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Herman Melville


Herman Melville was born on August 1, 1819. After his father's death, Melville attempted to support his family by working various jobs, from banking to teaching school. It was his adventures as a seaman in 1845 that inspired Melville to write. On one voyage, he was captured and held for several months. When he returned, friends encouraged Melville to write about his experience. Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (Wiley and Putnam, 1846) became his first literary success; the continuation of his adventures appeared in his second book, Omoo (Harper & Brothers, 1847).

After ending his seafaring career, Melville read voraciously. In 1847, he married Elizabeth Shaw and moved first to New York and then the Berkshires. He lived near writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who became a close friend and confidant. Melville penned Mardi and a Voyage Thither, a philosophical allegory, and Redburn: His First Voyage (Harper & Brothers, 1849), a comedy. Although the latter proved a financial success, Melville immediately returned to the symbolic in his next novel, White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War (Harper & Brothers, 1850). In 1851, he completed his masterpiece, Moby-Dick, or the Whale (Harper & Brothers). Considered by modern scholars to be one of the great American novels, the book was dismissed by Melville's contemporaries and he made little from the effort. The other two novels that today form the core of the Melville canon—Pierre; or the Ambiguities (Harper & Brothers, 1852) and The Confidence Man (Dix, Edwards & Co., 1857)—met a similar fate.

During the 1850s, Melville supported his family by farming and writing stories for magazines. He traveled to Europe in 1856, where he saw his friend Hawthorne for the last time. During that visit, it was clear to Melville that his novel-writing career was finished. In 1857, after returning to New York still unnoticed by the literary public, he stopped writing fiction. He became a customs inspector, a job he held for twenty years, and began to write poetry.

The Civil War made a deep impression on Melville and became the principal subject of his verse. With so many family members participating in various aspects of the war, Melville found himself intimately connected to it. He observed the Senate's debating secession during a visit to Washington D.C. in 1861, and made a trip to the front with his brother in 1864. Melville's first published book of poems was Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War: Civil War Poems (Harper & Brothers, 1866). The volume is regarded by many critics as a work as ambitious and rich as any of his novels. He went on to write and publish three more volumes of poetry, including Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage (G. P. Putnam & Co., 1876), to little acclaim. 

Melville died of a heart attack on September 28, 1891, at the age of 72. During the week of his death, The New York Times wrote: "There has died and been buried in this city…a man who is so little known, even by name, to the generation now in the vigor of life that only one newspaper contained an obituary account of him, and this was but of three or four lines." It wasn't until the 1920s that the literary public began to recognize Melville as one of America's greatest writers.

Selected Bibliography


Timoleon (Caxton Press, 1891)
John Marr and Other Sailors (Privately published, 1888)
Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage (G. P. Putnam & Co., 1876)
Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War: Civil War Poems (Harper & Brothers, 1866)


The Confidence Man (Dix, Edwards & Co., 1857)
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile (G. P. Putnam & Co., 1855)
Pierre; or the Ambiguities (Harper & Brothers, 1852)
Moby-Dick, or the Whale (Harper & Brothers, 1851)
White-Jacket; or, the World in a Man-of-War (Harper & Brothers, 1850)
Mardi: and a Voyage Thither (Harper & Brothers, 1849)
Redburn: His First Voyage (Harper & Brothers, 1849)
Omoo (Harper & Brothers, 1847)
Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (Wiley and Putnam, 1846)

Herman Melville

By This Poet




Where the wings of a sunny Dome expand
I saw a Banner in gladsome air—
Starry, like Berenice's Hair—
Afloat in broadened bravery there;
With undulating long-drawn flow,
As rolled Brazilian billows go
Voluminously o'er the Line.
The Land reposed in peace below;
   The children in their glee
Were folded to the exulting heart
   Of young Maternity.


Later, and it streamed in fight
   When tempest mingled with the fray,
And over the spear-point of the shaft
   I saw the ambiguous lightning play.
Valor with Valor strove, and died:
Fierce was Despair, and cruel was Pride;
And the lorn Mother speechless stood,
Pale at the fury of her brood.


Yet later, and the silk did wind
        Her fair cold for;
Little availed the shining shroud,
   Though ruddy in hue, to cheer or warm
A watcher looked upon her low, and said—
She sleeps, but sleeps, she is not dead.
   But in that sleep contortion showed
The terror of the vision there—
   A silent vision unavowed,
Revealing earth's foundation bare,
   And Gorgon in her hidden place.
It was a thing of fear to see
   So foul a dream upon so fair a face,
And the dreamer lying in that starry shroud.


But from the trance she sudden broke—
The trance, or death into promoted life;
At her feet a shivered yoke,
And in her aspect turned to heaven
   No trace of passion or of strife—
A clear calm look. It spake of pain,
But such as purifies from stain—
Sharp pangs that never come again—
   And triumph repressed by knowledge meet,
Power delicate, and hope grown wise,
   And youth matured for age's seat—
Law on her brow and empire in her eyes.
   So she, with graver air and lifted flag;
While the shadow, chased by light,
Fled along the far-brawn height,
   And left her on the crag.


O Pride of the days in prime of the months
  Now trebled in great renown,
When before the ark of our holy cause
	Fell Dagon down-
Dagon foredoomed, who, armed and targed,
Never his impious heart enlarged
Beyond that hour; God walled his power,
And there the last invader charged.

He charged, and in that charge condensed
  His all of hate and all of fire;
He sought to blast us in his scorn,
	And wither us in his ire.
Before him went the shriek of shells-
Aerial screamings, taunts and yells;
Then the three waves in flashed advance
  Surged, but were met, and back they set:
Pride was repelled by sterner pride,
  And Right is a strong-hold yet.

Before our lines it seemed a beach
  Which wild September gales have strown
With havoc on wreck, and dashed therewith
	Pale crews unknown-
Men, arms, and steeds. The evening sun
Died on the face of each lifeless one,
And died along the winding marge of fight
	And searching-parties lone.

Sloped on the hill the mounds were green,
  Our centre held that place of graves,
And some still hold it in their swoon,
  And over these a glory waves.
The warrior-monument, crashed in fight,
Shall soar transfigured in loftier light,
	A meaning ampler bear;
Soldier and priest with hymn and prayer
Have laid the stone, and every bone
	Shall rest in honor there.

Shiloh: A Requiem

Skimming lightly, wheeling still,
  The swallows fly low
Over the field in clouded days,
  The forest-field of Shiloh—
Over the field where April rain
Solaced the parched ones stretched in pain
through the pause of night
That followed the Sunday fight
  Around the church of Shiloh—
The church so lone, the log-built one,
That echoed to many a parting groan
 	And natural prayer
  Of dying foemen mingled there—
Foemen at morn, but friends at eve—
  Fame or country least their care:
(What like a bullet can undeceive!)
  But now they lie low,
While over them the swallows skim,
  And all is hushed at Shiloh.

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