In the poem “The House-top” in his collection of Civil War poetry Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, Herman Melville attempts to rewrite the climatic “Sleep No More” episode of Book 10 of William Wordsworth’s Prelude to speak to the issues of post-Civil War America by revisiting the mix of violence and idealism Wordsworth encountered during the French Revolution. Hoping to escape Wordsworth’s loss of faith in ideals in the face of violence, Melville deconstructs Wordsworth’s use of language, stripping it of some of its timelessness for a greater time-full-ness to address the needs of the age rather than asking reality to conform to Romantic ideals, while also building on Wordsworth’s courageous example. Melville reconstructs the American narrative by rousing it from the “sleep” of Romantic idealism and calls his nation to awake to a new day of vast possibility in which exuberance and restraint coexist by demanding that ideals serve society rather than society blindly (and sometimes self-destructively) follow those ideals.
Recalling the Paris mobs rioting in September 1792, William Wordsworth records his feelings in Book 10 of the 1850 Prelude. Quoting Shakespeare's Macbeth, he writes, “I seemed to hear a voice that cried, / To the whole city, ‘Sleep no more’” (X:86-87). Recalling the New York City draft riots of July 1863, Herman Melville captures the moment in “The House-top. A Night Piece,” perhaps the most polished poem in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, his collection of Civil War Poetry published in 1866. “No sleep,” begins the narrative voice of “The House-top,” echoing yet not echoing Wordsworth's climactic moment in Book X. In “The House-top” Melville proceeds to draw further analogies between the riots of Wordsworth's age and those of his own age, first to call attention to the literariness of Wordsworth's depiction and then to reveal the limitations of that depiction. In Battle-Pieces, Melville strains to cap the infinite strivings of Romantic rhetoric by disclosing the limitations of language while hoping that a recognition of those limitations would allow for a new and better narrative for America in the wake of the Civil War, the core realities of which were encapsulated by the racist draft riots in New York. Melville brings a new adaptability to the literary approach to human violence that allows him to avoid falling into the same despair that Wordsworth experienced after the French Revolution's fall. Instead, Melville emerges from the revelation with a reconceived sense of optimism. Melville deconstructs Wordsworth’s use of language in order to reconstruct faith in the American democratic ideal. He bases that ideal not in exuberant Romantic humanism with its accompanying threat of violent excess, but in Romantic energy harnessed by sober restraint, which is born from an understanding of Romanticism's capacity to explode into chaotic violence when unrestrained, and from the Classical sense of communal restraint that Romanticism's individualism had superseded. As post-Civil War America faced the challenge of Reconstruction, Melville reconstructed the American narrative, stripping it of the “sleep” of its Romantic past to awake the nation to a renewed vision of possibility.
I propose that Melville began the same journey towards a pragmatic philosophy completed by younger men after the Civil War. In his The Metaphysical Club, Louis Menand writes: “[T]he Civil War discredited the beliefs and assumptions of the era that preceded it.... It took nearly half a century for the United States to develop a culture to replace it, to find a set of ideas, and a way of thinking, that would help people cope with the conditions of modern life”(x). Menand follows the lives and ideas of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles S. Peirce, and John Dewey during the shaping of this new culture. This foursome “all believed that ideas are not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered, but are tools... produced not by individuals, but by groups of individuals—that ideas are social.” (xi) The “survival” of the ideas “depends not on their immutability but on their adaptability.”(xii)
Similarly, Melville values adaptability over immutability, in contrast to Wordsworth’s Romantic faith in the imagination and nature’s immutable goodness. Also like Melville, this philosophical foursome saw the “limits of what thought can do in the struggle to increase human happiness.” (Menand xii) In Battle-Pieces, Melville uses language as an adaptable tool for forging a new concept of society, specifically American society. Whereas Melville shapes his language to reality to maximize its pragmatic usefulness, free of transformative literary forms, Wordsworth’s faith in nature and language’s ability to heal his wounded faith in his revolutionary ideals drives him to shape reality to his literary imagination, specifically in the form of dramatic tragedy. Melville’s position in late nineteenth century America, straddling the Romantic past and the approaching modernism of the twentieth century, allows him to see “outside” of language in a way Wordsworth’s idealism cannot.
Whereas Wordsworth’s courage lies in adhering to his ideals in the face of human cruelty, Melville’s courage lies in his adjustable faith in those ideals in the face of similar human cruelty. For Wordsworth, the highest value of these ideals is their timeless permanence. For Melville, the highest value of these ideals is their “time-full-ness,” their ability to speak to each age’s situation. Thus, Melville's rewriting of Wordsworth's “Sleep no more” episode is in accord with the basic trait of his character that Nathaniel Hawthorne recognized when he wrote that Melville “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief, and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other”(433). Both Melville and Wordsworth are “honest and courageous” in their attempts, but differing circumstances and Melville’s own disbelieving belief allow him to rewrite Wordsworth’s poetic call.
In contrast to Melville's prose, his poetry has been relatively neglected by scholars. Few book-length studies have been written on the poetry, and most articles treat the poetry primarily as an extension of the prose rather than on its own merits. Even more significantly for this discussion, the influence of the English Romantics on Melville’s poetry has not been fully examined. Some attempts have been made to study Coleridge's influence on Melville's aesthetics, but for the most part "the influence of other English Romantics on Melville's thinking about art has been generally acknowledged but not studied in detail" (Dettlaff 675).
Much of the acknowledgment of the influence of the English Romantics on Melville appears in the criticism citing Wordsworth's role in Melville's novel Pierre. Michael Davitt Bell, Jonathan Hall, and Maxine Moore each base (to varying degrees) their view of Wordsworth's presence in Pierre on Melville's reading of the 1850 Prelude, which was published after Wordsworth's death while Melville was writing Pierre. I have based this study on a similar belief that Melville was familiar with the 1850 Prelude when he began Battle-Pieces. However, much of my argument uses Wordsworthian themes also found outside of the 1850 Prelude, in works of Wordsworth that Melville definitely knew, although The Prelude stands as Wordsworth's magnum opus and deservedly takes center stage in Melville's mind as he comes to terms with his Romantic inheritance.
Hershel Parker, however, opposes the view of Bell, Hall, and Moore regarding Melville's knowledge of the 1850 Prelude. Parker instead sees Wordsworth's Excursion and "Resolution and Independence" as the primary sources for Melville's Wordsworthianism in Pierre (76-78). But, regardless of its particular source, Parker sees this Wordsworthianism as "encroaching" upon Pierre as part of the later additions in that novel's tortured path to publication, rather than as being the essential element of Melville's writing that Bell, Hall, and Moore believe it to be. I side against Parker and with Bell, Hall, and Moore in judging Wordsworth as an essential (and almost frustratingly inescapable) influence upon Melville, rather than as a momentary encroachment upon Melville's mind. Wordsworth's cameos in the works of Melville, dating from several of the early novels to the masterpiece of his last years, Billy Budd, testify to a life-long obsession rather than to a passing interest.
"There is nothing more contemptable [sic] in that contemptable man (tho' good poet, in his department) Wordsworth, than his contempt for Ossian," wrote Herman Melville in the margin of his copy of William Hazlitt's Lectures on the English Poets (Sealts 10). For Melville, Wordsworth is a “good poet, in his department,” acknowledging Wordsworth’s ability at the same time that he points out his limitations. In approaching Melville's "love-hate" relationship with Wordsworth, I have relied on the larger context of nineteenth century trans-Atlantic influence provided by Leon Chai and Robert Weisbuch. In his Romantic Foundations of the American Renaissance, Chai presents the "love" side of the relationship, emphasizing the debt of American writers to British literary tradition, a tradition which challenges and energizes Americans such as Melville to build upon it in their own unique manner. "One might summarize by saying that the American Renaissance is in one sense the final phase of Romanticism," Chai writes, "embodying all the tensions and pressures incident to the culmination of a movement."(6). In contrast, Weisbuch, in his Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and British Influence in the Age of Emerson, reads Chai's fruitful "tensions and pressures" as part of the "hate" side of the relationship. "I believe that the American writer begins from a defensive position and that the achievements of British literature and British national life are the chief intimidations against which he, as American representative, defends himself," Weisbuch contends (xii). Where Chai sees encouragement, Weisbuch sees intimidation. I have tried to steer a middle path between Chai and Weisbuch's extremes, hoping to imitate the same balance of indebtedness and opposition to Wordsworth that Melville maintained in Battle-Pieces. Melville's world was a strange mix of continuity and discontinuity in relation to Wordsworth's. To call Melville a Romantic is as half-accurate as to call him a Modernist. The strength and relevance of Melville's Battle-Pieces rest in this anxious alliance. Therefore, to veer away from a middle course would be to lose the full impact of Melville's vision. In fact, this middle course, with its emphasis on the need for “course corrections” for the American ship of state is the most distinguishing aspect of both Melville’s indebtedness to and divergence from Wordsworth.
The only previous study to fully appreciate the complexity of Melville's relationship with Wordsworth is Thomas F. Heffernan's 1977 article, "Melville and Wordsworth." In many ways, Heffernan's study was the catalyst for my own approach. Heffernan's article meticulously reports the many appearances of Wordsworth in Melville's works as well as Melville's annotations in his copy of Wordsworth's poetry. Although Heffernan notes that Melville read from this copy of Wordsworth shortly before the outbreak of the Civil War and that some of the marked lines "easily suggest the Civil War,"(340) he makes no connections to Melville's Civil War poetry collection, Battle-Pieces. Heffernan concludes that this "annotated volume assures us that Melville's reading of Wordsworth was more extensive, more critical, and more sympathetic than anyone could have affirmed up to now" (351). I find this extensive, critical, and sympathetic reading of Wordsworth by Melville most evident in “The House-top.”
In New York City, on July 11, 1863, as part of the newly passed Enrollment Act, a list of names called for compulsory military service was published in New York City. Angered by this draft, citizens began to riot, starting a spree of destruction that would end in millions of dollars in damage. African-Americans were especially targeted by the mobs’ violence, culminating in the burning of an African-American church and orphanage. By the time Federal troops were finally able to restore peace, after 4 days of chaos, 119 people had been killed and 306 wounded. Similar (although smaller-scale) scenes occurred in Boston and other Northern cities around the same time. Melville was not present in New York City during the riots, but family members living in the city and newspaper accounts painted a vivid portrait for him.
Although Melville draws analogies between the New York riots and Wordsworth’s Paris riots, the two riots themselves are not analogous. Melville’s subject is ostensibly a reaction to the military draft of what was perceived by the rioters to be an oppressive government, but its main outcome, if not its true motivation, was racist. Wordsworth’s subject is clearly the reaction of the mob to the oppressive French monarchy and its supporters. It is this moral clarity (at least in the beginning) that allows Wordsworth to begin from a point of full faith in the French Revolution. Because Melville’s situation lacks this moral clarity, embroiled as it was in the tangled motivations and questioning of ideals surrounding the Civil War, he is able to question the American ideal, clearly blemished by bigotry, from the onset. This difference contributes to the fall of Wordsworth’s ideals—a fall Melville never risks taking.
Melville struggled with the representation of these riots in his volume of Civil War poetry, Battle-Pieces. How could he present the brutality and racism of the North, the side claiming to be truly fighting for freedom for all and the preservation of the Union? This incident presented problems that battle accounts and portraits of leaders, both common motifs in Battle-Pieces, did not. In coming to terms with this difficulty, Melville quoted the French author Froissart in a note to “The House-top”: “‘I dare not write the horrible and inconceivable atrocities committed,’ says Froissart, in alluding to the remarkable sedition in France during his time. The like may be hinted of some proceedings of the draft-rioters.” Hennig Cohen adds in a note to Melville's note that the passage from Froissart “concerns the Jacqueries, a peasant uprising, in May 1358, that was accompanied by excesses which Froissart, despite his statement to the contrary, proceeds to detail” (Battle-Pieces 240). Melville similarly sought a way to speak of the unspeakable, just as Froissart spoke of the unspeakable “atrocities” of the past, but without the linguistically deceptive “I dare not write...” preface.
Froissart's linguistic deception and French connection may have conjured up in Melville's mind another instance of “I dare not write...” regarding mob violence—Wordsworth's “Sleep no more” passage from Book X of the 1850 Prelude. Wordsworth protects himself and his ideals from the riots through literary allusion, transforming reality to theater, which he can deal with through language or poetry and its power to heal; of course, he alludes to a literary murder, thus circling back to the real-life destruction, thereby re-questioning the power of drama to redeem the acts of the rioters. Starting with the linguistic misrepresentations of Froissart’s “I dare not write…” and Wordsworth’s turn towards Shakespearean tragedy, Melville addresses the issue of the representation of human cruelty using the language of civilization and culture. Whereas Wordsworth processes his thoughts of present brutality through literary allusion, thus saving his revolutionary ideals, Melville bares the American soul in all its darkness, revealing the failed American dream so as to re-cover it in a new fabric of new texts both Romantic and Classical, embracing both the aspirations of idealized individualism and the sobriety of societal restraint.
Neither Melville nor Wordsworth witnessed his riots firsthand. Wordsworth found himself “Bound to the fierce Metropolis” of Paris after the mass violence filled the French countryside when “From his throne / The King had fallen” on August 9, 1792 (X:11-12). Having seen the aftermath of the “dire work / Of massacre, in which the senseless sword / Was prayed to as a judge,” Wordsworth convinces himself that Paris will be different, believing the massacres to be “Ephemeral monsters, to be seen but once! / Things that could only show themselves and die” (X:42-47). “Cheered with this hope,” Wordsworth writes, “to Paris I returned” (X:48).
Unfortunately, the “Ephemeral monsters” of the bloody side of the French Revolution struck Paris as well, dashing Wordsworth's hope. This crushed hope renders Wordsworth unable to understand the spectacle. After ranging “the spacious city,” passing “The prison where the unhappy Monarch lay” and “the palace, lately stormed” (X:50-53), Wordsworth finds himself gazing
On this and other spots, as doth a man
Upon the volume whose contents he knows
Are memorable, but from him locked up,
Being written in a tongue he cannot read,
So that he questions the mute leaves with pain,
And half upbraids their silence. But that night
I felt most deeply in what world I was,
What ground I trod on, and what air I breathed.
The “volume” of the French Revolution, the culminating “text” of the Enlightenment, now appears “in a tongue” Wordsworth “cannot read.” This revolutionary language gone sour becomes unreadable not from outside influences but rather from within Wordsworth. The “contents” Wordsworth “knows / Are memorable” but that are now “locked up” from him are withheld by Wordsworth himself, who consciously or subconsciously realizes the violence now inseparably mixed with those “contents.” To recover those lost “contents” Wordsworth “With unextinguished taper” keeps “watch, / Reading at intervals” (X:70-71). Through reading, the imaginative power of literature, Wordsworth looks to ease his muddled anxiety through a moment of absolute clarity that he characterizes in Book XII of the 1850 Prelude as “spots of time”:
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence, depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier and more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse, our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.
This “spot of time” brought on by reading makes use of the sense of hyperreality Wordsworth already experiences in feeling “most deeply in what world” he is in, “what ground” he trods on, and what air he breathes. This hyperreality gives him a heightened, full sense of the moment. From this “high” (albeit an unpleasant “high,” a “bad trip,” if you will) Wordsworth gets “more high” by this ephiphany’s ability to bring on a “pre-eminence” that trumps the immanency of “false opinion and contentious thought” brought on by “trivial occupations, and the round / Of ordinary intercourse”; thus, Wordsworth’s mind is “nourished and invisibly repaired.” The “spots of time” are a heightened sense of reality in terms of a sense of the moment, but that moment is at an altitude that restores the subject’s mental attitude after the trauma of reality, such as Wordsworth requires at this moment as he deals with the “contentious thought” of the riots.
Rising above the Parisian streets, Wordsworth escapes to a lofty, almost solipsistic height of feeling and literary rhetoric. “High was my room and lonely,” (X:66) Wordsworth writes of his sanctuary, from which he reads by candlelight while trying not to think of the riots that had recently raged below in the now quiet streets. This violence is “Divided from” him “by one little month” (X:74), itself an allusion to Hamlet (I, ii, 147), thus transforming even time itself through tragedy. Although he recalls some details faithfully, “the rest was conjured up / From tragic fictions or true history, / Remembrances and dim admonishments” (X:75-77). The “pre-eminence” of the imagination begins to intermix “tragic fiction” with “true history” to “conjure” a healing spell for Wordsworth’s ailing faith in his ideals. Through his Romantic imagination and its foundation in nature’s healing power, Wordsworth then tries to absolve human violence and its endless repetition as corresponding to the violence of natural phenomena, such as “the spent hurricane” followed by “As fierce a successor” and “The earthquake” that “is not satisfied at once” but continues through aftershocks (X:80-81, 84). The violence of human nature thus follows the pattern of nature's violence, which is beyond categories such as good and evil. “All things have second birth,” Wordsworth argues (X:83), even the mob violence he previously thought “ephemeral.”
Earlier, in Book VI, when Wordsworth was touring the Alps as “Europe… was thrilled with joy” and “France” stood “on the top of golden hours” during the optimistic beginning of the French Revolution, the voice of nature itself “uttered from her Alpine throne” to those that would forcefully stop the revolution, “’Stay, stay your sacrilegious hands!’” (VI:339-340, 430-431). However, in Book X, Wordsworth assumes nature’s “voice” for himself rather than let it speak for itself as in Book VI and perhaps admonish the rioters to “stay” their “sacrilegious hands” as well. Thus, the familiar Wordsworthian haven of nature sounds strange and shrill in justifying the brutal ways of humanity, mainly because the human ability to choose through will and imagination disallows any justifying parallelism between the acts of humanity and those of nature, regardless of which side of the revolution uses violence.
Having exhausted nature's possible answers, Wordsworth then turns to the last imaginative refuge he feels he can confidently control and interpret—literature. “In this way [namely seeking an answer for the violence cast up from below and its troubling implications] I wrought upon myself,” Wordsworth continues, “Until I seemed to hear a voice that cried, / To the whole city, ‘Sleep no more’” (X:85-87). Wordsworth calls to the whole city to awake from the nightmare they have created in taking their ideals to a violent extreme. To do this without distraction from actual events and the emotions surrounding them, he mitigates them through the imaginative power of literature, turning the quiet streets into a vacant stage on which he can replay recent events in a manner concordant with his beliefs. Wordsworth removes himself and the rioters from the act by making them all actors in a drama, participants in a play under their direction rather than out of their control as the riots had become. Although Wordsworth tries to regain control through this allusion to Shakespeare's Macbeth, the resulting repose is unsettled:
Fled with the voice to which it had given birth;
But vainly comments of a calmer mind
Promised soft peace and sweet forgetfulness.
The place, all hushed and silent as it was,
Appeared unfit for repose of night,
Defenseless as a wood where tigers roam.
Thus, this last, perhaps best, hope falls short as well, failing in its promise of “soft peace and sweet forgetfulness,” yet Wordsworth clings to it nonetheless.
Mary Jacobus sees Shakespeare's Macbeth as a key political text for Wordsworth and the Romantic age. As an example of regicide, the play certainly has relevance for the 1790s. However, Jacobus believes more importantly that “Macbeth... can be seen above all as the type of an imagination self-seduced and self-betrayed”(354). Macbeth's self-seduction thus contributes to Wordsworth's “unease with the theatricality of the imagination” (354), an unease Jacobus traces back to Wordsworth's dissatisfaction with the theater in Book VII of The Prelude. In Book VII, Wordsworth is touched by a play about “the Maid of Buttermere” with all “These feelings, in themselves / Trite” (VII:329-330). He later passes from this entertainment “to others titled higher,” specifically courts and halls of government, “that great stage / Where senators, tongue-favored Men, perform” (VII:487, 491-492). Wordsworth thus sees the all-pervasive theatrical nature of society, particularly its seductive power to draw the mind into its staged setting, however “trite,” to the exclusion of larger ideals. Despite this dissatisfaction, Wordsworth hopes to use the staged setting of literature through Macbeth to regain direction over the revolutionary ideals in crisis. Wordsworth's choice of Macbeth emphasizes the political, even regicidal (potentially for the French Revolution at this point), goals he has in mind.
At the same instant that Wordsworth quotes Shakespeare, transforming real tragedy into literary tragedy, he also disturbs the “trance” of his imaginative spell. “Methought I heard a voice cry ‘Sleep no more; / Macbeth doth murder sleep,’” wrote Shakespeare (Macbeth II, ii, 35-36). Through this quote, Wordsworth “doth murder sleep” as well, particularly the “sleep” of consoling rhetoric. In his Natural Supernaturalism, M.H. Abrams discusses the place of such “sleep” in Wordsworth's “program for poetry.” Wordsworth wants his poetry, Abrams writes, to “be an evangel to effect a spiritual resurrection among mankind—it will ‘arouse the sensual from their sleep / Of death’—merely by showing what lies within any man's power to accomplish, as he is here and now” (27). In The Prospectus to The Excursion Wordsworth describes this “sleep / Of death” as the true enemy and not “sights / Of madding passions mutually inflamed” (ll. 74-75), such as the violence of the French Revolution. “May these sounds / Have their authentic comment,—that, even these / Hearing, I be not downcast or forlorn!” Wordsworth continues, confident of his vision's strength against the French Revolution's harsh realities (ll. 80-82). Whereas the “sleep” spoken of in The Prospectus to The Excursion is that of those unaware of the Romantic faith, the “sleep” of Book X of The Prelude seems to be the unawareness following the excesses of that same Romantic faith. Wordsworth awakes humanity to show, as Abrams writes, “what lies within any man's power to accomplish,” choosing to mitigate through imagination the ill while hoping for the greater good within that capability. Unfortunately, in shaking off the ignorance of the power of the imagination, Wordsworth falls into a new “sleep / Of death” of revolutionary rhetoric that he can only control through more rhetoric. That is, his path to recovery (the imagination) is through the same field of rhetorical nightmare that the French Revolution has become, a fact he confronts fully only when he can “Sleep no more.” To believe, even momentarily, that a solution to his problem, which is rooted in his imagination, can be found wholly in the imagination itself, specifically language as used in dramatic tragedy, Wordsworth would have to deceive himself as much as Macbeth momentarily deceives himself in thinking that his ends are justified by his murderous means.
Wordsworth's end becomes Melville's beginning in “The House-top.” In beginning with the simple “No sleep,” nodding to the allusion but avoiding it simultaneously, Melville avoids the same circular trap of rhetoric within rhetoric that Wordsworth builds. As demonstrated throughout his career, Melville knew and employed fully the power of allusion and extra-textual references. Indeed, the last nine lines of “The House-top” consist almost solely of historical and classical references. Hennig Cohen cites connections to five different Shakespearean plays, including Macbeth, in his notes to “The House-top” (Battle-Pieces 240). Only in this first line does Melville resist allusion, preferring a peripheral, half-reference calling forth both Macbeth's self-seduction as well as Wordsworth's. Melville “doth murder sleep” as well, but rather than continue the self-deception by circling back into the trap of language and allusion, he actively reads and writes the terms of his narrative and, by extension, the narrative of his nation.
Melville's stance regarding self-deception begins with the title “The House-top,” which may allude to the King James Bible, a familiar source in his writings. Melville specifies a “house-top” (whereas Wordsworth speaks from a nondescript “high” room), perhaps because he is thinking of the Gospel of St. Mark. In chapter XIII, Jesus tells the disciples of the apocalypse, a time when “brother shall betray brother to death” (a time such as the Civil War, the war pitting brother against brother), and warns, “Let him that is on the housetop not go down into the house, neither enter therein, to take any thing out of his house.” From the destruction, Jesus says, “false Christs and false prophets shall rise... to seduce, if it were possible, even the elect.” The draft riots, an apocalyptic moment for Melville that revealed the violence behind the facade of American ideals (just as the Paris riots struck Wordsworth apocalyptically), triggered perhaps an association between this passage from the Gospel of St. Mark and his own situation, particularly the theme of seductive deception amidst the destruction. Both Melville and Wordsworth remain above the fray and do “not go down into the house” of shattered society. Melville and Wordsworth diverge, however, when the “false prophets” of Romantic rhetoric “rise” from the ruins of fractured ideals. Wordsworth continues to be believe in his tarnished ideals and thus allows himself to be seduced, at least partially, by his own writings. Melville resists the same temptation and instead forges a different response to lost ideals more fitting to his different situation.
In “The House-top,” Melville replays Wordsworth's apocalyptic moment with a significant difference by not investing himself totally in the rhetoric of the ideals that Wordsworth felt were embodied in the French Revolution and that America had felt were embodied in itself up to the Civil War. Whereas Wordsworth willingly suspends his disbelief in those ideals in the face of the riots, Melville critically suspends his belief in those same ideals to re-evaluate them in light of the riots and their racist motivation. To emphasize the differences between the two narrators, Melville sets up a series of parallels between his perspective on the New York draft riots of 1863 and Wordsworth's perspective on the Paris of late 1792. Both poets are physically above the scene, in a position of judgment: Melville is on “The House-top” and Wordsworth's room is “High... and lonely, near the roof” (X:66). Anxiety fills both atmospheres: Melville feels “a dense oppression” (l. 2) and Wordsworth says he “felt most deeply in what world I was, / ... and what air I breathed” (X:64-65). Imaginary tigers inhabit both worlds below: Melville sees “tawny tigers” preparing for “ravage” (ll. 3-4) and Wordsworth imagines himself in the night as “Defenseless as a wood where tigers roam” (X:93). By setting similar stages, Melville isolates each narrator in his role as actor. Wordsworth in this passage tries to fit events to the script of his Romantic faith in nature and the imagination, trying to distract himself from the thoughts of the riot with literature in the form of a book. Melville's speaker, in contrast, looks upon the scene fully, with no distractions, consciously engaging the events and fitting his own imaginative imprint to them. If they were scientists, Wordsworth would be the theorist looking for data to support his theory, whereas Melville would be the empiricist gathering data in hopes of forming a theory. As Jacobus writes, “To paraphrase The Prelude with Macbeth, when the imaginative power goes to sleep in the theater (‘the imaginative Power... slept... amid my sobs and tears / It slept’; (VII:498-502)), it risks being usurped by ‘a false creation, / Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain’” (Jacobus 356). To put it most simply, Wordsworth chooses to watch from the theater balcony as part of a slumbering audience, whereas Melville's speaker boldly takes center stage. The imaginative power Wordsworth allows to be usurped by conceptions of nature and literature, thus falling back to “sleep,” is retained by Melville's speaker, who exercises that imaginative power first to question such comforting conceptions and then to create new conceptions while still remaining unusurped.
Melville's speaker describes events as they happen, giving the sights and sounds, whereas Wordsworth passed the prison and palace after the violence. Wordsworth's scene, “all hushed and silent as it was” (X:91), holds nothing behind the silence. The imagination spins round and round within its own circle of conceptions, unable to break out and speak anew to the changed circumstances. In this acknowledgment of the silence, Wordsworth himself casts doubt on the viability of the imagination’s power to resolve his doubts and restore his faith. It is this same doubt that Melville injects into the silence of his poem to form a message for the attentive listener. “All is hushed near by,” Melville writes. “Yet fitfully from far breaks a mixed surf / Of muffled sound, the Atheist roar of riot” (ll. 6-8). Melville's speaker strains to hear the distant “Atheist roar of riot,” unafraid of its consequences. This is an “Atheist roar” because the old god of the imagination is dead. The faithless rioters, who have killed the idealist’s creed, have killed him, leaving Melville to find new “gods” better suited to the times. In vivid contrast, Wordsworth near-sightedly reads his book, whereas the narrator of “The House-top” looks “Yonder, where parching Sirius set in drought, / Balefully glares red Arson—there—and there” (ll. 9-10). One can almost see the narrator reaching over the side of the roof to point “there—and there” at the violence, seeking answers outward, in contrast to the seated Wordsworth entranced by his book, vainly searching for an answer inward, in the imagination and literature, and coming to a growing realization that it is not there.
Melville then proceeds to dismiss the Wordsworthian blinds of nature and literature, the “old gods.” “The Town is taken by its rats—ship-rats / And rats of the wharves,” Melville writes (ll. 11-12), liking the rioters to maddened rats swarming over the city below. Stanton Garner focuses on this image as an example of how the voice of “The House-top” is an ironic, aristocratic voice “whose opinions differ markedly from [Melville's] own,” especially in this characterization of the “unseen rioters” (255-256). The speaker of “The House-top” may not be Melville or may not express Melville's opinions (although I find Garner's argument forced), but the rioters are certainly not “unseen.” In the comparison to rats, the narrator sees the rioters all too clearly. Wordsworth used nature and the imagination to lift the riots rhetorically as natural phenomena on the scale of hurricanes or earthquakes. The rat imagery downscales the mob to its proper level, robbing it of any delusions of grandeur or absolution gained from nature. David Simpson describes Wordsworth's “fear of the potential power of an ungovernable urban populace” (127) and points to a passage from The Prelude describing London mobs:
What say you, then,
To times, when half the city shall break out
Full of one passion, vengeance, rage or fear?
To executions, to a street on fire,
Mobs, riots, or rejoicings!...
Wordsworth thus speaks of the London mobs; however, when Wordsworth asks himself a similar “What say you... ?” before the Parisian mobs, he is silent, owing perhaps to the millennial hopes he had invested in the French more than in the English, hopes that had now fallen apart. Melville answers Wordsworth's “What say you... ?” with the vivid rat imagery, continuing the motif of natural correspondence but dismissing the mitigating, self-delusive grandeur of Wordsworth's comparisons. Melville's other natural images of the riot also cut off escapes into nature's power. The city appears as a “roofy desert” as “Vacant as Libya” (ll. 5-6) rather than “a wood where tigers roam” (X:93), with enough trees for human evil to be hidden among the foliage, just as Wordsworth earlier tried to camouflage human violence against a backdrop of natural violence. In the barren “desert,” all of humanity's ills are laid bare for all to see. Like Wordsworth, Melville's speaker compares the riots to “the tide” (X:81), but the tide of “The House-top” is “a mixed surf / Of muffled sound” (ll. 7-8). Melville dilutes Wordsworth's tide, mixing in the element of human cruelty to muffle the voice of Romantic humanism through nature's strength.
Melville then targets Romantic ideology's ideal of noble humanism, now in disarray in the riots below:
All civil charms
And priestly spells which late held hearts in awe—
Fear-bound, subjected to a better sway
Than sway of self; these like a dream dissolve,
And man rebounds whole aeons back in nature.
The social structures that “late held hearts in awe” fell prey to the Romantic “sway of self,” specifically the primacy of the individual in nature. Through Romantic natural supernaturalism, “civil charms / And priestly spells” no longer hold hearts “Fear-bound.” Unfortunately, the loss of these restraints, which “like a dream dissolve,” awakens the narrator (and the besieged city) to the primal aspect of fearless humanity (i.e., the Romantic dream), which “rebounds whole aeons back in nature.” Subsequently, the Romantic “dream” of the primacy of the individual also dissolves in the mayhem. The controls of the pre-Romantic age prove “a better sway / Than sway of self,” as evident by the destruction below.
Robert Milder believes that Melville strives in Battle-Pieces to restructure this dangerous American dream. “America's pastoral serenity, it now appears, was only a sleep; the Civil War was a secular, historical catastrophe, not a divine judgment on the nation of a prelude to the millennium,” he writes (188). Melville thus holds man rather than God responsible for programming America on this destructive collision course with the inevitable consequences of its founding principles, an apocalyptic moment of “No sleep” in which America can “Sleep no more.”
Melville's realization of America's “sleep” may have been aided by Wordsworth. In Book III of The Excursion, Wordsworth sends the Solitary to America to rediscover the Romantic ideal after the fall of the French Revolution. Hoping to “behold a city / Fresh, youthful, and aspiring!”, the Solitary finds in America only “a motley spectacle / ... of high pretensions... / ... Big passions strutting on a petty stage” (III:884-885, 897-900). Discovering only “pretensions” pantomiming Romantic ideals “on a petty stage” rather than an active living of those ideals (again underscoring the theatricality of society), the Solitary bitterly decides to “Leave this unknit Republic to the scourge / Of her own passions” (III:914-915). Melville underscored the Solitary's last judgment on America in his edition of Wordsworth's poetry, lines that Heffernan feels “easily suggest the American Civil War” (340). This “unknit” America came wholly apart at the seams in the Civil War, exposing the naked passions beneath that made events such as the draft riots possible, particularly the brutality and racism covered over by the fabrication of supposedly civilized society.
Melville's speaker in “The House-top” reconstructs or re-knits society through a series of classical allusions:
Wise Draco comes, deep in the midnight roll
Of black artillery; he comes, though late;
In code corroborating Calvin's creed
And cynic tyrannies of honest kings;
He comes, nor parlies; and the Town, redeemed,
Gives thanks devout; nor, being thankful, heeds
The grimy slur on the Republic's faith implied,
Which holds that Man is naturally good,
And—more—is Nature's Roman, never to be scourged.
Against the “Republic's faith... which holds that Man is naturally good,” the narrator stacks up the beliefs of Draco and Calvin to the contrary. Only through stern measures placing the good of society before the rights of the individual, at least momentarily, can the “Town” and country be “redeemed,” just as the intervention of the Federal troops stopped the riots after all calls to enlightened reason had failed.
In this classical turn, Melville again takes his cue from Wordsworth in Book X of The Prelude, yet, as before, with a difference. After contemplating his Romantic humanism after the Parisian riots, Wordsworth considers “the other side” and “called to mind those truths / That are commonplaces of the schools— / (A theme for boys, too hackneyed for their sires,)” (X:191-193). Whereas Melville draws upon a figure of Classical restraint in Draco, Wordsworth recalls Harmodius, Aristogiton, and Brutus, three figures of liberation from tyranny (X:198-200). Against the larger backdrop of Classical law and communal constraint, Wordsworth characteristically chooses these liberators, who share not only his belief “that the godhead which is ours / Can never utterly be charmed or stilled” (X:203-204), but also his fate in having their revolts end tragically, with Brutus' fall being most famously rendered in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (thus circling back perhaps to the issue of theatricality cast up by the earlier allusion to Macbeth). Despite the failures of these liberators, Wordsworth clings to their example and his humanist ideals.
However, Wordsworth does admit that these liberators are “A theme for boys, too hackneyed for their sires.” Time has perhaps passed these ideals, made them childish things that a mature society must put aside or at least reconsider from a different, contemporary perspective, as Melville tries to do in “The House-top.” Melville agrees with Wordsworth's concluding statement “That nothing hath a natural right to last / But equity and reason; that all else / Meets foes irreconcilable, and at best / Lives only by a variety of disease” (X:205-208), but disagrees with Wordsworth's definition of “equity and reason.” For Melville, Romantic humanism tempered by a corrective amount of Draconianism seems the most equitable and reasonable mix, thus avoiding both the tyranny of the Parisian and New York mobs as well as the tyranny of repressive kings and governments. Where Wordsworth sees “foes irreconcilable,” Melville forsees a reconciliation of humanism and law that recovers humanist ideals from the excesses of revolutions gone awry. Wordsworth reaches a dead end, where society “lives only by a variety of disease,” whereas Melville recognizes that variety as the cure itself, namely through an adaptability that values the ends (a reconstructed faith in society) above the means (holding onto one’s faith in the imagination, nature, and the individual).
Melville returned to the issue of this fragile balance of Romanticism and Classicism in Billy Budd. Captain Vere seeks meaning in “books treating of actual men and events no matter of what era—history, biography, and unconventional writers like Montaigne, who, free from cant and convention, honestly and in the spirit of common sense philosophize upon realities. In this line of reading he found confirmation of his own more reserved thoughts...”(Billy Budd 62). Vere thus mixes Classical (through history and Classical biography) and Romantic (through Enlightenment writers such as Montaigne) to “honestly and in the spirit of common sense” judge the bloody “realities” of the French Revolution occurring at the same time as the events of Billy Budd. Vere's “common sense” arises from the common ground of law and humanism—the resolution of the conflict between social and individual necessities. Later, Melville reads Vere's mind regarding this battle between ideologies:
‘With mankind,’ he would say, ‘forms, measured forms, are everything; and this is the import couched in the story of Orpheus with his lyre spellbinding the wild denizens of the wood.’ And this he once applied to the disruption of forms going on across the Channel and the consequences thereof.Billy Budd 128
Vere sacrifices Billy Budd, who embodies the Romantic humanist ideal in both its individual goodness as well as its naivete before human evil (embodied by Claggart), to these “measured forms” to maintain order, ever mindful of “the disruption of forms going on across the Channel” in France “and the consequences thereof.” However, Budd's death haunts Vere to his deathbed as Vere questions his choice.
Melville's pedantic Vere speaks a language that the common person of the Romantic age, those speakers of the “language really used by men” that Wordsworth alludes to in his preface to Lyrical Ballads, cannot understand:
He seemed unmindful of the circumstance that to his bluff company such remote allusions, however pertinent they might really be, were altogether alien to men whose reading was mainly confined to the journals.Billy Budd 63
Unlike Vere, Melville recognized this language barrier in his poetic quest to reconstruct the American narrative. The ideal communicator thus becomes an “Orpheus,” artfully “spellbinding the wild denizens of the wood” through a combination of Romantic art and Classical form. Wordsworth used a language of Romantic nature and literature to reach the masses, targeting individuals by a deification of the individual, hoping thus to found a new communal ideal through individualism. In “The House-top,” however, Melville reveals the illusory aspect of that language and communal ideal (at least as an eternal, immutable ideal), an aspect Wordsworth himself may have also recognized but chose to disregard in order to hold his world together.
In the poem “The Coming Storm,” Melville articulates a new language of nature and literature beneath Wordsworth's formulation of that language. “The Coming Storm” refers to a painting owned by Edwin Booth, Shakespearean actor and brother of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Lincoln. Edwin Booth, as a theatrical artist, speaks the deeper language Melville seeks. In the poem, Melville imagines what drew Booth to the painting, speculating that it was “Presage dim— / Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere / Fixed him and fascinated here” (ll. 2-4). Booth draws meaning from the “shadowy sphere” of nature as represented in the painting rather than from nature directly, as Wordsworth would claim to do. “A demon-cloud like the mountain one” (l. 5) fills the painting, differing from a real cloud of nature, which it is only “like,” in the artistic meaning imposed upon it. In “Misgivings,” one of the earliest poems in Battle-Pieces, “storms are formed behind the storm we feel” (l. 13), creating the same sense of demonic presence “behind” yet separate from nature that Booth finds in the painting of “The Coming Storm.”
Booth reads literature with equally cognizant depth. Booth, who is “Shakespeare's pensive child,” “Never the lines had lightly scanned” (ll. 9-10). “The Hamlet in his heart” (l. 11) allows Booth to read the lessons of literature clearly without being blinded by the myth of the “natural” Shakespeare. Booth finds solace in literature and art even after his brother's act, because
No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakespeare's core;
That which we seek and shun is there—
Man's final lore.
In “Shakespeare’s core,” the height of human imagination, lies what Booth, Wordsworth, and Melville all “seek and shun,” namely “Man’s final lore” of evil inseparably paired with good within the human mind. “No utter surprise can come to him” that reaches this realization because such a recognition of the imagination’s power for good and ill and the unavoidable fact that the “disease” is also its own cure inoculates the individual from the shock of lost faith. Wordsworth saw the price of such depth of vision and deemed it too high, choosing instead to hold onto his liberal faith completely until in later years he became more conservative. “The Hamlet in” Melville’s “heart” questions and doubts but continues to search. Just as Hamlet used the players and the theater to uncover the truth, Melville will only use “Shakespeare’s core” to uncover the truth or transform it into more theater in an endless cycle of Wordsworthian retextualization. Wordsworth sees the “Hamlet” in his own heart as well when he ponders the fate of his faith in the French Revolution, but he is unable to embrace his inner “Hamlet” as fully as Melville does.
The glory of Battle-Pieces rests in an acceptance of this unflinching depth of vision. Whereas Wordsworth turned from harsh reality to the comforts of his textualized natural vision, Melville fully engages reality and deconstructs the textualized mythology in his path. In another poem from Battle-Pieces dealing with Lincoln's assassination, “The Martyr” (which immediately precedes “The Coming Storm”), Melville focuses not on the posthumous martyrizing and mythologizing of Lincoln, but rather on the response of the grieving public. The poem's subtitle reads, “Indicative of the passion of the people on the 15th of April, 1865.” Lincoln’s theatrical death (murdered in a theater by an actor during the performance of a play) may have proved an irresistible temptation to Wordsworth to transform the event into Shakespearean tragedy, but Melville resists this temptation. After paying brief homage to the recently developed popular picture of Lincoln as a Christ figure slain on Good Friday, Melville turns immediately to “the passion of the people.” Twice Melville expresses his fear of the public's response:
ll. 12-17 and 29-34
There is sobbing of the strong,
And a pall upon the land;
But the People in their weeping
Bare the iron hand:
Beware the People weeping
When they bare the iron hand.
The same public “iron hand” bared in the French Revolution's fall returns to threaten the South in Reconstruction as revenge for Lincoln's murder. Rather than transform the American scene into a theatrical stage, a passion play starring Lincoln as the slain Christ (and the South assuming the “blood curse” of the Jews), Melville strikes to its core to recognize the threat lurking beneath. “They have killed him, the Forgiver— / The Avenger takes his place,” Melville writes (ll. 20-21). To follow Lincoln's example, the way of “the Forgiver,” would be to excuse the South and embrace it back into the Union. However, instead of looking carefully at Lincoln's message, the North kills Lincoln, “the Forgiver,” again, now in spirit rather than body, re-envisioning his legacy as that of “the Avenger” revenging himself upon the rebellious South.
But Melville realized that even this deeper probing, this striking to “Shakespeare's core,” was but another vision, another narrative based in fallible language, albeit one without the immediate consequences of the Romantic vision. Melville thus came to see all conceptions of the American “reality” as the “pasteboard masks” that haunted Ahab in Moby-Dick. Melville echoes the final voice of “The Conflict of Convictions,” a poem that appears early in Battle-Pieces, while setting the tone for much of the work by stating that “Wisdom is vain” (l. 91), and never loses sight of the human vanity behind absolute answers. Perhaps Melville’s perception of this same human vanity in Wordsworth is what led him to call Wordsworth “that contemptable man (tho’ good poet, in his department)” (Sealts 10).
In another of Melville's poems from Battle-Pieces, “The Apparition,” Melville addresses this provisional nature of ideologies. The poem itself describes an actual collapse of a mine during the Civil War in which a mountain caved in upon itself. “Convulsions came; and, where the field / Long slept in pastoral green, / A goblin-mountain was upheaved,” Melville writes (ll. 1-3). This upheaval occurs “ere the eye could take it in, / Or mind could comprehension win” (ll. 8-9). When Melville's speaker finally does “comprehension win,” he concludes the following:
So, then, Solidity's a crust—
The core of fire below;
All may go well for many a year,
But who can think without a fear
Of horrors that happen so?
Although Wordsworth also likened revolution and violence to earthquakes and natural upheaval, Melville placed an emphasis on accepting these unavoidable events as a part of life. Rather than emphasizing acceptance, Melville considers the impact of even unavoidable events on the mind. “[W]ho can think without a fear / Of horrors that happen so?” he asks. Wordsworth strives to think of the French Revolution in a way free from fear of such horror, whereas Melville strives for a way of accepting this fear without being paralyzed by it.
The seeming "Solidity" of Wordsworth's Romantic "pastoral green" was merely "a crust" covering over "The core of fire below," embodied first by the bloodshed of the French Revolution and later by that of the Civil War, including the draft riots of "The House-top." Melville could replace that lost solidity with a newly formed "crust" of faith, but the realization that all solidity is illusory coexists with that new faith in Melville's mind. This coexistence harks back to Hawthorne’s insight that Melville “can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” Although "All may go well for many a year," as it has to varying degrees in America up to the Civil War, Melville cannot "think without a fear" that such "horrors" of human cruelty can return. Wordsworth also fears such a return, a new revolution and potential for violence, but he cannot accept that fear without bringing his imagination to bear on it, transforming it into something he can live with.
Even in his later years, Melville could not comfortably believe or disbelieve, whereas Wordsworth eventually became comfortable with his apostasy of liberalism. Melville kept his adaptable faith in the imaginative ideal even when his country failed him in the Civil War and language itself failed him in his failing literary career. Melville kept adapting, perhaps motivated by this search for answers to move from prose to poetry in later years. The poetic frameworks of The Prelude and Battle-Pieces may illustrate these differences best. Wordsworth’s Prelude is an epic in blank verse, reaching back into literary tradition and the history of faith in the imagination. Battle-Pieces is a collection of small pieces, often irregular in meter, stanza structure, and rhyme scheme, alluding back to that same history of faith in the imagination, particularly Wordsworth’s role, but also looking forward for new ways of asking old questions for a new day. Melville is modern not only in his quest to “make it new,” but also in his quest to “make it now,” i.e., fitted to his contemporary situation and the new challenges it posed.
Wordsworth also strives to “make it now” for his time, but when facing the “apparition” of ideological permanance he sees emptiness where Melville sees a range of possibility. Both Wordsworth and Melville feel an overwhelming responsibility to write in a way that addresses the needs of their times. Wordsworth sees his duty in a reiteration of Romantic ideals, albeit de-politicized ideals, to maintain some continuity after the cataclysm of the French Revolution. Conversely, Melville sees his duty in the disruption of Romantic continuity, not in a total break but rather in a conscious departure from answers no longer valid for his age. Wordsworth tells his own story again, fearful that in selecting another all hope will be lost. Learning from Wordsworth and the French Revolution’s example, Melville can clearly see from his different historical perspective the futility of repeating that same tale and instead tells a new story, fearlessly, selectively, and creatively picking and choosing from old beliefs in a rescue mission of the American narrative.
Melville's rewriting of the American narrative stands foremost in one of the last poems of Battle-Pieces, “Lee in the Capitol.” After the war, Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Southern armies, appeared before the Reconstruction Committee of Congress. After Lee answered a few questions, the committee asked if he had any further comments. “Waiving this invitation,” Melville writes in a note to the poem, “he responded by a short personal explanation of some point in a previous answer, and, after a few more brief questions and replies, the interview closed” (Battle-Pieces 291). In the poem itself, however, Lee delivers an eloquent, lengthy monologue asking for understanding and friendship during Southern Reconstruction. “In the verse a poetical liberty has been ventured,” Melville explains in his self-admitted rewriting of history (Battle-Pieces 291). Melville thus literally puts words into Lee's mouth, using the same “poetical liberty” he employs to put words into the mouths of Americans to save the nation. This liberty arises directly from Melville's recognition that ideological “Solidity's a crust,” to be built and rebuilt as need dictates. Lee almost becomes a Shakespearean character, delivering a dramatic monologue that uses the power of the imagination without losing sight of post-bellum reality. For the dramatized Lee, the Reconstruction was also a time to “Sleep no more.”
Melville recognized the most pressing need of America after the Civil War to be the execution of Reconstruction in the spirit of “the Forgiver” rather than “the Avenger.” Melville dedicates the prose “Supplement” that closes Battle-Pieces to the mission of Reconstruction, not only of the South but also of the United States. “Were I fastidiously anxious for the symmetry of this book, it would close with the notes,” Melville writes to begin the “Supplement.” “But the times are such that patriotism—not free from solicitude—urges a claim overriding all literary scruples” (Battle-Pieces 196). Charged with the “overriding” claim of ideological reconstruction of his country, Melville casts all rules of “symmetry” (the same “forms, measured forms” that allow Vere to sacrifice Billy Budd) and “literary scruples” to the winds in his single-minded devotion, pushing further away from old forms in his new conception of democracy.
“There seems no reason why patriotism and narrowness should go together,” Melville continues. “Yet the work of Reconstruction, if admitted to be feasible at all, demands little but common sense and Christian charity. Little but these? These are much” (196). For Melville to appeal to “common sense and Christian charity” is astounding in the context of his life-long questioning of both human nature and religious faith. Melville casts these age-old concepts into the ideological breech, foregoing his own personal “narrowness” to open up America to the possibilities of a reconception of what “common sense and Christian charity” mean. Melville wants the public to reach for the same “core” as in “The Coming Storm” (i.e., the “Shakespeare's core” of deeper meaning, albeit still an ideological convention) in order to avoid the “core of fire” of “The Apparition,” the same chaotic “core” that helped ignite the “red Arson—there—and there” of “The House-top.” Taken at face value, these old ideals are “little.” But taken at a deeper level, these old ideals become new again, becoming “much” as Americans reinvest their faith and awake from their long ideological sleep. Jane Donahue believes that “Melville's theory of history is cyclic, with classicism at the top of each turn of the wheel and romanticism its inevitable decline”(71). Melville may not necessarily see history as cyclic, but he does see a decline in Romanticism requiring solutions steeped in Classicism, albeit a “new age” Classicism.
In Book XI of the 1850 Prelude, titled “France—Concluded,” Wordsworth strikes a note similar to Melville’s new, pragmatic approach that may have even been the impetus for Melville’s revising vision. In Book XI, Wordsworth allows himself to be “somewhat stern / In temperament, withal a happy man, / And therefore bold to look on painful things” (XI:275-276). “Stern” in his judgment of his previous faith, and “happy” in that new sternness, Wordsworth is emboldened to look on “painful things,” including the French Revolution, with fresh, critical eyes. “I summoned my best skill,” Wordsworth continues, “and toiled, intent / To anatomise the frame of social life, / Yea, the whole body of society / Searched to its heart” (XI:279-282). Wordsworth plays doctor for society, cutting like a surgeon to the heart of the problem. Next, he plays judge and jury, “Dragging all precepts, judgments, maxims, creeds, / Like culprits to the bar;… / … now believing, / Now disbelieving” (XI:294-295). Wordsworth calls into question all the preconceptions he has about society, “demanding formal proof” (XI:301). Here, Wordsworth is the empiricist, working without the safety net of theory, of his faith in the imagination, until he can stand it no longer and loses “All feeling of conviction” (XI:303). “Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,” Wordsworth finally “Yielded up moral questions in despair” (XI:304-305).
Wordsworth makes a valiant effort to solve these moral questions, but his faith in his critical methodology falters and he can only resort to his earlier faith in the imagination. Melville never yields in his questioning, whereas Wordsworth yields at the moment that he demands “formal proof.” Although Wordsworth goes far in his questioning, he ultimately falls back on his belief that the imagination can find some ideal that is provable, that gives a solid foundation for his belief. Armed with an understanding of the illusory nature of all “proof” and a willingness to hold on to that idea to the very end, Melville picks up the baton left by Wordsworth and carries it further. Certainly Melville would not have traveled as far without Wordsworth’s example, and his historical perspective allowed him to continue this relay race of imaginative literature dealing with societal reality. Wordsworth’s leg of the race is courageous in striving without the ability to deal with the “contrarieties” that finally “weary” him. Melville’s stretch of the race is courageous in accepting the challenge of similar “contrarieties” while recognizing that different times call for different questions.
Books XII and XIII of the 1850 Prelude are titled and deal mainly with “Imagination and Taste, How Impaired and Restored.” Wordworth’s faith in his imagination was impaired by the fall of his ideals in the French Revolution and he turned back to that imagination to restore it. Turning back to the imagination, Wordsworth finds “Once more in Man an object of delight, / Of pure imagination, and of love” (XIII:49-50). Humanity becomes a creature of “pure imagination” as Wordsworth finds “the horizon of” his “mind enlarged” and he takes “the intellectual eye / For” his “instructor” (XIII:51-53). Wordsworth’s vision enlarges from a vision of everyday, politicized particulars to an intellectualized, “big picture” view in which he handles only “Great truths, than touch and handle little ones” (XIII:54). Unable to reconcile the “Great truths” of his faith in the imagination with the “little ones” such as human fallibility, Wordsworth chooses to see only the “Great” ones. Living in England, far from France, Wordsworth may have had the luxury to make this choice in truths, but Melville did not have that same luxury if he chose to continue to live in America as an important voice. “[C]ommon sense and Christian charity. Little but these? These are much,” Melville would have responded, defending small ideals as being as important as big ones, as he did in the “Supplement.” Unlike Wordsworth, Melville cannot watch “[t]he promise of the present time retired / Into its true proportion” (XIII:59-60), because he believes that the “promise” of America has not yet been completely broken and that “its true proportion” is all-encompassing, at least for his time.
Melville goes back to basics, the “little” truths, to resurrect the American ideal, but dictates how these basics are to be used in the post-war age. If these ideals should have failed, Melville was empowered to write new ones, endlessly experimenting in the spirit of the original American experiment of 1776. All of Battle-Pieces, but especially the “Supplement,” act as Melville's “Declaration of Independence” not only from former social progress interrupted, but also from all future stagnation resulting from blind adherence to any ideal. Robert Milder writes that “the idealism behind the war suggested [to Melville] that America might yet be receptive to appeals for a higher national character” (Milder 196), a character Melville planned to play a part in writing, beginning with Battle-Pieces. Unfortunately, the American public ignored Melville's “Declaration,” choosing instead to stumble along the path of a troubled Reconstruction that has (mis)shaped America to today.
Despite his yielding to the questions of his day, Wordsworth does recognize the power of a poet in each age:
…Poets, even as Prophets, each with each
Connected in a mighty scheme of truth,
Have each his own peculiar faculty,
Heaven’s gift, a sense that fits him to perceive
Objects unseen before, thou wilt not blame
The humblest of this band who dares to hope
That unto him hath also been vouchsafed
An insight that in some sort he possesses,
A privilege whereby a work of his,
Proceeding from a source of untaught things
Creative and enduring, may become
A power like one of Nature’s. To a hope
Not less ambitious once among the wilds
Of Sarum’s Plain, my youthful spirit was raised…
Perhaps these words encouraged Melville to see that “power” within himself to be a “Prophet” as well as a “Poet” and connect with the “mighty scheme of truth” that Wordsworth once shared in, but with “his own peculiar faculty” to call his age to a new beginning. Melville “dares to hope” that he has the right “insight” (an insight gained in part from Wordsworth’s example) and accepts this insight as not only a “privilege” but also a duty.
Thus, Melville began the same journey towards a pragmatic philosophy that was completed by younger men after the Civil War (as examined by Louis Menand in his The Metaphysical Club). Just as the Enlightenment was the philosophy of Wordsworth’s age, and may not have been possible in any other age, the pragmatism of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that Melville prophesies in Battle-Pieces was an idea that had to find its proper time. Ironically, as shown by its contemporary reception, Melville’s message to his era was ahead of its time.
In 1869, Melville marked, in a book by Matthew Arnold, lines copied from the 1850 Prelude, in which Wordsworth muses on Newton’s statue at Cambridge: “The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone” (III:62-63). As shown in “The House-top” and throughout Battle-Pieces, Melville clearly saw a fellow voyager in Wordsworth and, buoyed by the older poet’s example as something to be followed as well as to be built upon, never was alone.
I thank Evan Radcliffe of Villanova University for his perceptive criticisms, tireless reading, and continued support of my research for this paper.
All quotes of The Prelude are from the 1850 version. All other quotations from Wordsworth are from William Wordsworth: The Oxford Authors.
See Michael Davitt Bell, "The Glendinning Heritage: Melville's Literary Borrowings in Pierre," John Hall, "The Non-correspondent Breeze: Melville's Rewriting of Wordsworth in Pierre," and Maxine Moore, "Melville's Pierre and Wordsworth: Intimations of Immorality."
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