Billy Budd—”one inly deliberating how best to put [his thoughts] to well-meaning men not intellectually mature”

After Clarel, Herman Melville published only two books of poetry, both privately, before his death in 1891, but he also worked on a piece of prose that would be found among his papers and remain unpublished until 1924, during his revival. Billy Budd was begun around 1886 and recalls much about Melville’s earlier work. The title character is a Handsome Sailor, not entirely unlike Jack Chase of White-Jacket, working on the merchant marine vessel The Rights of Man in the 1794. He is impressed by the English ship-of-the-line Bellipotent, gets in the bad books of the master-at-arms, and comes to a tragic end.

The exposition of the main action is secondary to extended psychological examinations of three major characters, Billy Budd, John Claggart, the master-at-arms, and Captain Vere. The narrator is not a party to the story but is also not quite omniscient. Superficially, there are many parallels with works like Redburn, White-Jacket, and Moby-Dick, but in my reading Billy Budd seemed more in the vein of Pierre. In the same sense that Pierre follows up Moby-Dick in its exploration of early insanity in Pierre compared with late-stage monomania in Ahab, Billy Budd relies heavily on another, and a different, instance of mental aberration. Actually, maybe two.

John Claggart, in the words of Billy Budd’s Dansker friend, is “down on” Billy. But why? Just as Melville’s narrator has spent chapters trying desperately to get across to the reader the truest depiction of the personality of Billy Budd and the nature of the Handsome Sailor, he discusses at length the nature of Claggart’s antipathy. He describes Claggart as a sociopath. In fact his appreciation of the Handsome Sailor as a phenomenon simply makes him hate Billy more:

One person excepted, the master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd. And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that of cynic disdain, disdain of innocence—to be nothing more than innocent! Yet in an aesthetic way he saw the charm of it, the courageous free-and-easy temper of it, and fain would have shared it, but he despaired of it.

Claggart is complex, and the narrator’s portrait of him is intense. His descendence from Ahab is clear, with Melville describing “the monomania in the man—if that indeed it were—as involuntarily disclosed by starts…yet in general covered over by his self-contained and rational demeanor; this, like a subterranean fire, was eating its way deeper and deeper in him. Something decisive must come of it.”

Something decisive does come of it, and it brings into the action of the story Captain Vere—the “one person excepted” from the quote above, and the other possible victim of mental aberration. I found “Starry Vere,” as he is known in the navy, one of Melville’s more interesting characters. I would re-read Billy Budd on his account alone. Also for the narrator, who treats the characters and action with a knowingness but a tone of reportage rarely seen in his other work. How much do I love this scene, of Captain Vere pacing before the “drumhead court” he’s convened:

Turning, he to-and-fro paced the cabin athwart; in the returning ascent to windward climbing the slant deck in the ship’s lee roll, without knowing it symbolizing thus in his action a mind resolute to surmount difficulties even if against primitive instincts strong as the wind and the sea.

Perhaps it’s my imagination, but I think you can tell that Billy Budd was a work in progress, not fully edited and prepared for publication. Melville wasn’t quite done tinkering it the way he’d tinkered with all his other novels. But at the same time there is a maturity in structure, style, and philosophy that makes me feel good about the place Melville was at as a writer late in his life.

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