Melville’s Secrets: The Walter Harding Lecture, 2010

Yesterday afternoon I gave the 2010 Walter Harding lecture at SUNY Geneseo. The lecture series is named after Walter Harding, who taught for decades in Geneseo and was the preeminent twentieth-century scholar of Henry David Thoreau, and I felt it was a tremendous honor to have been asked. I talked about Melville’s secrets—in particular, about a distorted Platonic myth that I suspect may be present in Moby-Dick. “Ishmael,” I claimed, “might be considered a final, uninvited guest to Plato’s banquet, and his tale a postscript to Diotima’s.”

SUNY Geneseo has already uploaded a video of my talk (perhaps also embedded below, if I’ve coaxed the html sufficiently); a downloadable audio is forthcoming. I’m not going to post a transcript, because I’m hoping to revise the talk into a scholarly paper in the not-too-distant future. To that end, if any of you who heard the talk yesterday or who listen to it online have suggestions, corrections, or comments, please get in touch.

I had a great time at SUNY Geneseo. Many thanks to Marjorie Harding, for the gift that made the lecture series possible; it was an honor to meet the Harding family. I’m very grateful to Geneseo’s English department for their hospitality and great questions. I’m especially grateful to department chair Paul Schacht for his support and guidance, to associate professor Alice Rutkowski for a very kind introduction, and to the college president and English professor Christopher Dahl and his wife Ruth Rowse for a lovely dinner.

Other, less difficult media

While rummaging through my shelves, I came across a poem from the 1950s that seems strangely apropos to current debates about the future of the book, or its possible lack of one: “To Posterity,” by Louis MacNeice:

When books have all seized up like the books in graveyards
And reading and even speaking have been replaced
By other, less difficult, media, we wonder if you
Will find in flowers and fruit the same colour and taste
They held for us for whom they were framed in words,
And will your grass be green, your sky be blue,
Or will your birds be always wingless birds?

I now also see, thanks to the online equivalent of rummaging, that MacNeice’s letters will be published in a couple of weeks.

Cockney Keats?

“Keats Speaks,” my essay about whether the real Keats spoke the way the one in the recent Jane Campion movie does, appears in the 1 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine.

You can read the Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine article that accused Keats of “Cockney rhymes” here (though signed “Z.,” it was by John Gibson Lockhart, and it appeared in the August 1818 issue). Just as infamous was a similar attack in the Quarterly Review by John Wilson Croker (though the issue was dated April 1818, it actually appeared in September).

Lhude sing cuccu

With a puppy in the house, I have had occasion lately to be reminded of the poem “Cuckoo Song,” also known by its first line, “Sumer is icumen in,” which is the first poem in both of the editions of the Oxford Book of English Verse that I happen to own. In particular, the second verse has seemed pertinent:

Awe bleteth after lomb,
Lhouth after calve cu;
Bulluc sterteth, bucke verteth,
Murie sing cuccu!

Or, to modernize it slightly, thereby ruining the rhymes:

Ewe bleats after lamb,
Cow lows after calf;
Bullock leaps, buck farts,
Merry sing cuckoo!

It’s the verting of the bucke that makes the poem, in my opinion. It’s so homely and unexpected—so unexpected that for a long time I’ve carried around in my head the notion that perhaps deer really do fart more in the early summer than at other times of the year. After all, ewes are more likely to have lambs then, and cows calves. I speculated that maybe in late spring deer start to eat grass and leaves in greater quantities, and maybe it takes their digestive systems a little while to adjust, and in thirteenth-century England, where deer and humans lived in gunpowder-free proximity, people noticed.

Maybe. But thanks to the internet, I see that a hunter in Texas heard a whitetail doe startle her fellow deer in January, and there are a couple of videos of farting deer available online, posted in October and November, so I’m guessing that deer fart year-round, not just in June, and that the poet intended for farting deer, like leaping bullocks, to signify a general, seasonless exuberance.

Lullaby

You shall be the rose you see
And the cardinal’s cry you hear.
No frost will come, when north is south,
To end the cutworm’s year.

And you shall be the breeze you feel
Caress you with a sigh.
But songbirds’ breasts will pillows be
For mites that never die.

And you shall be the bud that starts,
And petals as they fall,
And the sixfold mouth that eats the bud
That never starts at all.