At Melville’s Tomb

by Hart Crane, 1899 – 1932

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge

The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath

An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,

Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

 

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,

The calyx of death’s bounty giving back

A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,

The portent wound in corridors of shells.

 

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,

Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,

Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;

And silent answers crept across the stars.

 

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive

No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps

Monody shall not wake the mariner.

This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Hart_CraneAt Melville’s Tomb” is a difficult, but interesting poem. The editor who first printed it was puzzled and wrote to Crane for explication. “Take me for a hard-boiled, unimaginative, unpoetic reader,” he wrote, “and tell me how dice can bequeath an embassy (or anything else); and how a calyx (of death’s bounty, or anything else) can give back a scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph; and how, if it does, such a portent can be wound in corridors (of shells or anything else). And so on. I find your image of frosting eyes lifting altars difficult to visualise. Nor do compass, quadrant and sextant contrive tides, they merely record them, I believe. Your ideas and rhythms interest me, and I am wondering by what process of reasoning you would justify this poem’s succession of champion mixed metaphors of which you must be conscious.”

The poet wrote in reply: “Dice bequeath an embassy, in the first place, by being ground (in this connection only, of course) in little cubes from the bones of ground men by the action of the sea, and are finally thrown up on the sand, having “numbers” but no identification. These being the bones on dead men who never completed their voyage, it seems legitimate to refer to them as the only surviving evidence of certain messages undelivered, mute evidence of certain things, experiences that the dead mariners might have had to deliver. Dice as a symbol of chance and circumstance in also implied.”

Then after other matters, he turns to the lines,

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides –”

which had puzzled the editor, who had written, “they don’t contrive tides, they merely record them.”

The poet answered indignantly: “ Hasn’t it often occurred that instruments originally invented for record and computation have inadvertently so extended the concepts of the entity they were invented to measure (concepts of space, etc.) in the mind and imagination that employed them, that they may metaphorically be said to have extended the original boundaries of the entity measured? This little bit of “relativity” ought not to be discredited in poetry now that scientists are proceeding to measure the universe on principles of pure ratio, quite as metaphorical, so far as previous standards of scientific methods extended.”

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