Melville’s “Monody”: Probably for Hawthorne

Some time in the last few decades of his life, Herman Melville wrote a short poem, “Monody,” in which a speaker mourns a man whom he loved but became estranged from. In 1929, the critic Lewis Mumford claimed that the poem was an elegy for Hawthorne, who died in 1864. In 1960, the scholar Walter Bezanson strengthened the case by noting that the character Vine in Melville’s epic poem Clarel resembles Hawthorne in many ways, and that the vine-and-grape imagery that surrounds Vine echoes, or is echoed by, an image of a vine and grape in the closing lines of “Monody.” The identification became an established piece of lore among Melville scholars until 1990, when the editor and scholar Harrison Hayford cast doubt on it in “Melville’s ‘Monody’: Really for Hawthorne?” a pamphlet distributed as a keepsake along with the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel, which Hayford co-edited.

I don’t remember when exactly I first read Hayford’s pamphlet, but it was over a decade ago, and I remember that I read it quickly and that it made me angry. Quickly, because although the last chapter of my book American Sympathy, which I must then have been either writing or revising, was concerned with Melville and homosexual eros, it wasn’t much concerned with Melville’s biography. I was hardly averse to his biography—I had drawn on details of Melville’s life in an earlier essay—but one of the ideas I had about American Sympathy was that the book would progress from biography to literature: the first chapter would discuss a set of diaries and letters, and the last would be an interpretation of Billy Budd conducted on a plane of empyrean detachment from the dross of history. It didn’t turn out that neatly, of course, but officially I wasn’t in the market for learning new facts about Melville’s life, so I read quickly. I became angry, because, despite the haste of my reading, it seemed to me that the aim of Hayford’s pamphlet was to bury a piece of the evidence for Melville’s sexuality as manifested in his writing.

Another reason I read quickly was that I wasn’t then in any position fully to evaluate Hayford’s claim, because I couldn’t evaluate Bezanson’s, because I hadn’t yet read Clarel. I shamefacedly report that it is only now, in August of 2010, that I am at last filling this lacuna in my formation as a Melvillean. (More on Clarel another day, perhaps; I seem to have filled a small notebook with notes already, and I’m only two-thirds through the 500-page poem.) In the back of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel is a version of Hayford’s essay about “Monody,” which abridges Hayford’s argument about the Hawthorne identification but gives a more detailed description of Melville’s manuscript of “Monody,” which survives in Harvard’s Houghton Library. Calmer than I was a decade ago, and also a veteran of journalism, I was impressed, in reading the Clarel version of Hayford’s essay, by his careful use of the available facts—such caution is not always exercised by literary critics. For about ten dollars I bought a copy of his pamphlet from an online bookseller and re-read it last week. I now see that it’s a useful essay, which distinguishes what’s known from what has been speculated, but I don’t think I was entirely wrong in my more emotional reaction a decade ago, because there is something slightly disingenuous about it rhetorically, and it may be worth while to try to spell out why.

“Monody” runs as follows:

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-tree’s crape:
Glazed now with ice the cloistral vine
That hid the shyest grape.

Hayford points out that no evidence proves that Hawthorne is the object of this poem’s lament, though the mistakes of scholars have sometimes given the impression that such evidence exists. Hayford is assiduous about clearing this scholarly underbrush away. In speculating about the friendship between Hawthorne and Melville, for example, Mumford claimed that Hawthorne’s story “Ethan Brand” depicted Melville, and that Melville was upset by the portrait. In fact, Hayford points out, “Ethan Brand” was published before Melville and Hawthorne ever met.

That’s an obvious blunder, but not all Hayford’s corrections are of errors so black-and-white. Melville and Hawthorne became famously close in 1850 and 1851, while they were not-quite-neighbors in western Massachusetts and while Melville was finishing Moby-Dick. In the fall of 1851, however, Hawthorne abruptly left. Biographer Brenda Wineapple has suggested that Hawthorne wanted to be closer to Boston, to position himself strategically for his friend Franklin Pierce’s 1852 presidential campaign, but some biographers of Melville have speculated that Melville came on too strong, emotionally or perhaps even sexually, and frightened Hawthorne off. If so, then the phrase “estranged in life” in line 3 of “Monody” might point to Hawthorne. Hayford, however, insists quite rightly that Hawthorne and Melville exchanged uniformly warm letters in this period, that Hawthorne’s references to Melville in his letters and journals throughout his life were nothing but kind, and that when Melville visited the Hawthornes in Liverpool in 1856, Hawthorne wrote that “we soon found ourselves on pretty much our former terms of sociability and confidence.” There isn’t “the slightest documentary confirmation,” Hayford writes, of what he calls “the rupture hypothesis.”

To which anyone who’s been around the block might answer: Well, yes and no. When you realize that someone isn’t going to reciprocate your love, you don’t necessarily stop talking to each other. As Robert Milder wrote in “Editing Melville’s Afterlife,” a 1996 review of Hayford’s pamphlet for the journal Text, “‘estrangement’ might . . . imply a slow but perceptible emotional distancing.” In 1852, Melville’s letters to Hawthorne do grow cooler. It’s dangerous to read literature back into biography, but there’s an awful lot of literary evidence pointing to something biographical happening between the two men. In Melville’s Clarel, the hero yearns for Vine, widely thought to represent Hawthorne, imploring him, “Give me thyself!” In Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, the narrator rejects the overtures of the burly Hollingsworth, who is often said to represent Melville. And Hawthorne’s 1856 reference to “our former terms of sociability and confidence” is ambiguous: Hawthorne was saying that the 1856 visit went well, but he was also acknowledging that he and Melville were no longer as close as they had been.

When the scholar Jay Leyda printed “Monody” in The Melville Log (1951), a two-volume compilation of documentary sources about Melville, he was so persuaded by the Hawthorne identification that he placed the first stanza of “Monody” below the May 19, 1864 entry for Hawthorne’s death. In Melville’s manuscript, the two stanzas appear on separate pieces of paper, with different inks and different paper, and Leyda thought the second stanza must have been composed later. Hayford, ever a stickler, writes that Leyda was wrong on both counts. Indeed, nothing but speculation linked the dates of the composition of “Monody” and Hawthorne’s death, though Leyda’s reputation for impartiality and documentary style was to convince many scholars otherwise. The different inks and papers of the manuscript proved only that the two stanzas were inscribed at different times, not that they were composed at different times. In fact, Hayford continued, if the stanzas were composed at the same time, as he suspected, then “Monody” couldn’t be about Hawthorne at all, because there couldn’t have been any snow on Hawthorne’s grave in May.

“Hayford’s reasoning is faultless,” Milder wrote in his review,

but it works on the premise that an elegy should have the factual scrupulousness of a newspaper report. . . . No writer who began his career by expanding four weeks of benign captivity among a Marquesan tribe into four months would scruple about introducing snow and ice into an elegy for someone who happened to die in May.

Moreover, there is in fact some reason to believe on the basis of the manuscript that the second stanza was composed later than the first. For one thing, the two stanzas differ markedly in literary style. The first is colloquial, with a phrasing that’s natural and easy; it’s written almost the way someone might talk. The second, however, reverses natural word order. In English, you wouldn’t ordinarily say, “By wintry hills his hermit-mound the sheeted snow-drifts drape.” You would say, “The sheeted snow-drifts drape his hermit-mound by wintry hills.” The contorted syntax and the compression of detail and imagery in the second stanza sound to me like the result of a much more effortful mood.

For another thing, the manuscript contains a telling set of erased alterations to the first stanza, and to the first stanza only. (I’m relying here on Robert C. Ryan’s genetic transcription of the “Monody” manuscript, printed with Hayford’s essay in Clarel). Next to both instances of the word “him” in the first line, Melville pencilled the word “her,” which he then in both instances erased. In Hayford’s words: “Melville considered changing his pronoun references to the mourned person from masculine to feminine.” Hayford concludes from this that the person mourned might therefore have been either a man or a woman, and if we lived in a world with perfect symmetry in that department, Hayford might be right. But we don’t live in such a world, but rather in one in which even Whitman, when printing his poem “Once I Pass’d through a Populous City,” changed

I remember, I say, only one rude and ignorant man, who, when I departed, long and long held me by the hand

to

I remember I say only that woman who passionately clung to me

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that Melville’s lost beloved was a woman. The most likely reason for Melville to change the gender of the pronoun, in that case, would be to hide his love for this woman from his wife. But Melville gave this very manuscript to his wife, to make a clean copy of—her copy of it is printed on the page after his, in the Northwestern-Newberry Clarel—and if the partly erased pencil “her’s” were visible to Hayford and Ryan in 1991, they would surely have been visible to Elizabeth Shaw Melville in the nineteenth century. Another problem: I’ve never heard any biographical hint of Melville having had an affair while married. Yet another: If the woman in question were a lover of Melville’s, it would hardly be true that neither party was “in the wrong,” as the poem has it. Melville would have been a cheating husband, and cheating husbands are proverbially in the wrong. It seems nearly impossible to me that the alterations were an attempt to restore a woman hidden behind Melville’s “his’s.” It seems far more likely that Melville had qualms and briefly considered disguising a romantic poem about a man who had died.

There is, however, no attempted alteration to the word “his” in the first line of the second stanza. That suggests to me that Melville composed the second stanza after his bout of wondering whether to censor the gender of his beloved. If the second stanza was indeed composed later, there’s really no need for its winter imagery to correspond to the May of Hawthorne’s death—though as Milder observes, there’s really no such need in any case.

Hayford never claims that there’s any reason to think that “Monody” isn’t about Hawthorne, and I agree that there’s no final proof that it is. But even if “Monody” isn’t about Hawthorne, the gender of the person mourned reveals that Melville had been deeply moved and upset by the unhappy outcome of his love for another man. Therein, I think, lies Hayford’s rhetorical sleight of hand. Hayford writes as if he believed that if it may be doubted that Melville wrote “Monody” for Hawthorne, then it may also be doubted that Melville grieved because he never got to live out in full his love for another man. But Melville did write “Monody,” and it doesn’t sound to me like the sort of poem written out of feelings that were purely imaginary.

If not Hawthorne, who? It has been suggested, for example by Corey Evan Thompson in a 2006 article for ANQ, that the true subject of “Monody” is Melville’s teenage son Malcolm, who committed suicide in his bedroom in the Melvilles’ New York home on September 11, 1867. This seems far-fetched. Rather clumsily, Thompson argues that Melville couldn’t have longed for Hawthorne to be his close male adult friend because Melville had for a companion Richard Tobias Greene, the man fictionalized as “Toby” in Melville’s first novel Typee. After all, Greene named one of his sons after Melville, Thompson writes. This is true, but even in Typee, Toby isn’t a terribly romantic figure; in the matter of charisma, the cannibals leave him well in the shade. And once returned to America, Greene always lived elsewhere—upstate New York, Ohio, Chicago—and so could hardly have assuaged whatever longings Melville may have had.

More to the point, however, the poem just doesn’t sound like an elegy for a son. The lines “To have known him, to have loved him / After loneness long” are too erotic for a parent to address them to a child, even a dead child. I for one would be much more creeped out by a Melville who wrote such a poem about his son than by a Melville who wrote it about a male friend. If Melville had his son in mind when writing the poem, it’s inexplicable that he considered altering the gender of the poem’s subject—what need for disguise would there be? Melville was said by one of his cousins to have been a strict parent, and he may even have been an abusive one, traits that seem belied by the poem’s claim that “neither [were] in the wrong.” Even if Melville were unconscious of his severity, though, the characterization of the estrangement as equitable seems inconsistent with a parent-child relationship, even one that has gone awry. Nor does the person described resemble what is known about Malcolm. Everyone who knew Hawthorne described him as shy, but according to Hershel Parker, Malcolm’s uncle John Hoadley wrote about the boy’s “playful fondness of children” and his “fondness for social frolicking with his young friends, and acquaintances that he made down town.” Not long before his death, Malcolm joined a volunteer regiment and a baseball team; he hardly seems to have been “the shyest grape.”

In Clarel, however, Vine is addressed with exactly such imagery:

“Ambushed in leaves we spy your grape,”
Cried Derwent [to Vine]; “black but juicy one…”

Vine first appears in the poem at a tomb sculpted with grapes, among other fruit, and is said to have blood like “swart Vesuvian wine” that’s been somehow cooled, as if the imagery of a vine on a grave were with Melville from his first conception of the character.

At the end of his pamphlet, Hayford pronounces over the Hawthorne/”Monody” hypothesis “the Scottish verdict ‘Not Proven.’” True enough, as a matter of biography and history, but the case for Malcolm as the poem’s subject should be thrown out of court. My own verdict is that if the poem’s subject wasn’t Hawthorne, it was a man so like him and so closely linked to him in Melville’s imagination that the distinction between them is, for the purposes of literary interpretation, moot.