The 200th anniversary of the birth of America’s greatest writer of fiction just passed.
I mean Herman Melville, naturally.
Melville was more or less an autodidact: one who read voraciously, and alluded promiscuously–and often humorously.
He loved Shakespeare, for example, and referred to him often. Just one instance: at the end of Chapter 89 of Moby-Dick, “Fast-Fish and Loose-Fish,” Ishmael says:
What are the Rights of Man and the Liberties of the World but Loose-Fish? What all men’s minds and opinions but Loose-Fish? What is the principle of religious belief in them but a Loose-Fish? What to the ostentatious smuggling verbalists are the thoughts of thinkers but Loose-Fish? What is the great globe itself but a Loose-Fish? And what are you, reader, but a Loose-Fish and a Fast-Fish, too?
The bolded phrase is a reference to Prospero’s famous speech late in The Tempest:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vex’d;
Bear with my weakness; my, brain is troubled:
Be not disturb’d with my infirmity:
If you be pleased, retire into my cell
And there repose: a turn or two I’ll walk,
To still my beating mind.
(As a former student pointed out in conversation a few years ago, the “great globe” is in Shakespeare itself an extra-textual reference to the Globe Theatre where his plays were performed; the whole passage serves as a metatheatrical comment.)
Melville also loved the British Romantic poets. I would suggest that one place where we see that, in light-hearted form, is Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street, first published in 1853 (two years after Moby-Dick). (It’s a wonderful story, by the way, and was later included in The Piazza Tales, along with other great stories such as Benito Cereno.)
Early in the story, the narrator has a discussion with one of his copyists, nicknamed “Turkey,” about blots on his paperwork, which Turkey was wont to make in sloppiness in the afternoon. The following exchange ensues:
“With submission, sir,” said Turkey on this occasion, “I consider myself your right-hand man. In the morning I but marshal and deploy my columns; but in the afternoon I put myself at their head, and gallantly charge the foe, thus!”—and he made a violent thrust with the ruler.
“But the blots, Turkey,” intimated I.
“True,—but, with submission, sir, behold these hairs! I am getting old. Surely, sir, a blot or two of a warm afternoon is not to be severely urged against gray hairs. Old age—even if it blot the page—is honorable. With submission, sir, we both are getting old.”
This appeal to my fellow-feeling was hardly to be resisted. At all events, I saw that go he would not. So I made up my mind to let him stay, resolving, nevertheless, to see to it, that during the afternoon he had to do with my less important papers.
The words in bold are an allusion to Tennyson’s poem Ulysses (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with Homer’s Odyssey, on which it is ostensibly based). There, Ulysses says:
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
Melville reverses the order of the two phrases to which he refers, but the phrasing is too close to be accidental.
The joke, of course, is that in Tennyson’s original (published about a decade before Melville’s story) the reader is meant to think of the noble mien and manner, the feats of daring, of Homer’s larger-than-life heroes, “men that strove with Gods”; whereas in Melville’s story the speaker of the words–again, named Turkey!–is referring to his menial task of copywork. But the allusion is flagged by the martial metaphors (“marshal” [sic!]; “deploy”; “columns”; “gallantly charge the foe”; “violent thrust”) that Turkey has just used, bringing his duties into the imaginative world of Homeric warfare.
Melville is making a joke, yes. But maybe, just maybe, he is slyly dignifying the boring and tedious work of the copyist as well. Melville was in general not one to look down on his characters (other authors come to mind in that regard). And so here he may be winking at the reader–but with, as it were, both eyes.