one of Herman Melville’s last and most touching poems

 

 

 

Monody

by Herman Melville

 

To have known him, to have loved him

after loneness long;

And then to be estranged in life,

And neither in the wrong;

And now for death to set his seal—

Ease me, a little ease, my song!

 

 

By wintry hills his hermit-mound

The sheeted snow-drifts drape,

And houseless there the snow-bird flits

Beneath the fir-trees’ crape:

Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine

That hid the shyest grape.

 

 

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monody — a poem lamenting a person’s death.

 

 

 

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Herman Melville devoted many years after the publication of his last novel, The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade, in 1857 to writing poetry.

Melville’s poetry is regarded as being difficult, and I have little aptitude for reading poetry to begin with.

Nevertheless, I like his poem “Monody.” It moves me.

I always thought it was about Melville’s fellow writer and friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “the shyest grape.” That is what most scholars seem to think.

Melville scholar Andrew Delbanco suggests it could also be about Melville’s son Malcolm Melville, who died in 1867 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, apparently a suicide. I don’t think Delbanco is right, but his observation is worth noting.

I would note, in support of the majority view, that:

“[S]hyest grape seems to be a reference to Hawthorne.

“[C]loistral vine” suggests the character Vine in Melville’s epic poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Vine has been said to be based on Hawthorne.

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

     September 2016

 

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Addendum:

 

“Monody” was included in Timoleon and Other Ventures in Minor Verse, a collection of forty-two poems by Melville that was privately published in May 1891, four months before his death. Timoleon was printed by the Caxton Press in an edition of 25 copies. It was the last work by Melville published during his life.

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts a websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin.
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