Although Melville devoted the last three decades of his life to verse, his poetry has always taken a back seat to his formidable reputation as a novelist. His penchant for narrative verse set to fairly conservative meters makes his work seem at first glance less interesting than that of Dickinson and Whitman. However, close examination reveals an intensity and variety of thought and feeling that is rare in any period of American poetry. In fact, Melville can match Whitman's expansiveness, or Dickinson's syntactic hermeticism—as he does in the brief manifesto "Greek Architecture" ("Not magnitude, not lavishness / But Form—the Site; / Not innovating willfulness, / But reverence for the archetype"). While Northwestern has been planning a complete collection of Melville's verse for several years, the volume has yet to materialize; in the meantime, Robillard's generous selection comes closest to a definitive edition. Included are a long and helpful introduction; the complete poetic texts of Melville's three published books; 60 pages of selections from Melville's four-volume narrative poem, "Clarel"; and several important poems left in manuscript at the end of Melville's life. The edition is hardly a perfect one. Robillard's notes are brief and tend to summarize plot instead of identifying cruxes or aiding with obscure references. He inexplicably leaves out the prose elements of the first book, including Melville's own notes to the poems. The excerpts from "Clarel" include neither the introduction, with its Chaucerian intimacy, nor the powerful conclusion, though the last two stanzas are quoted in the notes. But a great strength of Robillard's collection is its emphasis on Melville's sometimes drastic manuscript changes, which gives the opportunity to watch the poems evolve in calculated and at times surprising ways.
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