Herman Melville discussion

O Captain! My Captain!

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message 1: by Frederick (new)

Frederick In Chapter 132 of MOBY-DICK, "The Symphony," Starbuck pleads with Ahab to turn the ship around instead of chasing Moby-Dick:
"Oh, my Captain! my Captain! noble soul! grand old heart, after all! why should any one give chase to that hated fish! Away with me! let us fly these deadly waters! let us home! Wife and child, too, are Starbuck's--wife and child of his brotherly, sisterly, play-fellow youth; even as thine, sir, are the wife and child of thy loving, paternal old age! Away! let us away!--this instant let me alter the course! How cheerily, how hilariously, O my Captain, would we bowl on our way to see old Nantucket again! I think, sir, they have some such mild blue days, even as this, in Nantucket."
MOBY-Dick, of course, was published in 1851. Lincoln was shot in 1865, the Civil War having just ended the week before, with the Union preserved. While one doesn't often think maritime thoughts in regard to the Civil War, one man who certainly would have heard of Melville and who know the Manhattoes, wrote this after Lincoln's assassination:
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung--for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths--for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

In MOBY-DICK, Ahab pays a bit of lip service to Starbuck's pleading, but doesn't turn the ship around. Disaster ensues. In "O Captain! My Captain!," great disaster has indeed been averted by the captain, but Starbuck's successor still pleads, because disaster has come to the captain himself. The effect of melville's passage and Whitman's poem is similar. The pleading falls on deaf ears in either case.
Was Whitman echoing Melville or is there a source from which both Melville and Whitman drew? I have a strong feeling Whitman had been profoundly moved by the Melville passage; a passage which would appeal to a man so capable of hero-worship as Whitman. (A man as devoutly egalitarian as Whitman had to have a hero, and Lincoln was unquestionably a hero to him. I imagine he had tremendous respect for Melville.)
I've reproduced Melville's and Whitman's punctuation (even though I can't indent on a computer, so had to forgo getting Whitman's stanzas properly indented) and I notice that Whitman and Melville both have exclamation points followed by words beginning with lowercase letters. Earlier in the Melville chapter, Ahab says, "God! God! God!--crack my heart!" Whitman says:
"But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red." We get a word repeated three times in a row with an exclamation point with each repetition, and a reference to a heart.
Was Whitman reaching out to a literary hero at a moment of grief over the death of a father-figure?

message 2: by Michael (last edited Sep 04, 2008 08:02AM) (new)

Michael Interesting post, Fred. I'm a pretty big Whitman fan, and don't remember any references in Whitman's biographies that indicate Walt knew of Herman's work (even they both were in Manhattan at the same time). If there is some evidence that Walt knew Herman's work, you make a interesting parallel in your post. What a thought to know that two of my nineteenth century literary heroes were reading each other!


message 3: by Frederick (new)

Frederick Hey, Michael,

It seems to me I have read that Whitman reviewed one of Melville's books. I can't remember which book it was. It may be that he mentioned it in a diary. But I feel quite certain he notes somewhwere that he liked the book.
Whether Melville was aware of Whitman is another matter altogether.

message 4: by Hershel (new)

Hershel Parker | 11 comments Whitman is thought to have reviewed OMOO, at least. Melville, dammit, knew a lot about Whitman but we don't know just what he thought. Stedman, in a phrasing that makes you want to shake him, writes to HM: "As you said so much of Whitman"--as HM said so much, Stedman was sending his chapter on WW to Melville!!! But he does not say what HM said. HM says polite things in letters to English admirers after Buchanan's Socrates in Camden was published, but what he says of WW is non-specific. HM's bro in law Hoadley had a first of LofG and had Drum-Taps. Whitman and Melville were mentioned together in reviews of Battle-Pieces a few times. It is tantalizing. Whitman was in at least one anthology HM had access to. Whitman was in magazines that HM almost surely saw. There is no doubt that HM knew a lot about him--otherwise he would not have said "so much" to Stedman. But oh what did he say? And where in CLAREL, say, can you see any influence? It's a puzzlement, folks, still.

message 5: by Frederick (new)

Frederick Check it out:

Whitman said this (and this can be found by Googling the phrase, "Walt Whitman + Omoo"):

Omoo, the new work (Harpers, pub.) by Mr. Melville, author of Typee, affords two well printed volumes of the most readable sort of reading. The question whether these stories be authentic or not has, of course, not so much to do with their interest. One can revel in such richly good natured style, if nothing else. We therefore recommend this "narrative of adventures in the south seas," as thorough entertainment -- not so light as to be tossed aside for its flippancy, nor so profound as to be tiresome. All books have their office -- and this a very side one. --Walt Whitman, in Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 5 1847

message 6: by Frederick (new)

Frederick Here's the link to the review of OMOO which Whitman wrote (or which is attributed to him):
It's under the subheading "Contemporary Criticism and Reviews."

message 7: by Michael (last edited Sep 11, 2008 08:14AM) (new)

Michael Hershel,
Well, now, for sure, I'm going to read your bio on HM! I was talking to some fellow admirers of Melville, and they all said, "If you love Melville, you HAVE to read Hershel Parker!"

I agree that it's sooooo frustrating not to know what HM said to Stedman about Whitman. I'm not as familiar with HM's poetry as I'd like to be, but my "uninformed" opinion is that HM's style and poetics seems very different from WW's (I admit I could be totally off-base here).

So what do others think: wouldn't it be fun just to speculate on what HM might have said about WW's poetry????? Did HM see WW's poetry as "light" or "arrogant", etc. I know a lot of critics at the time thought WW was vulgar and base, etc. I wonder if HM might also have seen WW as one of Emerson's disciples and read his poetry in the light of Transcendentalism??

Any "fun" speculations (or "imaginings") on what HM might have said to Stedman about WW?

message 8: by Roni (new)

Roni | 1 comments Thank you so much, F.!
When I heard this phrase (as wonderfully read by Librivox.org volunteer) I was sure there was a connection, and was so glad to find you post on the subject!

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