My American Poetry Review: Melville

gifford_coming_storm_c1860 melville

The Coming Storm by Herman Melville

 A poem, a painting, a plot of murder:  how is this triad connected?  In The Coming Storm, Herman Melville links the theme of this painting by Sanford Gifford and the owner of the painting, Edwin Booth, to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.  Gifford’s painting was purchased by Edwin Booth, a famous Shakespearean actor, two years before his brother, John Wilkes would assassinate President Lincoln.  Edwin Booth loaned the painting back to the National Gallery Exhibition in April, 1865, the same month of Lincoln’s assassination.  According to Evander Price, Melville saw The Coming Storm at the Exhibition and was struck by the fact that Edwin had purchased this painting in light of the recent assassination.  Price states that, “Melville saw that Gifford created in a landscape the unspeakable darkness that Shakespeare found in Hamlet and the unimaginable tragedy that was America’s loss of Lincoln” (30).

Melville begins this poem referring to Edwin: “All feeling hearts must feel for him/ Who felt this picture.   Presage dim –/ Dim inklings…. “(Melville, 13).  Melville uses the anaphora feeling, feel, felt  in three different tenses, progressive, present and past, to perhaps signify Edwin’s emotions from the time of the assassination to now.  These emotions, or feelings, are then identified with a second anaphora of “dim–/ Dim” also signifying the foreshadowing of a storm. This storm can have two meanings: the assassination and the theme of Gifford’s painting.  Gifford depicts an approaching storm on Lake George and Melville describes with “A demon-cloud like the mountain” (13). Melville could be referring here to Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes, and his passive accomplice, Edwin, as demons. He also describes Edwin’s reaction to the storm as a “pensive child” and being “fixed and fascinated” showing Edwin’s premeditated thoughts of Lincoln’s death (13).

Price also suggests in his essay that Melville accuses Edwin of knowing about his brother’s plans to assassinate the President and perhaps was an accomplice with the following lines: “The Hamlet in his heart was ‘ware/…No utter surprise can come to him/ Who reaches Shakespeare’s core; “(13). Price also states that this parallels to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the role which Edwin played, the Civil War tragedies, and Booth’s unstable mind and jealousies tied with sibling rivalry.

The final line of the poem, “Man’s final lore”, perhaps refers to Hamlet as an idea that whoever comprehends the intent of Shakespeare “understands the universe and human nature on a transcendent level” (32). Just as Whitman used his poems to elegize Lincoln’s death, Melville pays tribute to Lincoln in The Coming Storm while upbraiding his assassin.

The Coming Storm by Herman Melville

A Picture by S.R. Gifford, and owned by E.B.
Included in the N.A. Exhibition, April, 1865.

All feeling hearts must feel for him
Who felt this picture. Presage dim–
Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere
Fixed him and fascinated here.

A demon-cloud like the mountain one
Burst on a spirit as mild
As this urned lake, the home of shades.
But Shakspeare’s pensive child

Never the lines had lightly scanned,
Steeped in fable, steeped in fate;
The Hamlet in his heart was ‘ware,
Such hearts can antedate.

No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakspeare’s core;
That which we seek and shun is there–
Man’s final lore.

 

 

Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)

 

Works Cited

Hollander, John.  American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century.2. New York: Library of Congress,

  1. Print. 13

Price, Evander.  Coriolis: Interdisciplinary Journal of Maritime Studies. 1.2 (2010). 30-33. Web.

12 April 2016.

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