YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

December 15, 2011

Billy Budd’s ragged edges

Benjamin Britten and friends

The Wikipedia entry on Melville’s Billy Budd has an extensive survey of the critical literature and the history of the text. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Budd.

This blog is intended to show what is at stake in the contending interpretations of the novella, and how my own research into the reception of BB may be relevant to our ongoing discussion of legitimate and illegitimate authority, and how literature may be appropriated to contending ideologies in the 20th century, especially during the post-1960s scholarship. For instance, a recent series of essays weighs Melville in relation to Frederick Douglass, as if racism, or its absence, is the primary object of scholarly scrutiny in Melville’s texts.

First and foremost, readings of Billy Budd determine which of two competing narratives explains the trajectory of Melville’s political biography. If BB is read as a “testament of acceptance” then the conversion narrative is sustained: That is, Melville starts out as a radical democratic troublemaker in Typee, accelerates his rebelliousness in the “trilogy” of Mardi, Moby-Dick, and Pierre, writes bleak but socially critical fiction in the 1850s, then, purified by the bloodshed of the Civil War, ends up as a moderate man, an organic conservative, both in his “Supplement” to his Civil War poems, Battle-Pieces, then in his lengthy poem Clarel, a Poem and a Pilgrimage to the Holy Land, some more harmless poems and sketches, and finally the unpublished ms. for Billy Budd. I have dubbed the conversion narrative as echoing  Bunyan’s popular Pilgrim’s Progress.

In sharp contrast to the conversion narrative, stands the Narcissus/Icarus story of HM’s life, initiated by his first modern biographer, Raymond Weaver (1921) and followed by such bohemian luminaries as Henry A. Murray and Charles Olson after WW2. They similarly argue: too closely identified with Captain Ahab, HM drowned, crashed and burned with the critical reception to his trilogy, and, said Weaver, went into “the long quietus” after the abject failure of Pierre. (The allegorical Promethean, Satanic “trilogy” was published between 1847 and 1852).

Today, “Billy Budd” is often considered to be the second most important creation of HM. That its meaning is contested is demonstrated by the fact that urban Nazi libraries refused “Bartleby” but accepted BB and “Benito Cereno” with “restrictions.” Hershel Parker believes that BB is too incoherent to convey a single meaning.  This may be true, but it is my view that Melville conveyed a very strong meaning in one paragraph about the role of a chaplain on a Man O’ War that I quote here, along with its marginal notation:

[conclusion, Ch XXI, Constable edition, 1924:] “ Marvel not that having been made acquainted with the young sailor’s essential innocence, the worthy man [the chaplain] lifted not a finger to avert the doom of such a martyr to martial discipline. So to do would not only have been as idle as invoking the desert, but would also have been an audacious transgression of the bounds of his function, one as exactly prescribed to him by military law as that of the boatswain or any other naval officer. Bluntly put, a chaplain is the minister of the Prince of Peace serving in the host of the God of War—Mars. As such, he is as incongruous as a musket would be on the altar at Christmas. Why, then, is he there? Because he indirectly subserves the purpose attested by the cannon; because, too, he lends the sanction of the religion of the meek to that which practically is the abrogation of everything but force.”

Melville’s note in the margin: “An irruption of heretic thought hard to suppress.” Why heretical? Compare to Charles Sumner’s first public oration, 1845, in which he denounced all war as uncivilized and un-Christian. Sitting in the front row were the military brass of the time (July 4, 1845, Boston). Sumner’s heretical speech was a scandal, but earned him a devoted following among those often deemed as “insane Quakers.” Recall that Captain Ahab is described as “a fighting Quaker” in Moby-Dick (1851).

Experienced Melville readers may or may not be attuned to when he is being ironic or sarcastic and when he is deadly serious. I read the passage just quoted as the latter. It fits in with his general line in such works as White-Jacket (1850), where his view of the American mission is Hebraic, as Chosen People bringing the blessings of political democracy to other peoples, but “without bloody hands being lifted.” (See https://clarespark.com/2009/09/06/the-hebraic-american-landscape-sublime-or-despotic/). The passage also reminds me of his marking up of Goethe’s autobiography, where Goethe describes his underground adherence to the Pelagian heresy:

[Goethe:]…What separated me from this brotherhood [the Moravians of Marienborn], as well as from other good Christian souls, was the very point on which the Church has more than once fallen into dissension. On the one hand, it was maintained that by the Fall human nature had been so corrupted to its innermost core, that not the least good could be found in it, and that therefore man must renounce all trust in his own powers, and look to grace and its operations for everything. The other party, while it admitted the hereditary imperfections of man, nevertheless ascribed to nature a certain germ of good within, which, animated by divine grace, was capable of growing up to a joyous tree of spiritual happiness. By this latter conviction I was unconsciously penetrated to my inmost soul, even while with tongue and pen I maintained the opposite side. But I had hitherto gone on with such ill-defined ideas, that I had never once clearly stated the dilemma to myself. From this dream I was unexpectedly roused one day, when, in a religious conversation, having distinctly advanced opinions, to my mind, most innocent, I had in return to undergo a severe lecture. The very thought of such a thing, it was maintained, was genuine Pelagianism, a pernicious doctrine which was again appearing, to the great injury of modern times. I was astonished and even terrified. I went back to Church history, studied the doctrine and fate of Pelagius more closely, and now saw clearly how these two irreconcilable opinions had fluctuated in favour throughout whole centuries, and had been embraced and acknowledged by different men, according as they were of a more active or of a more passive nature.

The course of past years had constantly led me more and more to the exercise of my own powers. A restless activity was at work within me, with the best desire for moral development. The world without demanded that this activity should be regulated and employed for the advantage of others, and this great demand I felt called upon in my own case to meet. On all sides I had been directed to nature, and she had appeared to me in her whole magnificence; I had been acquainted with many good and true men who were toiling to do their duty, and for the sake of duty; to renounce them, nay to renounce myself, seemed impossible. The gulf which separated me from the doctrine of man’s total depravity now became plain to me. Nothing, therefore, remained to me but to part from this society; and as my love of the holy Scriptures, as well as the founder of Christianity and its early professors, could not be taken from me, I formed a Christianity for my private use, and sought to establish and build it up by an attentive study of history and a careful observation of those who were favourable to my opinion. (my emph.). [i] [End, Goethe quote]

It is my view that the key to Billy Budd, if there is any one such thing, is the notion of a private faith, of a personal relation to the deity, that underlined the Promethean powers of our species—a power that Melville had annexed to the cause of peace and to immeasurable and messy creation itself, a power that F. O. Matthiessen seemingly rejected. See https://clarespark.com/2010/12/29/f-o-matthiessen-martyr-to-mccarthyism/.

Yes, there are extenuating circumstances that apparently justify the harsh verdict of Captain Vere to hang Billy  (the Nore and Spithead mutinies during the 1790s when conservative England and Revolutionary France were at war).  Indeed, the crew murmurs in protest both when Billy is hung and when his body is consigned to the deep. It is at this point that Captain Vere reflects upon “…forms, measured forms….” that keep the underlings in line. Melville could be reflecting here upon the power of conventional fiction in supporting the rule of force.

After years of reading Melville and his critics, it is my view that he is always 1. Writing about his family and by extension Leviathan (the State) and their ultra-conservative character, calling forth his “heretical irruptions” that could separate him from his support system; and 2. Writing about writing itself, particularly deviations from inherited forms. He once exclaimed “I write as I please,” but he also felt exposed: one is so helplessly open in the act of writing. He had much to hide from his relatives, upon whom he was financially dependent. That is why I see his final manuscript as a testament to ambiguity and that kind of modernism that refuses neatly “measured forms.” He goes out as a romantic, perhaps even more romantic than in his early works: “Truth, uncompromisingly told will always have its ragged edges….”

Scholastic version of Billy Budd

[i] 81. Goethe, Truth and Poetry, Vol. II, 34-35.



  1. Clare, it does not sound right when you say I think BILLY BUDD is incoherent. I would use that word only for a completed work, one shaped into final form by the author. Because the manuscript was left incomplete, and, perhaps oddly, left going off in at least 2 main directions and never pursued long enough toward completion for those to be reconciled, it should not be interpreted by the standards you would apply to a completed work. So “incoherent” bothers me. It is incomplete, going off in different directions, but it’s not incoherent, in my view. Unfinished, so that coherence is not a relevant standard. Do you agree, old pal?

    Comment by Hershel Parker — September 6, 2012 @ 5:40 pm | Reply

    • Hershel, it is a privilege to know that you read my piece on BB. I am glad that you clarified your position. I had remembered it one way, having read your BB book twice. You know, of course, that mainstream professors of American literature defy both of us, by claiming that it is a finished work. And that you would call me “old pal” has “made my day” as Clint would say. However, I do think that Melville was ambivalent on many an issue, indeed torn and imprisoned by his conflicts, as your teacher and mine Harrison Hayford would agree (see his posthumously published Melville’s Prisons).

      Comment by clarespark — September 6, 2012 @ 6:15 pm | Reply

  2. I am pleased to be in agreement with you on this, Clare. I, too, regularly used those referecnes to “measured forms” and truth’s ragged edges to arrive at a similar interpretation. Many thanks for strengthening the idea with the quote from Goethe and Melville’s marginalia on it.

    Comment by Alex Liddie — December 16, 2011 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

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