Saturday, February 26, 2011

Finding Meaning in John Marr and Other Poems

Work Used: Melville's John Marr and Other Poems (Tom Deadlight, specifically, is between a quarter and a third of the way down the page)

Herman Melville's poem “Tom Deadlight” is about “a grizzled petty-officer, one of the two captains of the forecastle” in his dying moments. The poem is dedicated to the officer's last thoughts and words, remembering his life and remarking on the state in which he is dying. This poem, like Moby Dick, shows Melville's fascination with finding meaning and completeness in life before one's death.

Tom spends the poem thinking about his impending death. He spends much of the poem in a state halfway between lamenting that he is dying and ensuring that he goes in the perfect way. He describes exactly how he wants to be buried and treated at his funeral, saying “And don't sew me up without baccy in mouth, boys, And don't blubber like lubbers when I turn up my keel.” He dwells in the beginning on saying farewell, and moves into a summary of his life a la T.S. Eliot's Prufrock. This summary shows readers what moments were important to him and he conveys a sense that he's done a sort of mental checklist of deeds that to him signal that his life is complete. He seems to take solace in the completeness. He spends the last two stanzas describing exactly how he wants to be “sent off,” describing the right farewell for himself; this shows readers that his feeling of completeness becomes almost a discovery of the meaning of life. To Tom, completeness of experience is an ultimate goal and therein a meaning of life. He feels he can die, and deserves to be respected in his death, because he's “done it all.”

Melville is still (clearly) heavily influenced by death and its implications. Specifically, Melville is fixated on man's accomplishments before his death. Melville, a man who spent most of his life struggling to understand and come to terms with religion, is fascinated with the things man feels the need to accomplish before death. This is most evident in the character of Ahab in Moby Dick; his one desire is to hunt down and kill Moby Dick. While much else goes on in the course of the novel, the one bare-bones statement that can be made of the novel is that it is a story of the struggle of one man and his crew to complete what they believe to be their crowning accomplishment. Their sense of meaning in life hinges on not Tom's simple sense of completeness, but the one specific deed of killing Moby Dick.

In many other ways, Moby Dick is a novel about finding meaning in life. The sort of last-resort feeling that a whaling ship exudes for most is a solid example of this. Most of the men in a whaling crew have no choice but to be on that ship. While their lives seem miserable, and they are tortured by many higher-ups on the ship as well as the appalling conditions of the ship, they are there because they had no better options. Their lives showed no sign of a meaning in any form, and so they joined the crew on a whaling ship in an attempt to find that meaning last-minute. Moby Dick presented himself as a fleeting embodiment of that meaning.

Many other of Melville's characters in Moby Dick are searching for other sorts of meaning. The relationship (whether sexual or non-sexual) between Ishmael and Queequeg is the most blatant search. Neither man has any close personal relationships, and when they find each other and realize that they can find the fulfillment of this kind of a relationship after all they have found a sort of meaning. In the chapter called The Sermon, Father Mapple (wrongly) interprets the biblical story of Jonah and the Whale to suit his own beliefs, giving himself a sense of pride and causing himself to feel as though he has also found meaning.


  1. You use the poem very well. I think that, as you finish the novel, it will become even clearer to you that the poem is relevant - there is material about Queequeg close to the end which fits in very well with your reading. The great but problematic philosopher Martin Heidegger has a concept translated as "Being-Toward-Death": that life derives all of its meaning from the reality and from the threat of death, which helps us to organize and structure all life leading up to it. To me, that concept seems at least related to your reading of Melville here, although I may be overreading.

    I would also ask, given this structure, if you understand the quest for MD as an error, or necessary, or perhaps as a necessary error, given the fact that it is producing meaning or structure for their lives.

    This was, in short, good and interesting, but its full potential can only be exploited, I think, in relationship with the novel as a whole.

  2. Overall the entry had a nice flow and informative. I was left looking for a longer quote from the poem so I could get a better feel of how it was written. Also, I think it could be interesting if you tied in your own beliefs to the topic of life before death. The conclusion left me wanting more, a further expansion of the idea of the other characters aslo contributing to the thesis. All and all I liked the essay and I think it could be interesting to revise and expand.