In old times authors were proud of the privilege of dedicating their works to Majesty. A right noble custom, which we of Berkshire must revive. For whether we will or no, Majesty is all around us here in Berkshire, sitting as in a grand Congress of Vienna of majestical hill-tops, and eternally challenging our homage.
But since the majestic mountain, Greylock -- my own more immediate sovereign lord and king -- hath now, for innumerable ages, been the one grand dedicatee of the earliest rays of all the Berkshire mornings, I know not how his Imperial Purple Majesty (royal-born: Porphyrogenitus) will receive the dedication of my own poor solitary ray.
Nevertheless, forasmuch as I, dwelling with my loyal neighbors, the Maples and the Beeches, in the amphitheater over which his central majesty presides, have received his most bounteous and unstinted fertilizations, it is but meet, that I here devoutly kneel, and render up my gratitude, whether, thereto, The Most Excellent Purple Majesty of Greylock benignantly incline his hoary crown or no.
Biography, in its purer form, confined to the ended lives of the true and brave, may be held the fairest meed of human virtue -- one given and received in entire disinterestedness -- since neither can the biographer hope for acknowledgement from the subject, nor the subject at all avail himself of the biographical distinction conferred.
Israel Potter well merits the present tribute -- a private of Bunker Hill, who for his faithful services was years ago promoted to a still deeper privacy under the ground, with a posthumous pension, in default of any during life, annually paid him by the spring in ever-new mosses and sward.
I am the more encouraged to lay this performance at the feet of your Highness, because, with a change in the grammatical person, it preserves, almost as in a reprint, Israel Potter's autobiographical story. Shortly after his return in infirm old age to his native land, a little narrative of his adventures, forlornly published on sleazy gray paper, appeared among the peddlers, written, probably, not by himself, but taken down from his lips by another. But like the crutch-marks of the cripple by the Beautiful Gate, this blurred record is now out of print. From a tattered copy, rescued by the merest chance from the rag-pickers, the present account has been drawn, which, with the exception of some expansions, and additions of historic and personal details, and one or two shiftings of scene, may, perhaps, be not unfitly regarded something in the light of a dilapidated old tombstone retouched.
Well aware that in your Highness' eyes the merit of the story must be in its general fidelity to the main drift of the original narrative, I forbore anywhere to mitigate the hard fortunes of my hero; and particularly towards the end, though sorely tempted, durst not substitute for the allotment of Providence any artistic recompense of poetical justice; so that no one can complain of the gloom of my closing chapters more profoundly than myself.
Such is the work, and such the man, that I have the honor to present to your Highness. That the name here noted should not have appeared in the volumes of Sparks, may or may not be a matter for astonishment; but Israel Potter seems purposely to have waited to make his popular advent under the present exalted patronage, seeing that your Highness, according to the definition above, may, in the loftiest sense, be deemed the Great Biographer; the national commemorator of such of the anonymous privates of June 17, 1775, who may never have received other requital that the solid reward of your granite.
Your Highness will pardon me, if, with the warmest ascriptions on this auspicious occasion, I take the liberty to mingle my hearty congratulations on the recurrence of the anniversary day we celebrate, wishing your Highness (though indeed your Highness be somewhat prematurely gray) many returns of the same, and that each of its summer's suns may shine as brightly on your brow as each winter snow shall lightly rest on the grave of Israel Potter.
Most devoted and obsequious,
June 17th, 1854.
Health and Content:
Hilary, my companionable acquaintance, during an afternoon stroll under the trees along the higher bluffs of our Riverside Park last June, entertained me with one of those clever little theories, for the originating and formulating whereof he has a singular aptitude. He had but recently generalised it -- so, at least, I inferred -- from certain subtler particulars which, in the instances of sundry individuals, he flattered himself his perspicacity had enabled him to discern.
Let me communicate to you this theory; not that I imagine you will hail it as a rare intellectual acquisition; hardly that, but because I am much mistaken if it do not attract your personal interest, however little it may otherwise, and with other people, win consideration or regard.
Briefly put, it is this. Letting alone less familiar nationalities, an American born in England, or an Englishman born in America, each in his natural make-up retains through life, and will some way evince, an intangible something imbibed with his mother's milk from the soil of his nativity.
But for a signal illustration hereof, whom, think you, he cites? Well, look into any mirror at hand and you will see the gentleman. Yes, Hilary thinks he perceives in the nautical novels of W. C. R. an occasional flavour as if the honest mid-sea brine, their main constituent, were impregnated with a dash of the New World's alluvium -- such, say, as is discharged by our Father of Waters into the Gulf of Mexico. "Natural enough," he observes; "for, though a countryman of the Queen -- his parentage, home, and allegiance all English -- this writer, I am credibly informed, is in his birthplace a New-Worlder; ay, first looked out upon life from a window here of our island of Manhattan, nor very far from the site of my place in Broadway, by Jove!"
Now, Hilary is that rare bird, a man at once genial and acute. Genial, I mean, without sharing much in mere gregariousness, which, with some, passes for a sort of geniality; and acute, though lacking more or less in cautionary self-scepticism. No wonder then that, however pleasing and instructive be Hilary's companionship, and much as I value the man, yet as touching more than one of his shrewder speculations I have been reluctantly led to distrust a little that penetrative perspicacity of his, a quality immoderately developed in him, and perhaps (who knows?) developed by his business; for he is an optician, daily having to do with the microscope, telescope, and other inventions for sharpening and extending our natural sight, thus enabling us mortals (as I once heard an eccentric put it) liberally to enlarge the field of our original and essential ignorance.
In a word, my excellent friend's private little theory, while, like many a big and bruited one, not without a fancifully plausible aspect commending it to the easy of belief, is yet, in my humble judgment -- though I would not hint as much to him for the world -- made up in no small part of one element inadmissible in sound philosophy -- namely, moonshine.
As to his claim of finding signal evidence for it in the novels aforementioned, that is another matter. That, I am inclined to think, is little else than the amiable illusion of a zealous patriot eager to appropriate anything that in any department may tend to reflect added lustre upon his beloved country.
But, dismissing theory, let me come to a fact, and put it fact-wise; that is to say, a bit bluntly: By the suffrages of seamen and landsmen alike, The Wreck of the Grosvenor entitles the author to the naval crown in current literature. That book led the series of kindred ones by the same hand; it is the flagship, and to name it implies the fleet.
Upon the Grosvenor's first appearance -- in these waters, I was going to say -- all competent judges exclaimed, each after his own fashion, something to this effect: The very spit of the brine in our faces! What writer, so thoroughly as this one, knows the sea and the blue water of it; the sailor and the heart of him; the ship, too, and the sailing and handling of a ship? Besides, to his knowledge he adds invention. And, withal, in his broader humane quality he shares the spirit of Richard H. Dana, a true poet's son, our own admirable Man before the Mast.
Well, in view of those unanimous verdicts summed up in the foregoing condensed delivery, with what conscientious satisfaction did I but just now, in the heading of this inscription, salute you, W. C. R., by running up your colours at my fore. Would that the craft thus embravened were one of some tonnage, so that the flag might be carried on a loftier spar, commanding an ampler horizon of your recognising friends.
But the pleasure I take in penning these lines is such that, did a literary inscription imply aught akin to any bestowment, say, or benefit -- which it is so very far indeed from implying -- then, sinner though I am, I should be tempted to repeat that divine apothegm which, were it repeated forever, would never stale: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." And though by the world at large so unworldly a maxim receives a more hospitable welcome at the ear than in the heart -- and no wonder, considering the persistent deceptiveness of so many things mundane -- nevertheless, in one province -- and I mean no other one than literature -- not every individual, I think, at least not every one whose years ought to discharge him from the minor illusions, will dispute it, who has had experience alike in receiving and giving, in one suggestive form or other, sincere contemporary praise. And what, essentially, is such praise? Little else indeed than a less ineloquent form of recognition.
That these thoughts are no spurious ones, never mind from whomsoever proceeding, one naturally appeals to the author of The Wreck of the Grosvenor, who, in his duality as a commended novelist and liberal critic in his more especial department, may rightly be deemed an authority well qualified to determine.
Thus far as to matters which may be put into type. For personal feeling the printed page is hardly the place for reiterating that. So I close here as I began, wishing you from my heart the most precious things I know of in this world -- Health and Content.
With you and me, Winnie, Red Clover has always been one of the dearest of the flowers of the field: an avowal by the way as you well ween, which implies no undelight as to this ruddy young brother's demure little half-sister, White Clover. Our feeling for both sorts originates in no fanciful associations egotistic in kind. It is not, for example, because in any exceptional way we have verified in experience the aptness of that pleasant figure of speech, Living in clover -- not for this do we so take to the Ruddy One, for all that we once dwelt annually surrounded by flushed acres of it. Neither have we, jointly or severally, so frequently lighted upon that rare four-leaved variety accounted of happy augury to the finder; though, to be sure, on my part, I yearly remind you of the coincidence in my chancing on such a specimen by the wayside on the early forenoon of the fourth day of a certain bridal month, now four years more than four times ten years ago.
But, tell, do we not take to this flower -- for flower it is, though with the florist hardly ranking with the floral clans -- not alone that in itself it is a thing of freshness and beauty, but also that being no delicate foster-child of the nurseryman, but a hardy little creature of out-of-doors accessible and familiar to every one, no one can monopolize its charm. Yes, we are communists here.
Sweet in the mouth of that brindled heifer, whose breath you so loved to inhale, and doubtless pleasant to her nostril and eye; sweet as well to the like senses in ourselves, prized by that most radical of men, the farmer, to whom wild amaranths in a pasture, though emblems of immortality, are but weeds and anathema; finding favour even with so peevish a busybody as the bee; is it not the felicitous fortune of our favourite to incur no creature's displeasure, but to enjoy, and without striving for it, the spontaneous goodwill of all? Why it is that this little peasant of the flowers revels in so enviable an immunity and privilege, not in equal degree shared by any of us mortals however gifted and good; that indeed is something the reason whereof may not slumber very deep. But -- In pace; always leave a sleeper to his repose.
How often at our adopted homestead on the hillside -- now ours no more -- the farm-house, long ago shorn by the urbane barbarian succeeding us in the proprietorship -- shorn of its gambrel roof and dormer windows, and when I last saw it indolently settling in serene contentment of natural decay; how often, Winnie, did I come in from my ramble early in the bright summer mornings of old, with a handful of these cheap little cheery roses of the meek, newly purloined from the fields to consecrate them on that bit of a maple-wood mantel -- your altar, somebody called it -- in the familiar room facing your beloved South! And in October most did I please myself in gathering them from the moist matted aftermath in an enriched little hollow near by, soon to be snowed upon and for consecutive months sheeted from view. And once -- you remember it -- having culled them in a sunny little flurry of snow, winter's frolic skirmisher in advance, the genial warmth of your chamber melted the fleecy flakes into dewdrops rolling off from the ruddiness, "Tears of the happy," you said.
Well, and to whom but to thee, Madonna of the Trefoil, should I now dedicate these "Weeds and Wildings," thriftless children of quite another and yet later spontaneous aftergrowth, and bearing indications, too apparent it may be, of that terminating season on which the offerer verges. But take them. And for aught suggestion of the "melting mood" that any may possibly betray, call to mind the dissolved snowflakes on the ruddy oblation of old, and remember your "Tears of the Happy."
Captain of the
in the year 1843
in the U.S. Frigate
Return to Melville Home Page
Please address all correspondence on this Site to email@example.com
The Life and Works of Herman Melville is brought to you by Multiverse.