rainy

The Chipmunk

Stock-still I stand,
And him I see
Prying, peeping
From Beech-tree;
Crickling, crackling
Gleefully!

I don’t think most people would associate this short, light poem with the novelist Herman Melville, its author. I like Melville’s writing. A lot of people don’t. Generally, he is not an easy read. He gets praise for Moby Dick, but even that novel was a commercial failure in his time.

He had some early success with his tales of sailing and exotic natives on distant islands. But every succeeding book seemed to sell less and finally with the publication of the satiric Pierre in 1852, it must have seemed like the end for him. The fame would come after his death.

melville-stampHe never stopped writing. He still got published – a Revolutionary War novel, Israel Potter,  a few years later and stories in magazines. Some of those late stories are still read today (“Bartleby, the Scrivener,” “The Encantadas,” and “Benito Cereno.” These and three other stories were collected in 1856 as The Piazza Tales. sales were poor.

He had been friends with fellow author Nathaniel Hawthorne when moved his family to Arrowhead, a farm near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1850. My reading of that relationship is that Melville considered Hawthorne a close friend, but Hawthorne didn’t see it as being very close. He dedicated Moby-Dick to Hawthorne They met up again in 1857 when he was in England.

Melville made a tour of the Near East. He had The Confidence-Man, a novel I like, published in 1857, and that was the last prose work he published during his lifetime.

He moved to New York. He took a regular job as a Customs Inspector. He wrote poetry. A few books of it were published. Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War was about the morality of war, particularly the Civil War, and his trip to the Holy Land inspired the poems in Clarel. The latter was a metaphysical epic. I find most of the poetry impenetrable and not enjoyable – and I am not the average reader because I actually read books of poetry.

“To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme,” Melville, Moby-Dick

When Herman Melville died, on September 28th, 1891, he was working on that small chipmunk poem above. He had spent the last 25 years being a private citizen. And he wrote poems. But he was a commercial failure as a poet.

As he got older, he went from mighty themes and grand language to simplicity.

Through an orchard I follow
Two children in glee.
From an apple-tree’s hollow
They startle the bee.

Melville was 72 and pretty much anonymous when he died in Manhattan. But I would like to believe that in his simple poems in the last years, he found some peace. No need to publish. No big themes.

Six days a week, he walked west across lower Manhattan to his job along the Hudson River (then known as the North River) to earn a fixed salary of four dollars a day. He walked home in the evening, and after dinner, wrote poems.

Soft as the morning
When South winds blow,
Sweet as peach-orchards
When blossoms are seen,
Pure as a fresco
Of roses and snow,
Or an opal serene.

On a chilly, rainy, autumn day like today in 2001, I tried walking Melville’s New York City.  I was going through a pretty bad depression. Unfortunately, in that state of mind, people often drag themselves deeper. I don’t know why I thought that walking by the bay at the Battery I might commune with the spirits of Melville or Walt Whitman and that would somehow make things better.

I stopped at Trinity Church in the neighborhood of Bartleby’s Wall Street. It was empty and cold.

I walked past 97 Nassau Street where Melville had frequented Gowan’s Antiquarian Bookstore. It is supposed that he “probably exchanged pleasantries with Edgar Allan Poe, whom he had met through their mutual editor. On one visit, Melville bought an edition of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy which, he discovered at a later time, had once belonged to his father’s library.”

Melancholy – that feeling of pensive sadness, with no obvious cause.  Melville knew it too. He may have written through it sometimes.

Ah, Love, when life closes,
Dying the death of the just,
May we vie with Hearth-Roses,
Smelling sweet in our dust.

When he died, there were several dozen unpublished poems on his desk. They are about roses and irises, bluebirds and chipmunks, the Berkshires and dreams.They have been published as Weeds and Wildings, with a Rose or Two.

I suspect critics would not think much of these last poems. I suspect that Melville didn’t care.

dead-rose

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