By Charles Matthews

Monday, October 25, 2010

3. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 75-97

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! or The Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano
Style takes precedence over everything else in this story, a fable with a simple plot: A man is relieved from his depression by the energetic crowing of a rooster. He grows obsessed with finding the bird and finally tracks down its owner, a poor day-laborer named Merrymusk, who has an invalid wife and four sick children. The rooster's crow cheers them up, and Merrymusk is consequently unwilling to sell the bird to the narrator. But when the narrator returns to visit Merrymusk and his family after some time, he finds the man dead. Then the rooster crows and the wife dies; it crows again and the children die; and it crows once more and falls dead. The narrator buries them and carves an effigy on the gravestone:
a lusty cock in the act of crowing, ... with the words beneath:  
O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory? 
... and never since then have I felt the doleful dumps, but under all circumstances crow late and early with a continual crow:

COCK-A-DOODLE-DOO! -- OO! -- OO! -- OO! -- OO!
What matters here, apart from the symbolic import of the rooster, is the way Melville tells the tale, with a macabre irony that's not unusual in his work, but also with a strangely evocative way of describing landscape. In the narrator's depressed state, "It was a cool and misty, damp, disagreeable air. The country looked underdone, its raw juices squirting out all round." The air is "squitchy," the sod is "oozy." The time is early spring, "a divided empire," part dead, part alive. He sits down on "a rotted log" near the hilltop and regards "a lagging, fever-and-aguish river" hovered over by "shreds of vapor" like "very soaky towels hung on criss-cross clothes-lines to dry."

He ponders recent disasters: an accident on the Ohio River "where my good friend and thirty other good fellows were sloped into eternity at the bidding of a thick-headed engineer who knew not a valve from a flue." And a "crash on the railroad ... where two infatuate trains ran pell-mell into each other, and climbed and clawed each other's backs," taking the lives of "near a score of noble hearts, a bride and her groom, and an innocent little infant." And he asks the inevitable question: "Don't the heavens themselves ordain these things -- else they could not happen?"

"A miserable world!" he calls it, and fumes about the "Great improvements of the age! What! to call the facilitation of death and murder an improvement!" He rails not only against progress, but also against "that smaller dunning fiend, my creditor," who pursues him even into church where he "pokes his pesky bill under my nose in the very midst of my devotions."

But suddenly, "What a triumphant thanksgiving of a cock-crow! 'Glory be to God in the highest!' It says those words as plain as ever cock did in this world." Now's the time for the skeptic to point out that no rooster has ever said those words, plainly or not, but the irony is not for the narrator to express. He goes on to laud it as "blessed" and as "Clear, shrill, full of pluck, full of fire, full of fun, full of glee. It plainly says -- 'Never say die!' My friends, it is extraordinary, is it not?"

Well, no, it isn't extraordinary for people in search of consolation to reach for it wherever they can find it: Wordsworth found it in daffodils, Keats in the song of a nightingale, and so on through the annals of literary consolation. And even the narrator succumbs to reality: "Come to think of it, cocks crow mostly in the beginning of the day. Their pluck ain't lasting, after all. Yes, yes; even cocks have to succumb to the universal spell of tribulation: jubilant in the beginning, but down in the mouth at the end." Still, he watches a train go by without fretting about potential disaster: "How cheerfully the steam-pipe chirps." And he concludes that he feels better for the walk, forgetting how squitchy and oozy it was at the outset. He feels "as stout as Samson" and thinks about going to the woods and cutting a club to use on his creditor.

In fact, he gives the creditor the bum's rush when he shows up later, and as he does so the rooster crows again with "such a perfect paean and laudamus -- such a trumpet-blast of triumph that my soul fairly snorted in me." Now what had been a spiritual experience, a glorification of God, becomes merely a validation of the narrator's taking matters into his own rough hands.  And he continues to invest the cock-crow with approval of his own self-serving actions: When he has a moment of doubt about the righteousness of roughing up the bill-collector, he again hears the crow and interprets it to mean, "Let the world and all aboard of it go to pot. Do you be jolly, and never say die. What's the world compared to you? What is it, anyhow, but a lump of loam? Do you be jolly!"

But the cock stops crowing when the narrator takes his finances in hand and pays off his debts. Though he searches for the bird, he finds it only when he makes the acquaintance of Merrymusk, who was once "a thriftless man ... who would work hard a month with surprising soberness, and then spend all his wages in one riotous night." But Merrymusk changed his ways, settled down, and now devotes himself to supporting his ailing wife and children. Merrymusk, and not some rich man, as the narrator had expected, is the owner of the rooster.
A cock, more like a golden eagle than a cock. A cock, more like a Field Marshal than a cock. A cock, more like Lord Nelson with all his glittering arms on, standing on the Vanguard's quarter-deck going into battle, than a cock. A cock, more like the Emperor Charlemagne in his robes at Aix-la-Chapelle, than a cock.
The narrator is reminded of a character in an opera he once saw, Signor Beneventano -- the name means "good wind." Merrymusk's wife and children love to hear the cock, which they call Trumpet, crow, even when it does so loudly that it frightens the narrator, "like some overpowering angel in the Apocalypse."

Merrymusk refuses any sum for the rooster because of his family's love for the sound of the bird. The narrator goes away filled with admiration for Merrymusk, and stays away for several weeks, during which several of his relatives die and he hears the cock crow whenever he receives the news of their deaths. He returns to Merrymusk's home only to witness the deaths of the man, his family, and the rooster.

So about the symbology of this rooster. Melville helps us out a bit by having the narrator refer to the rooster as the "bird rightly offered up by the invincible Socrates, in testimony over his final victory over life." Socrates at his execution reminded Crito to sacrifice a rooster to Asclepius, the god of healing, for his deliverance from the illness of life. The rooster's triumphant crowing at the deaths of Merrymusk and his family seems to echo this. And the name Merrymusk gives the rooster, Trumpet, connects with the narrator's likening of the bird to "some overpowering angel in the Apocalypse."

There doesn't seem to be any direct allusion to a crowing cock that Melville's readers would have known even better than the bird sacrificed by Socrates: the one in the Gospels that crowed after Peter denied Jesus three times. But as an archetype of the awakening conscience, it may have some relevance to the narrator's emergence from his self-absorption.

And then, of course, there's the rooster, impregnator of hens, as a symbol of male potency. Melville refers to the story's rooster as a cock throughout, but I've avoided the word simply because one inevitably stumbles into double entendre. Melville knows this well, and he inserts his own double entendre into the narrator's dialogue with Merrymusk -- though the entendre is so blatant as to be almost single:
"My friend," said I, "do you know of any gentleman hereabouts who owns an extraordinary cock?"

The twinkle glittered quite plain in the wood-sawyer's eye.

"I know of no gentleman," he replied, "who has what might well be called an extraordinary cock." 
I feel sure that Melville intended the joke, but his were genteel times, and he could explain it away to the easily offended: Merrymusk, the possessor of the extraordinary ... um, rooster, is not a gentleman.

Which just goes to show that, as Freud almost said, sometimes a cock is just a cock.

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