discussing it openly and with candour. Another tactic of the author’s is not so much to read the work in relation to the life as to discover the life in the work. Early on in this biography, Delbanco wonders ‘if we can apply to Herman the musings’ of one of his protagonists and then, in effect, answers his own question by doing as much. The fiction and poetry of Melville are treated like an archaeological site, from which the bare bones of their creator’s life can be disinterred and given flesh; biography becomes inextricable from close, creative reading. This is a potentially dangerous ploy; the surprise is that it works so well. Delbanco is a keen social critic and a tactful analyst. Each of Melville’s works is situated in the feverish cultural debates of its day, each is then read in such a way as to prise open its secrets – what it discloses about Melville, his family and friends and his understanding of his world. The private life is unearthed from the public text, thanks to Delbanco’s passionate curiosity. In the process, we witness Melville’s journey from the young man of boundless energy, who told a friend he really needed ‘fifty fast-writing youths’ to write down the thoughts racing through his mind more quickly than he could record them, to the old man complaining of ‘lassitude’ and ‘a disinclination for doing anything except the indispensable’. Delbanco captures perfectly Melville’s involvement in his times. During Melville’s childhood, as he points out, ‘the rhythm of American life was closer to medieval than modern’; during his last years, ‘he was living in a world that had become recognizably our own’. The work, as Delbanco shows, takes the measure of that transformation. It is also extraordinarily prophetic.
A LLAN M ASSIE Accomplished, Witty & Dandyish
A RTHUR H UGH C LOUGH : A P OET ’ S L IFE
★By Anthony Kenny (Continuum 298pp £20)
Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive Officiously to keep alive: Do not adultery commit; Advantage rarely comes of it… Arthur Hugh Clough’s inversion of the Ten Commandments seemed agreeably witty and up to date when I first came on it, aged fourteen or so, in Lord Wavell’s anthology, Other Men’s Flowers. Next I knew of him as the subject of Matthew Arnold’s beautiful, if
Moby-Dick, as Delbanco demonstrates at length, foreshadows the ruthless fanaticism and demagoguery that cast its blight over the twentieth century and, arguably, continues into our own times. And it also anticipates the inventions of modernism: a dedication to a kind of writing that captures the ebb and flow of consciousness, as erratic and self-surprising as the human mind. Melville’s great contemporary, Walt Whitman, observed of his own work, ‘Who touches this book, touches a man.’ And that notion seems always to be at the back of what Delbanco is doing, as he discovers Melville and his world through his work, showing how each book is brimming with hitherto undisclosed biography. ‘Any conventional biography of Melville is a business bound to fail,’ Delbanco suggests at the outset. His biography succeeds because it defies convention. Melville: His World and Workis as aberrant, as alert to the mysteries of life, and as adventurous in its speculations as its subject was – and just as inclined to mix an encyclopedic grasp of apparently extraneous material with sudden, glancing insights into the heart of things. The poet Hart Crane called Melville a ‘fabulous shadow’. Delbanco does not quite succeed in liberating his subject from the shadowy margins he has tended to occupy as a consequence of the anonymity into which he sank in his later years, his own secretiveness, and the myths that have gathered around him. But he does manage to dispel some of the clouds, thanks to a mixture of scholarly patience and inspired guesswork. Now and then, the shadow of Herman Melville comes into focus here; and that is no mean achievement. To order this book at £20, see order form on page 78
swoony, elegy ‘Thyrsis’, which, according to Anthony Kenny, was dismissed by Dr Jowett, the Master of Balliol, as ‘a most inadequate tribute’. Then, in my last year at school, I read Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, where one encounters a feeble Clough who ‘had passed his life in a condition of uneasiness, which was increased rather than diminished by the practice of poetry’, this sad state of mind having been ‘occasioned by his loss of faith at the time of the Oxford Movement’. A post at last being found in some government department, ‘he immediately fell under the influence of Miss Nightingale’, who found a use for him. ‘For instance, when Miss Nightingale was travelling, there were the railway tickets to be taken; and there were proof-sheets to be corrected; and then there were parcels to be done up in brown paper, and carried to the post.’ How they smiled in Bloomsbury to find the earnest Victorians being held so amusingly to ridicule. How – I confess with a certain shame now – I likewise smiled on coming across the passage. Moreover, for someone in his last year at a public school which from the day of its
LITERARY REVIEW Dec 2005 / Jan 2006