About this Piece
When Justin Montigne, Jesse Antin, and Jim Meehan first approached me about this commission, I had already chosen fourpoems (of which The enviable isles was one) that I thought would make an admirable cycle. Included in these poems was one that Melville penned in reaction to the death of his close friend (and some scholars think lover) Nathaniel Hawthorne. While this particular poem (Monody) is haunting and beautiful, the “triumvirate of J’s” were interested in a cycle of purely nautical works. So, I searched through Melville’s published poetry and, from a variety of sources, found the six that comprise These oceans vast. (Those other ‘more romantic’ poems will just have to wait until the next time around.)
For this cycle, I have arranged these six poems into a narrative that traces the emotional journey that one (presumably the poet) must have made while on a long sea journey. In the first poem, The land of love, the rallying cry is made for voyagers. However, those making the call are wise to keep mindful of the delights of home. After the voyage has begun (or perhaps, before the ship even sets sail), the second poem (The ledges of danger) is uttered, mostly likely as a sotto voce prayer in a moment of weakness or panic. Since courage is often found at the bottom of a glass (or in this case, bottle), I was happy to include Melville’s drinking song. In this third poem, the wine flows in tandem with the tide, and inspires inebriation of astronomical proportion. True to the verse that inspired it, The uttermost rim is replete with independent voice-leading, gratuitous dissonance, and what I’d like to call “moments of harmonic abandon,” not for the faint of heart or hearing.
After the hangover, a significant time has elapsed in this voyage, and we reach The last outpost, the cycle’s fourth poem. Here, we really see Melville at his most lyrical, romantic, and vulnerable. To mirror the separation from his “bride” (as well as “the world’s inverted year”), I have set most of this poem as duets, in which the voices move away from each other by step. Visually, these duets would look like a wake that a ship leaves in the water, and I hope that they will be heard this way as well. I find the references to the navigational constellations of the explorer Vasco da Gama (the first to successfully sail from Europe to India) completely breath-taking, as if the poet is trying to navigate such profound longing for the first time.
With each time I read the very short fifth poem, The lagoons unruffled, I became increasingly convinced that Melville was trying to describe the nautical version of a ‘mirage’ in the desert. In this hallucination, the serene lagoons are the harbinger of nearby land, of a halcyon shore – but they are haunted by the wreckage of those who hoped, perhaps prematurely. In the end, the voyager’s optimism is spent. He is exhausted from his endless journey, and even though he knows he is dreaming, his desire for land steers him into a dangerous path: an oncoming storm. Through the storm, we find ourselves at the sixth poem, The enviable isles, with which we finally make landfall. We see the isles from afar, rather dimly, and as we approach them and come ashore, Melville sings of the splendor of terra firma: hills and vales, dew and mist, trees and ferns, moss and pebbles, and lastly: “flocks of cheek-flushed myriads, dimpling in dream.” At long last, it seems that everyone finds rest at the end of the journey. Or perhaps this poem is a continuation of the “mirage” of the previous poem, or a sea-farer’s version of the afterlife? Maybe we will never know. All we are left with is the eternal image of the billows on the shore.