I saw a ship of martial build
(Her standards set, her brave apparel on)
Directed as by madness mere
Against a stolid iceberg steer,
Nor budge it, though the infatuate ship went down.
The impact made huge ice-cubes fall
Sullen, in tons that crashed the deck;
But that one avalanche was all --
No other movement save the foundering wreck.
Along the spurs of ridges pale,
Not any slenderest shaft and frail,
A prism over glass-green gorges lone,
Toppled; or lace of traceries fine,
Nor pendant drops in grot or mine
Were jarred, when the stunned ship went down.
Nor sole the gulls in cloud that wheeled
Circling one snow-flanked peak afar,
But nearer fowl the floes that skimmed
And crystal beaches, felt no jar.
No thrill transmitted stirred the lock
Of jack-straw needle-ice at base;
Towers undermined by waves -- the block
Atilt impending -- kept their place.
Seals, dozing sleek on sliddery ledges
Slipt never, when by loftier edges
Through very inertia overthrown,
The impetuous ship in bafflement went down.
Hard Berg (methought), so cold, so vast,
With mortal damps self-overcast;
Exhaling still thy dankish breath --
Adrift dissolving, bound for death;
Though lumpish thou, a lumbering one --
A lumbering lubbard loitering slow,
Impingers rue thee and go down,
Sounding thy precipice below,
Nor stir the slimy slug that sprawls
Along thy dead indifference of walls.
Herman Melville, John Marr and Other Sailors (1888).
Long-time (and much-appreciated!) readers of this blog are aware by now of one of my fundamental tenets: Explanation and explication are the death of poetry. Hence, I do not intend to engage in any metaphysical, theological, or psychological speculations about what "The Berg" may "symbolize." Melville's works (including, in particular, that book about a whale) have been subjected to far too much symbol-mongering. Sometimes an iceberg is just an iceberg. And sometimes a whale is just a whale. More or less.
However, the lovely particulars certainly deserve our attention. For instance, my favorite words in the poem are these: "Hard Berg (methought)." The capitalization of "Berg" is a fine touch. And I love the parenthetical "methought." "Hard Berg": now what is that supposed to mean?
(An aside: Melville's use of capitalized words is a topic in itself. Consider the following passage from Chapter 112 ("The Blacksmith") of Moby-Dick: "but Death is only a launching into the region of the strange Untried; it is but the first salutation to the possibilities of the immense Remote, the Wild, the Watery, the Unshored.")
I also like the repetition and the echoing of "the infatuate ship went down" (line 5), "the stunned ship went down" (line 15), and "the impetuous ship in bafflement went down" (line 27). "Infatuate," "stunned," and "impetuous": what are we to make of those word choices? And there is this intriguing final echo: "Impingers rue thee and go down" (line 34). "Impingers" is something to mull over.
Finally, there is the pure sound of it. "Seals, dozing sleek on sliddery ledges/Slipt never." Or this: "Though lumpish thou, a lumbering one --/A lumbering lubbard loitering slow." (Such a comical description of such a portentous, menacing object.)
Samuel Bough, "Edinburgh from Leith Roads" (1854)
I presume that it is not mere happenstance that Melville elected to place the following poem immediately after "The Berg" in John Marr and Other Sailors.
The Enviable Isles
Through storms you reach them and from storms are free.
Afar descried, the foremost drear in hue,
But, nearer, green; and, on the marge, the sea
Makes thunder low and mist of rainbowed dew.
But, inland, where the sleep that folds the hills
A dreamier sleep, the trance of God, instills --
On uplands hazed, in wandering airs aswoon,
Slow-swaying palms salute love's cypress tree
Adown in vale where pebbly runlets croon
A song to lull all sorrow and all glee.
Sweet-fern and moss in many a glade are here,
Where, strown in flocks, what cheek-flushed myriads lie
Dimpling in dream -- unconscious slumberers mere,
While billows endless round the beaches die.
Herman Melville, Ibid.
Melville apparently intended to use the poem in a prose and verse narrative he tentatively titled "Rammon." However, he never completed the larger work. Howard Vincent (editor), Collected Poems of Herman Melville (Packard and Company 1947), pages 472-473. In a surviving prose fragment, Rammon, "the unrobust child of Solomon's old age," develops an interest in Buddhism. Rammon meets Tardi, a merchant who has travelled in Asia, and asks him what he knows of Buddhism: "Fable me, then, those Enviable Isles." Ibid, page 416. The poem constitutes Tardi's response. The description of the Isles seems to be a blending of Melville's memories of the time he spent in the South Seas in his younger years and of a vision of Nirvana.
Samuel Bough, "Dunkirk Harbour" (1863)
What, then, is our destination? The "hard Berg"? "The Enviable Isles"? Or is it, perhaps, both?
Thinking about Melville's poems, another possibility occurred to me. This option is offered to us by an Anglican vicar from Dean Prior, Devon.
The White Island: or Place of the Blest
In this world (the Isle of Dreams)
While we sit by sorrow's streams,
Tears and terrors are our themes
But when once from hence we fly,
More and more approaching nigh
Unto young Eternity
In that whiter Island, where
Things are evermore sincere;
Candor here, and lustre there
There no monstrous fancies shall
Out of hell an horror call,
To create (or cause at all)
There in calm and cooling sleep
We our eyes shall never steep;
But eternal watch shall keep,
Pleasures, such as shall pursue
Me immortaliz'd, and you;
And fresh joys, as never too
Robert Herrick, His Noble Numbers: or, His Pious Pieces (1647).
Samuel Bough, "Fishing Boats Running into Port: Dysart Harbour" (1854)
In John Marr and Other Sailors, "The Berg," as noted above, immediately precedes "The Enviable Isles," which is the penultimate poem in the volume. "The Enviable Isles" is in turn followed by a closing sequence titled "Pebbles," which consists of seven short poems. "The Sea" is the unifying element of the sequence -- "the old implacable Sea" (Poem V), "the inhuman Sea" (Poem VII). The all-encompassing Sea?
Here is Poem II of "Pebbles":
Old are the creeds, but stale the schools,
Revamped as the mode may veer,
But Orm from the schools to the beaches strays,
And, finding a Conch hoar with time, he delays
And reverent lifts it to ear.
That Voice, pitched in far monotone,
Shall it swerve? shall it deviate ever?
The Seas have inspired it, and Truth --
Truth, varying from sameness never.
Herman Melville, from "Pebbles," John Marr and Other Sailors. A note: commentators suggest that "Orm" (line 3) is an allusion to a 12th-century monk who wrote a manuscript in Middle English verse consisting of homilies intended to explain biblical texts. The manuscript is titled the "Ormulum" (after its maker).
Melville's thoughts bring to mind a poem that was written by Walt Whitman in 1888 -- the same year in which John Marr and Other Sailors was published. Melville and Whitman were nearly exact contemporaries: both were born in 1819; Melville died in 1891; Whitman died in 1892. It is marvelous to think of those two extraordinary American characters passing side-by-side through nearly the whole of the century.
The Calming Thought of All
That coursing on, whate'er men's speculations,
Amid the changing schools, theologies, philosophies,
Amid the bawling presentations new and old,
The round earth's silent vital laws, facts, modes continue.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1891-1892).
Perhaps, after all, destinations do not matter.
Samuel Bough, "Shipyard at Dumbarton" (1855)