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Melville's "Venice"

Not until May 1891, four months before his death, did Melville release to the larger world the compact, expansive, evocative fusion of his eye and mind that had been germinating deep in his psyche since December 1849 when he saw Goodall’s gem-like 1830 engraving of Turner’s Venice vignette in Samuel Rogers’s breakfast room three days after having seen the “mirage-like” expanse of Turner’s ethereal 1842 oil painting at London’s Vernon Gallery. In 1891 “Venice” was the first of eighteen poems in the section of Timoleon that Melville called “Fruit of Travel Long Ago.” The next five poems in the sequence—“In a Bye-Canal,” “Pisa’s Leaning Tower,” “In a Church in Padua,” “Milan Cathedral,” and “Pausilippo”—all drew directly on his travels in Italy in the early months of 1857. Early versions of many, if not most, of those eighteen travel poems had probably been included in the volume of poems that he sent to New York publishers, without success, in 1860. Because we lack any hard evidence as to exactly when, and under what conditions, Melville may have written or revised the earliest drafts of “Venice,” the text of that poem is our best evidence of how it may have evolved into what it had become by the time it was published in 1891.

Melville’s “Venice” consists of twelve lines in two stanzas of eight and four lines. It evolves organically, eschewing rhyme or a system of fixed metrics. For a poem so short, it makes a bold, even revolutionary comparison: between the “strenuous,” Darwinian labors of the “little craftsman worm” who “up-builds” the “galleries” and “arcades” of his own coral palaces from the “blue abyss” at the very bottom of the sea and the “laborious,” Ruskinian efforts of those sophisticated Italian designers and craftsmen through whose “kindred art . . . Venice rose in reefs of palaces,” though from “a shallower wave.”

With Pantheist energy of will
The little craftsman of the Coral Sea
Strenuous in the blue abyss,
Up-builds his marble gallery
        And long arcade,
Erections freaked with many a fringe
        Of marble garlandry,
Evincing what a worm can do.

Laborious in a shallower wave,
Advanced in kindred art,
A prouder agent proved Pan’s might
When Venice rose in reefs of palaces. (NN PP 291)

The first stanza of “Venice” grafts imagery derived from the façade of the Ducal Palace as Melville had seen it from the sea in 1857 (and as Turner had seen it from the sea in the mid-1820s) onto the “erections” of the “craftsman worm” that had built its organic palatial structures from its own “strenuous” secretions in the “blue abyss” of Melville’s “Coral Sea.” Charles Darwin, after minutely exploring the process by which coral “insects” had created the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia during his voyages into the South Seas in the 1830s, had documented and marveled at the creative power of these minute craftsmen in the 1846 edition of the Voyage of the Beagle that Melville acquired in New York in 1847, three years after returning from his own South Seas voyages (Sealts no. 175).

Perhaps young Melville had begun, at least unconsciously, after his 1849 visit to Rogers’s private gallery, to associate the instinctive activity of the “craftsman worm” who up-builds organic palaces in the Coral Sea with the minute, deliberate work of an engraver such as Goodall who had incised one tiny line after another into a steel plate in order to produce the pristine first-impression print of Turner’s Venice vignette in Rogers’s collection. Whether or not Melville had begun to think of Darwin’s coral insects and Turner’s minute engravers on converging, or even parallel, tracks after visiting Rogers and his collection in 1849, the lines of convergence had certainly begun to accelerate by the time Melville reached Pisa in 1857 and characterized its most celebrated buildings in his journal as a “bouquet of architecture” whose component parts “look like coral grottoes in sea.” The emergence of these deep, instinctive, poetic analogies as if unconsciously in Melville’s Italian journal brings to mind Ishmael’s depiction of the Carpenter in Moby-Dick as a man “whose brain . . . must have early oozed along into the muscles of his fingers” (NN MD 448).

Certainly any unconscious elements of the instinctive analogies in the Pisan journal entry would have risen to the surface twelve days later when the long gondola ride through the “mirage-like like effect” of the Venetian sea and sky brought Melville magically before the glowing façade of the Ducal Palace in the afternoon sun. Seeing the actual detail and design of its façade in full color, and at full scale, in the ambient air was already turning its sea-side “colonade” into the “hedge of architecture” in his journal entry that eventually evolved into the “marble gallery and long arcade” that are “finged” with “marble garlandry” in the poem. How magical it must have seemed to see those same components, three weeks later, condensed into a minute watercolor only five inches high and seven inches wide whose vivid colors depict sea and sky, palace and library, basilica and bell tower, gondolas and Bucintoro in an ensemble whose light and shade, structure and ornament, body and soul make them all appear to grow and glow on a paper ground as if alive.

By the time Melville saw Turner’s Venice vignette in the Turner Gallery three weeks after having seen the depicted scene in real life under ideal conditions, eight years after having seen Goodall’s engraved vignette, and ten years after having acquired Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle with its impassioned scientific tribute to the “little craftsman of the Coral Sea,” Melville had in hand the primary ingredients needed for merging Darwin’s coral insect and Turner’s glowing façade in the opening stanza of the poetic ode to “Venice” he was to publish in Timoleon thirty-four years later.

Although we do not know exactly when, between 1857 and 1891, Melville may have begun to compose his “Venice,” editors of the NN edition of the Published Poems have identified four successive stages by which the surviving manuscripts evolved. The direct influence of Darwin the scientist is seen in Melville’s early use of “coral insect” and then “Zoophyte creature” for “the little craftsman" that eventually surfaced "in the Coral Sea" in line 2 of the published poem (NN PP 817). But Darwin’s influence was poetic and pictorial as well as zoological. Darwin characterized the “coral-building animals” as “little architects” who have “built up their great wall-like mass” into “submarine mountains” with “perpendicular wall sections between two and three hundred feet under water in height.” Once these massive structures rise up through the surface of the sea they become coral reefs that Darwin divides into three distinct classes: the “Atoll,” the “Barrier-Reef,” and the “Fringing Reef.” Each of these reef formations compares to a “castle situated on the summit of a lofty submarine mountain, protected by a great wall of coral rock.” Already in the passages sampled immediately here, Darwin has provided ample scientific validation for what would otherwise seem to be poetic license by which Melville imagines his “craftsman worm . . . up-building . . . erections freaked with many a fringe” into a city that “rose in reefs of palaces” (Darwin, 490-95; Wallace, “Melville’s Venice,” 27-28).

Melville’s account of that “prouder agent . . . advanced in kindred art . . . laborious in a shallower wave” through whose exertions Venice “rose in reefs of palaces” in the second stanza drew selectively upon the subterranean mountain of information about Venetian architecture that John Ruskin had published in the three successive volumes of The Stones of Venice between 1851 and 1853. The title of volume 2, The Sea-stories, referred specifically to the colonaded arcades on the first stories of buildings such as the Ducal Palace that looked directly out upon the sea. The extremely detailed chapter on the Ducal Palace that concludes volume 2 anchors Ruskin’s entire analysis. Ruskin sees the Ducal Palace is the epitome not only of Venetian or Italian but of European architecture. Sharing the Byzantine roots of its near neighbor St. Mark’s Basilica, it evolved during the Christian era into such a powerful manifestation of the organic Gothic style in architecture Ruskin admired above all others that it could not be substantially damaged by certain modifications made in the Renaissance era that Ruskin deplored.

Ruskin provided a running commentary on all those “proud agents” through whose continued exertions the city’s “reef of palaces” had risen in three successive architectural styles over centuries of evolution. He also provided extremely detailed information about various decorative elements expressive of each successive stage by which the sea-story of the Ducal Palace had evolved. All of this Melville condenses into the fourteen words of his poem’s “marble gallery / And long arcade, / Erections freaked with many a fringe / Of marble garlandry” (Ruskin, Works, 10: 336-54, 11: 22, 145-46; Wallace, “Melville’s Venice," 25-26).

The twelve-line poem Melville published in 1891 used the contrast between tiny coral craftsmen who build slowly by accretion out of the deepest sea and sophisticated architects who build primarily in the open air from the ground up to highlight two of the most powerful intellectual movements of the English Victorian age: Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution as it evolved from the Voyage of the Beagle in 1845 through the Origin of the Species in 1859 and Ruskin’s shifting theories of aesthetics as they evolved from a rapturous embrace of Turner’s most radical seascapes in the mid-1840s, through a total immersion in Venetian art and architecture in early 1850s, followed by a new immersion in the totality of Turner’s entire career when processing the Bequest for the National Gallery and writing the last three volumes of Modern Painters in the later 1850s. Darwin and Ruskin, like Turner and Melville, made their strongest imaginative and intellectual discoveries through travel that immersed them in the material reality of their subjects. There was a certain evolution among this quartet through time that led eventually to the small, evocative poem Melville published in 1891. Turner traveled to Venice in 1819 and created his Venice vignette in the 1820s before it was published in 1830. Darwin traveled through the oceans of the world on the Beagle from 1831 to 1836 before publishing his Voyage in 1845. Ruskin traveled to Venice in 1845, in 1849, and 1851 before the three volumes of his Stones were published between 1851 and 1853. And Melville, after having traveled to the South Seas from 1841 to 1844, had traveled to Venice in 1857, resulting in the poem he may have submitted to a publisher in 1860 but eventually did publish in 1891.

In 1845 Charles Darwin concluded his own tribute to Melville’s future “craftsman of the Coral Sea” by comparing its massive submarine creations with those that had been created on land by the greatest Mediterranean builders of the ancient human world. “We feel surprise when travellers tell us of the vast dimensions of the Pyramids and other great ruins,” Darwin declares, "but how utterly insignificant are the greatest of these when compared to those mountains of stone accumulated by the agency of various minute and tender animals.” In 1853 John Ruskin concluded his personal tribute to Melville’s “prouder agent . . . in a shallower wave” by comparing  the creations of those human beings who had designed and built the Ducal Palace with those of God Almighty. “Sometimes walking at evening on the Lido, whence the great chain of the Alps . . . might be seen behind the front of the Ducal Palace,” he recalled, “I used to feel as much awe gazing upon the building as upon the hills, and could believe that God had done a greater work in breathing into the narrow dust of the mighty spirits by whom its haughty walls had been raised . . . than in lifting the rocks of granite higher than the clouds of heaven.” On April 5, 1857, Herman Melville had himself admired the “fine view of Venice, and particularly the Ducal Palace,” from the Lido before gliding through the “mirage-like” sea and sky to the “front” of same Palace, but his poem nevertheless subordinates Ruskin’s “mighty spirits” who had raised those “haughty walls” to the “Pantheist will” which animates the narrow dust of the “craftsman worm” (Darwin, 491-92;  Ruskin, 10:438-39; Melville, NN J 119; Wallace, “Melville’s Venice,” 27-28).

Every line of the twelve-line “Venice” Melville published in 1891 resonates profoundly with the way in which his own personal experience with “books, pictures, and the face of nature” during and after his travels in England in 1849 and Italy in 1857 enabled him to condense and express so much of the spirit of the entire Victorian era in a verbal construct as compact and evocative as Turner’s pictorial vignette for Rogers’s poetic “Venice.” He was able to do this, in part, because he had a collaborator nearly as helpful as Goodall had been to Turner in converting the exquisite watercolor vignette into the gem-like steel engraving. Melville’s wife Elizabeth worked side by side with him throughout the editing and publication of the entire Timoleon volume. In addition to transcribing the fair copy of the final version of each poem that was sent to the publisher, she acted as his editorial assistant in emending poems as he revised them, transcribing a new fair copy when the revisions became too complex, and keeping track of successive stages of heavily revised poems (see the NN “Notes on Timoleon,” PP, 749-863). Her care in helping Herman revise the poems so thoroughly, and in preserving the manuscript stages of each published poem after his death, enables readers today to track the process by which, for example, the “coral insect” and then the “Zoophyte creature” in the manuscript drafts of “Venice” evolved into “the little craftsman of the Coral Sea” in the published poem (NN PP 291, 816-19).

In addition to doing the meticulous work of helping Herman to revise and transcribe the poems of Timoleon before publication, and then preserving those manuscripts that survived the editorial process after his death, Elizabeth Shaw Melville also preserved the books from Melville’s library and the prints from his art collection that have made this entire online site possible.