentences and phrases, regardless of the plot context, because he is drawn to their philosophy or construction. These pieces are reflected, in one wording or another, across his letters and poems, which leads me to believe that when coming across this bits and bobs in Shakespeare, he experiences (as I have on other occasions) things that he’s always believed, now given new voice–a type of “remembrance”. In his own poems, take Ode to a Grecian Urn, the narrator is interacting so fully and intimately with an inanimate object that it also brings to my mind a kind of remembrance–“this is what I will be one day”– and that connection, that “remembrance” allows the narrator to go on and wonder how and what it must be like, and how it may appear to him, and how he could use that appearance.
June 22, 2018 at 2:52 pm
[I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone]
I find it interesting that throughout most of his letters he pushes back the idea of being a Wordsworthian or even giving some sort of credit to him at all. Keats’s idea of a poet is so meta and nonobjective. It makes me wonder if his aversion to such labels has only to do with Wordsworth himself or more the idea that he wants to be an individual poet; he seems to be implying that he doesn’t want to be an elitist or an egotist. However, I should say that I imagine a lot of these poets read Wordsworth to the extent that Keats studied Shakespeare. Influences of Shakespeare can be seen in many of Keats’s poetry just the same as influences of Wordsworth can be found in a Wordsworthian esc poem.
Later in this letter, Keats writes that “A poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence; because he has no Identity…”. I would argue that maybe this is why Keats gets so heated over poets labeling themselves in a certain way. He also mentions in another letter that poetry is to come naturally…so maybe poets aren’t poetical because it is just in their nature to be the way that they are? Just thoughts of mine that went through my head while reading this particular letter.
June 22, 2018 at 2:30 am
[That if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all. – However, it may be with me, I cannot help looking into new countries with ‘O for a Muse of Fire to ascend!’ If Endymion serves me as a pioneer, perhaps I ought to be content – I have great reason to be content, for thank God I can read, and perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths;]
Great passage for us to consider. The “leaves to a tree” image conveys what we studied as the organic principle last semester in ENGL 266–comparable to Wordsworth’s definition of poetry as the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” For both writers, the words and verses must come *naturally*–in the fullest sense of that important term in Romanticism. You might recognize the quote from Shakespeare’s Henry V, and the part about *perhaps* understanding Shakespeare is wonderfully modest and apt for our research.
June 15, 2018 at 3:43 pm
In Two Gentlemen of Verona, Keats annotates the line “The air hath starv’d the roses in her cheeks and pinch’d the lily-tinture on her face'(56-57). This stanza seems to correlate with this line exactly, for they are both talking about someone fading away. I tend to look at this poem from a very meta point of view: that it is not just about being deceived by women (Keats did have an aversion to women as seen in letters he wrote) but it is about being deceived by the idealness of organized religion. The speaker of the poem is dedicating a lot of time to the woman just for her to lure him into seeing the reality of the world. The woman abandoned him much in the same way that some saw that religion/God had abandoned Earth.
June 8, 2018 at 2:31 pm
I think his use of the word priest here is interesting. Obviously, as a Romantic poet, he is trying to figure out what to do with the separation between humanity and religion, yet he is saying to his own psyche that he will be the priest. It is an interesting way to phrase that he will build a temple for his soul in his own mind: he is taking responsibility of his spirituality in that way.
By letting this place flourish in his mind, he can let love in, he can grow flowers that “will never breed the same”, he can think and be free by letting his intellect and soul grow.
June 8, 2018 at 2:22 pm
This section reminds me of two lines that Keats annotated in Much Ado About Nothing. The first line goes “(that joy could) not show modest enough, without a badge of bitterness” and “(how much) better it is to weep at joy, than to joy at weeping”. It seems that Keats is somewhat reflecting these lines the first line of this stanza “She dwells with Beauty–Beauty that must die”. Considering that even in our 268 book it made a indication that Keats was obsessed with death and melancholy, it is no surprise that he seems to be indicating that he needs that melancholy in his life to be balanced, that it deserves a thrown of its own. Melancholy can come and destroy joy instantaneously, but maybe joy needs to be destroyed sometimes and melancholy needs to fed, much as he indicates in the last line of the second stanza, that we should occasionally “feed deep, deep upon her peerless eyes”.
Melancholy is found in delight, he has his special place in the “temple of Delight”. Perhaps that is to say that we need the sadness and disparity to feel true joy.
June 8, 2018 at 2:32 am
I think this last stanza captures the humanity and the different facets of the human mind that Keats has been trying to explore. In the odes and his other poetry, common themes he explores are faith, divinity, our concept of transcendence and what that means, and our concept of death and how our minds deal with it. Here, he seems to be conjecturing at what it’s like to be a being capable of forward and backward thought. It reminds me of Burns’s To A Mouse–the farmer almost envies the mouse because it doesn’t ever seem to reminisce, whereas he is haunted by the ability to. Here, in Keats last stanza of La Belle, I see echoes of that sentiment. This is the answer to the beginning of the poems “what could ail thee?” it doesn’t have to be a what–a quantifiable measure or incident. To be human is to be plagued at all times by one thought or another, and this stanza, especially “Though the sedge is withered from the lake, / An no birds sing,” capture that feeling.
June 7, 2018 at 5:20 am
The speaker in this ode is enjoying the calm emptiness which comes with indolence(laziness or sloth). His attention is captured by Love, Ambition, and Poesy. Ultimately he chooses, “to bid farewell” to the three in favor of Indolence. The feeling of emptiness that often accompanies idleness can make things like love, ambition, and poesy loose their luster. Like the narrator says, they seem like shadowy figures or ghosts that come and go. There is a comfort which comes with indolence that can make enjoyable things like poesy(poetry) ambitions, or love, seem uninteresting. The pull of indolence may cause even the most devout writers to turn from their work to enjoying, “drowsy noons”.
June 7, 2018 at 4:56 am
“The winged boy” in this stanza is likely Eros/Cupid who fell in love with Psyche in Greek Mythology. Cupid was originally sent to Psyche by Aphrodite, who was angered by her worshipers deciding to praise Psyche rather than Aphrodite. Cupid was supposed to get revenge for Aphrodite but he became infatuated with Psyche as Aphrodite’s worshipers had. It also seems that the narrator is infatuated with Psyche. In the following stanza he expresses his dismay that Psyche is not honored with temples or song, “No shrine, no grove, no oracle, no heat” He goes on to declare that he will be, “Thy shrine, thy grove, thy oracle, thy heat”. This poem is a powerful statement of faith, beauty, and devotion, illustrated through the speaker and the imagery he describes.
May 31, 2018 at 2:52 pm
It seems that the Chambers of Human Life are a truly universal journey most travel. To begin in a chamber of patient, willful ignorance and move on to the second chamber in which we become aware of both the beauty and the darkness in life. The third chamber is one of wisdom where experience and the acquisition of knowledge lead to love and friendship. Keats finds that each individual travels the chambers uniquely, but humanity experiences the journey similarly. There is a beginning, middle, and end which all present themselves as we become further educated and experienced in life. Throughout that journey many realize the value of knowledge, not in a singular education but in any and all knowledge. The truly great minds are those who are never wholly satisfied with there education and continue to thirst for more.