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Newly Published

Introduction to Melville's Marginalia in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Kelly Richardson
Winthrop University

Herman Melville acquired Shakespeare's Sonnets (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1865) in New York on January 20, 1871 (Sealts No. 465). His study of Shakespeare had begun in earnest in 1849, when he acquired a seven-volume collection of Shakespeare's dramatic works (Sealts No. 460; Parker 1:616). Critics have long noted how Melville’s sustained engagement with Shakespeare's writing contributed to his experimentation with narrative conventions, character development, and tragic form, and even readers unfamiliar with the scholarly conversation can easily detect Shakespearean echoes and allusions in Melville's works. Given Melville's primary reputation as a prose writer, this study of influence has concentrated primarily on his novels; however, the volume of Shakespeare's Sonnets offers insight into possible influence on his poetry. Melville had owned and marked a copy of The Poetical Works of Shakespeare (Sealts No. 464) earlier in his career, but presented that volume to his sister Frances in 1862. His decision to acquire a new copy of Sonnets in 1871, however, is of particular interest because it gives readers an opportunity to examine the impact of Shakespeare's verse on Melville's poetic craft, particularly when he was writing Clarel.

In the decades following the publication of The Confidence Man (1857), poetry became the primary medium in which Melville worked as an artist. Having taken a job as a New York Customs Inspector and no longer needing to support his family through his writing, Melville turned to poetry and began a critical study and formal practice of the art that lasted through the end of his career. That he garnered little critical attention provides further evidence of his commitment to the genre and its role in his creative life. Recent scholarship has convincingly demonstrated that writing poetry was an important part of Melville's creative identity. Hershel Parker makes the point succinctly:

The facts need to be repeated for emphasis: Herman Melville was a practicing poet (1857 or 1858-91) for three times as long as he was a professional, publishing writer of prose (1846-57). Poetry was not just a sideline for Melville: it was what he wrote for a third of a century. It was important to him; indeed, it was, for many years of his life, certainly from 1870 into 1875, when he was working on Clarel (1876), obsessively important. (Melville 9)

In addition to Parker, Elizabeth Renker and Douglas Robillard have explored poetry's role in Melville's life, challenging views that he experienced a creative decline when he stopped writing novels and calling for additional study (11). If Moby-Dick was his Leviathan and Pierre his Kraken, then there is something of the shark about his poetry, not so much for its predatory qualities as for his relentless pursuit of the medium. He completed a now-lost volume of poems in 1860 (Parker, Melville 6), and he started publishing poetry with Battle-Pieces (1866) and Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876). He privately published twenty-five volumes each of John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) and Timoleon (1891), and Weeds and Wildings was found among his final papers (Collected Poems 480). Melville clearly wanted to write poetry that reached the level of artistic greatness he associated with Dante, Milton and Shakespeare, and he devoted years of his life “to "wrestle with” this particular form of “the angel—Art."

"My Love Shall in My Verse Ever Live Young:" Melville's Markings in Shakespeare's Sonnets

Melville acquired the volume of Shakespeare's Sonnets shortly after obtaining Hawthorne's The Snow-Image, and Other Twice-Told Tales (Sealts No. 255) on January 6, 1871, and before obtaining Tennyson's In Memoriam (No. 505) on January 27 (Leyda 717-718). In the former, as Jay Leyda notes, Melville marked two passages in "The Devil in Manuscript" in which Oberon lambasts himself for his failure to live up to his ideals as a writer, a failure that leads him to want to burn his "syllables" to avoid being "a damned author" (717). Leyda also describes that in Tennyson's In Memoriam Melville had marked the final two stanzas of canto LXXIII with their poignant note: "Thy leaf has perished in the green,/ And while we breathe beneath the sun,/ The world which credits what is done/ Is cold to all that might have been./ So here shall silence guard thy fame;/ But somewhere, out of human view,/ Whate'er thy hands are set to do/ Is wrought with tumult of acclaim" (718). The markings in these two books create an apt context for the volume of Sonnets, resonating as they do with the markings Melville applied to Shakespeare's verse, particularly the sonnets dealing with the role of art and the theme of loss.[1]

Melville's copy is bound in green cloth and has the gilded title Shakespeare's Sonnets in the middle of the cover surrounded by a circular inscription that contains the final line from Sonnet 19: "My Love Shall in My Verse Ever Live Young." A bookplate on the front pastedown indicates that it was a gift to Harvard from Melville's granddaughter, Katharine (daughter of Frances and Henry Thomas), whose autograph appears on the front free-endpaper. In the top right-hand corner of the same leaf is Melville's autograph inscription: "H. Melville Jan 20 '71 N.Y."[2]

Melville marked eighteen of the 154 sonnets in Shakespeare's Sonnets: sonnet numbers 12, 15, 17, 18, 20, 21, 22, 25, 30, 34, 35, 36, 66, 100, 119, 121, 122, and 123.[3] Of these, twelve are marked in their entirety: nine by a single checkmark (12, 15, 17, 20, 22, 25, 36, 122, 123); two by an "x" (18 and 30); and one by triple cross-checks at its heading (Sonnet 66, "Tir'd with all these, for restful death I cry"). The single checkmarked Sonnet 20 ("A woman's face, with nature's own hand painted") contains erased triple cross-checks at its heading. Four other sonnets also have marginalia that were erased ( 21, 34, 35, and 121). An explanation for the minimal marking could be that Melville was studying the pieces more for inspiration than for the critical dialogue he engaged in when reading Matthew Arnold's New Poems (Sealts No. 20), which he went on to acquire in February 1871 (Leyda 718).[4] Melville himself had indicated in 1849 that "he would look to Shakespeare, at first, for ideas, not for 'poetical' qualities such as diction and sound" (Parker, Melville 71). Also, Shakespeare was a writer that Melville knew well, and so he may have chosen to focus less on annotating the sonnets themselves to concentrate more in his reading on how other poets such as Arnold and Wordsworth had been influenced by Shakespeare. This would be consistent with his interest in studying English poetry in general as evidenced by his acquisitions of Samuel Waddington’s The Sonnets of Europe (Sealts No. 539) and in the 1880s Thomas Warton’s History of English Poetry (Sealts No. 547a). Another reason could be the structural differences between the sonnets and Clarel. Melville was not writing a sonnet sequence, but as Walter Bezanson explains, chose a structure that would reflect the “constriction” of modernity, cantos of iambic tetrameter (569). Notable too is that all of the marginalia are in the first portion of sonnets 1-126, the set generally understood to be dedicated to the youth as opposed to the Dark Lady sequence (sonnets 127-152) and to the concluding two sonnets (153-154) (Kerrigan 7). The marginalia thus reveal more of a focus on friendship than on romantic love and passion. Whatever the reasons for the modest number of markings and their positions in the sonnet sequence, it is clear that this collection provides little that directly translates into his own writing; rather, when seeking connections with Melville's poetry, it is more fruitful to consider what the marginalia show about thematic resonances between the sonnets and Melville's writing, especially Clarel.

Time, Art, and Friendship: Thematic Connections between Shakespeare's Sonnets and Clarel

Organized into four parts of 150 cantos in lines of iambic tetrameter and based on his own travels in 1856-1857 (Bezanson 505, 511), Melville's Clarel features a title character who is an American theology student sojourning in Jerusalem. Feeling more separated than inspired by the locale partly because of the tourism, Clarel meets Nehemiah, a devout fellow American, who introduces him to Nathan, another American who has moved to Israel with his wife and daughter. Clarel falls in love with the daughter Ruth, but her father is killed in a local feud. Because Clarel cannot see Ruth during the ritualistic mourning period that follows, he travels with several other new companions to the Dead Sea, Mar Saba, and Bethlehem on a ten-day journey (Clarel 709). Notable among the pilgrims are the characters Rolfe, patterned on Melville, and Vine, patterned on Hawthorne (Bezanson 557). When they return to Jerusalem, the group separates, and Clarel learns that his betrothed has died. The ending is characteristic of Melville's often mixed reflections as Clarel's final walk down the Via Crucis captures a sense of spiritual uncertainty while the closing epilogue encourages Clarel to "keep thy heart, though yet but ill-resigned" (4.35.27). The entire poem is definitely emblematic of Hawthorne's famous comment that Melville "can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us" (163).

The marked Shakespearean sonnets speak to many of the themes Clarel explores; as Clarel is seeking meaning, so too is the speaker of the sonnets. Consistent with Melville's overall themes, the marked eighteen sonnets ground the searches in personal connections and friendship as well as the creation of art as a means of challenging the threatening, indifferent, uncontrollable march of Time. The fluidity of this thematic refrain makes it difficult to classify the sonnets as neatly belonging to any one category. Reflective of Melville's own dynamic writing style, the sonnets he found meaning in flow together in subject and theme.

With their focus on “breeding” (Kerrigan 27), the rhetorical situation in the first eighteen sonnets is the same in all: the poet is encouraging his friend to reproduce in order to survive. As John Kerrigan explains, "The youth cannot escape from Time. Beauty cannot save him, nor all the poet's labours, which strive to make the friend a 'god', and try to recoup, by recounting, the clock" (63). Of the sonnets marked in this set, Sonnet 12, "When I do count the clock that tells the time," focuses on how "nothing 'gainst Time's scythe can make defence" except procreation (13-14). In sonnets 15, 17, and 18, however, Shakespeare offers poetry as another means by which to be remembered. He tells the youth in Sonnet 15 that he can "engraft" his friend in his poetry, in Sonnet 17 that he can make his friend "live. . . in my rhyme" (14), and in Sonnet 18 that "So long lives this, and this gives life to thee" (14). This figure of the poet emphasizes the dynamic role of creation. Even if future readers attribute his praises of the youth to a "stretched metre of an antique song" as marked in Sonnet 17, they nevertheless will be exposed to the beauty and the goodness of the youth.

Given Melville's own existential concerns and questions about art, it is not surprising that these lines would have drawn his attention. In Clarel, we see how Melville is clearly preoccupied with the presentation of time as he features it in so many forms: a sense of timelessness appears in the landscape of stars and the desert; a sense of Biblical history is captured by the places that the pilgrims travel to (Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, Mar Saba, and Bethlehem); and a sense of real time exists in the confrontation between spiritual narrative and the tourism that comes to the area. It is no wonder that Clarel lacks grounding in this landscape of competing temporal meanings. Similar to the sonnets, Melville often notes the impersonal nature of death and time: "But Time the cruel, whose smooth way/ is feline, patient for the prey/ That to this twig of being clings;/ And Fate, which from her ambush springs" (1.17.331-334), "Time, God, are inexhaustible" (1.32.265), and "Time cares not to avenge your smarts,/ But presses on, impatient of review" (4.5.192-193) are just a few examples.[5]

Like Shakespeare in the sonnets, Melville also gives emphasis to writing’s potential to preserve the memory of a place, event, or person. References to texts appear throughout Clarel: books such as Abdon's "Indian Pentateuch" (1.2.43), the volume left behind at Clarel's hostel with marginalia (1.41.124-148), Celio's journal (1.19.25-26), and Nehemiah's Bible; inscriptions on monuments (2.31.50-70), (3.22.46-66), (4.10.5-27); scrawls on walls in Habbibi's home (3.27.112-153) and in Clarel's hotel (1.41.87-118); and even tattoos on Agath (4.2.51). The art of writing is clearly a way to create and retain memory not only of a friend or a place but also of the creator of the piece. And while the poem overall itself does not give closure, the poetic artifact itself does give meaning.

Moreover, Melville nods to the value of studying marginalia when he has Clarel find left-behind volumes in his hotel room with markings:

But random jottings in the marge
Disclosed some reader of the text
Whose fervid comments did discharge
More dole than e'en dissent. Annexed,
In either book was penciled small:
"B.L.: Oxford: St. Mary's Hall."
Such proved these volumes-such, as scanned
By Clarel, wishful to command
Some hint that might supply a clew
Better enabling to construe
The lines their owner left on wall. (1.41.138-148)

That Melville himself noted the value of analyzing marginalia to reconstruct meaning and intention speaks to the importance of this enterprise.

The next set of marked sonnets—20, 22, 25, 30, 36, 66, 100, 119, and 122—connects with discussions of time and art, yet focuses more on friendship and the often poignant sense of separation between the speaker and the youth. Sonnet 20 introduces explicit sexualized language as the speaker admires the youth's feminine beauty in an inventory of features that are even more praiseworthy because they exist naturally, without what he calls "false women's fashion," before asserting that Nature had "prick'd thee out for women's pleasure" and invoking a sense of alienation in the final line, "Mine be thy love, and thy love's use their treasure" (13-14). Erased triple cross-checks are discernible at the head of this sonnet in addition to a single unerased checkmark. While this could have been simply an incidental change, one may wonder if it was an act of self-editing, given Melville's complex representation of male friendships. Considering the previously marked sonnets that have already expressed a strong connection with the youth, a claim of self-censorship is difficult to support completely. Also, perhaps Melville wanted to distance himself from the more explicit language or to preserve the triple cross-check distinction for Sonnet 66, the only other sonnet thus marked and a piece that emphasizes an emotional as well as physical separation. While the motivation remains elusive, the alteration in marking is certainly intriguing.

Sonnets 30 and 36 both convey a tone of loss. Sonnet 30‒"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought"‒ends with the speaker feeling better when he thinks of his friend, and yet a tone of loss dominates, and one cannot help but speculate if in marking this poem Melville was thinking of his brother Gansevoort (who died in 1846), Hawthorne (who died in 1864) or his son Malcolm (who died in 1867 of a self-inflicted and perhaps accidental gunshot wound at 18). Sonnet 36 "Let me confess that we two must be twain" is checkmarked at the heading but also scored alongside the lines, "I may not evermore acknowledge thee,/ Lest my bewailed guilt should do thee shame;/ Nor thou with public kindness honour me,/ Unless thou take that honour from thy name" (9-12).

Distinctive because it is the only poem to receive and retain Melville's triple cross-checks is Sonnet 66, "Tir'd with all these, for restful death I cry,‒," an extremely poignant piece that stresses the importance of connecting with others to mitigate the despair of life, a sentiment expressed by a relentless list of "And's" and the hopelessness suggested by the first line. This particular poem also stands out because the "I" that usually is featured so prominently in the sonnets does not appear until the concluding couplet, creating a focus on the list of connecting images of despair. This sense of despair continues in the lack of poetic inspiration lamented in Sonnet 100, "Where art thou, Muse, that thou forget'st so long." Melville applied a checkmark next to the lines, "Spend'st thou thy fury on some worthless song,/ Darkening thy power, to lend base subjects light?" (3-4). Given the decline in his reputation, such questioning would certainly have resonated with Melville; however, it is not all dark. Sonnet 119‒"What potions have I drunk of Syren tears,"‒has a checkmark alongside the assertion, "That better is by evil still made better" (10). This tension between competing forces of despair and hope is characteristic of Melville's work as well, particularly in Clarel, in which we see so many figures seeking faith in a broken and damaged world.

These sonnets that emphasize the importance of friendship and its role in combating and balancing feelings of alienation and loss also resonate with a general theme throughout Melville's writing: the importance (and fragility) of personal bonds. One quickly thinks of the ties that Ishmael and Queequeg make, for example; however, in Melville's poetry, as in these marked Shakespearean sonnets, a sense of estrangement often follows. In Clarel, Leon Howard sees emotional concerns dominating the "intellectual structure" at times, and asserts: "The most persistent and pervasive of these emotions was his lonely awareness of the strange attraction one individual could have for another‒an 'affinity,' as Goethe had called it, which sought in vain for satisfaction in words and which was stronger than the recognized demands of sex" (299). In Clarel, we see the title character connect briefly with Celio, Rolfe, Derwent, and Vine; however, despite their interaction and friendship, they are all eventually separated. Other pilgrims such as Mortmain seem in a consistent state of spiritual estrangement from others. Melville, overall, shows how attempts at community are essential, but difficult. As he writes in "Book IV" of Clarel, "the world is rent/ With partings" (4.32.15-16).

"Emerge . . . from the last whelming sea": Poetry as Existential Protest

As the final sonnet marked, 123, while still part of the set addressed to the youth, is significant for its return to the defiant tone captured in the opening poems. An apostrophe to Time, the poem opens with a strong "No!" before asserting that Time "shalt not boast that I do change" (1). Rather, the poet "vows" "I will be true, despite thy scythe and thee" (14). The lines bring to mind Melville's famous assessment of Hawthorne as a man of a "soverign nature" who says "NO! in thunder," knowing he will "cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing . . . but a carpet-bag,‒that is to say, the Ego" (Correspondence 186). The role of the poet declaring to Time that art will persevere, that an individual could be equal through artistic production if nothing else, certainly would have appealed to Melville's defiance of mortality.

This image of the defiant poet is an apt conclusion not only for Shakespeare but also for Melville. Indeed, it is easy for one to romanticize the picture of Melville as the government official by day and the poet at home at night meticulously drafting poems, reading through his poetic library, and, most importantly for a study of marginalia, marking passages and images, even though the poetry he was working so diligently to produce would find such a limited audience in his own time. Despite the lack of reception, Melville's tenacity illustrates his dedication to poetry. This volume of Shakespeare's Sonnets shows the consistency of this interest and his recognition of the importance of studying other poets to improve his own craft and to find inspiration. What he perhaps discovered or rediscovered in Shakespeare was a familiar spirit who understood how friendship and art could defy loss and perhaps help to remind readers that despite individual separation, as the narrator tells Clarel in the poem's final lines, "Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,/ And prove that death but routs life into victory" (4.35.33-34). Shakespeare's sonnet collection reflects Melville's interest in how art, friendship, and poetry can be thunderous means of protest against oblivion and reverberate as poetic assertions of faith in the ungrounded flow of time.

[1] In terms of context, Bezanson notes that “Melville’s marginalia in this period reveal him in the double role of critic and apprentice to the craft of poetry” (527), while Leon Howard sees in his notations around this time a pattern “of distrustful ambition, cynicism toward society, and other dark emotions struggling against control” (291).

[2] Howard Staunton’s three volumes were published in 1858-1860. They have been collected and published as The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare. See p. 2286 for the image.

[3] Jay Leyda selected nine sonnets for reference in the Melville Log (718). Walker Cowen transcribed Melville's marginalia in all eighteen of the sonnets marked by Melville, misidentifying a checkmark at Sonnet 20 as erased, misattributing a broken score to Sonnet 34, misidentifying a double underline as single in Sonnet 121, and misattributing a score to Sonnet 122 (Melville's Marginalia 2:53-65).

[4] See Norberg's introduction to Melville's marginalia in New Poems for further discussion of this topic. As Norberg notes, "Despite, or because of, his careful study of Arnold's Essays in Criticism, the Melville we see in the margins of New Poems is less a student putting himself to school at the hands of a master than he is an equal subjecting Arnold's aesthetic sensibilities to his own critical analysis."

[5] See Shurr for a discussion of Melville's sense of history in this poem (93).


Bezanson, Walter. "Historical and Critical Note." Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Eds. Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1991. 505-637.

Cowen, Walker. Melville's Marginalia. Vol. 2. New York: Garland, 1987.

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The English Notebooks, 1856-1860. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997.

Howard, Leon . Herman Melville: A Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951.

Kerrigan, John, ed. "Introduction." William Shakespeare's The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint. New York: Penguin, 1986. 7-74.

Leyda, Jay. The Melville Log: A Documentary Life of Herman Melville, 1819-1891. New York: Harcourt, Brace: 1951.

Melville, Herman. Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Eds. Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1991.

————. Collected Poems of Herman Melville. Ed. Howard P. Vincent. Chicago: Hendricks House, 1947.

————. Correspondence. Ed. Lynn Horth. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and The Newberry Library. 1993.

————. Published Poems. Eds. Robert C. Ryan, Harrison Hayford, Alma MacDougall Reising, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 2009.

Norberg, Peter. "Introduction to Melville's Marginalia in Matthew Arnold's New Poems." Melville's Marginalia Online.

Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville: A Biography. 2 vols. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996, 2002.

————. Melville: The Making of a Poet. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2008.

Renker, Elizabeth, and Douglas Robillard. "Melville the Poet: Introduction." Leviathan: A Journal of Melville Studies 9.3 (2007): 9-15.

Sealts, Merton M., Jr. Melville's Reading: Revised and Enlarged Edition. Columbia, SC:University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Shakespeare, William. The Globe Illustrated Shakespeare. NY: Greenwich House, 1986.

————. Sonnets. Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1865. *AC85 M4977 Zz864s. Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

Shurr, William H. The Mystery of Iniquity: Melville as Poet, 1857-1891. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1972.