By Charles Matthews

Thursday, November 4, 2010

13. Great Short Works of Herman Melville, pp. 429-466

Great Short Works of Herman Melville (Perennial Classics)Billy Budd, Sailor, 1-15
The homoeroticism of Melville's story, like that of Moby-Dick, has been much commented-on in the past quarter century, so we might as well start with it. After all, Melville does, with his extended comments on "the Handsome Sailor."

It's especially striking that the first H.S. he discusses at length is a black man, reflecting Melville's genuine (and for his time unusual) open appreciation of other races. He recalls "a common sailor so intensely black that he must needs have been a native African of the unadulterate blood of Ham -- a symmetric figure much above the average height." He goes on to note "the displayed ebony of his chest" and "his shapely head." But most of all he recalls him as the center of his company of shipmates, "such an assortment of tribes and complexions as would have well fitted them to be marched up by Anacharsis Cloots before the bar of the first French Assembly as Representatives of the Human Race." "Anacharsis Cloots" is one of those recondite allusions that Melville likes to indulge in, but it's not entirely irrelevant. Cloots was a radical Prussian nobleman who became a prominent figure in the French Revolution, voting for the guillotining of Louis XVI and himself being guillotined by Robespierre. In the context of "Billy Budd," which takes place on an English warship battling the French, where suspicion of disloyalty is rife, it brings in the right note of historical irony.

Melville the moralist is concerned to note that the attraction of the Handsome Sailor is not entirely physical:
The moral nature was seldom out of keeping with the physical make. Indeed, except as toned by the former, the comeliness and power, always attractive in masculine conjunction, hardly could have drawn the sort of honest homage the Handsome Sailor in some examples received from his less gifted associates.
And so to our Handsome Sailor, "welkin-eyed Billy Budd." (Though the first specimen of the type Melville describes is a black man, Billy is a blue-eyed blond.) Twenty-one-year-old Billy is impressed onto the Bellipotent from the merchant ship Rights-of-Man, whose "owner was a staunch admirer of Thomas Paine." It's a sad loss for the Rights, where Billy magically brought order out of chaos: "a virtue went out of him, sugaring the sour ones." On the other hand, he once had to subdue a bully called Red Whiskers to gain respect: "Quick as lightning Billy let fly his arm. I dare say he never meant to do quite a much as he did, but anyhow he gave the burly fool a terrible drubbing." And he and Red Whiskers became fast friends. (History will not repeat itself on the Bellipotent.) 

Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd
Billy gets off on something of a wrong foot when he leaves his old ship, calling out, "And good-bye to you too, old Rights-of-Man," which earns him a reprimand from the lieutenant ushering him onto the Bellipotent, who took it as "a covert sally on the new recruit's part, a sly slur at impressment in general, and that of himself in especial." Billly, of course, is innocent of any such meaning: "To deal in double meanings and insinuations of any sort was quite foreign to his nature."

In Benjamin Britten's opera, Billy is usually played by a bare-chested barihunk like Nathan Gunn or Simon Keenlyside, and in Peter Ustinov's film he was the not at all innocent-looking Terence Stamp. But Melville's Billy "looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face all but feminine in purity of natural complexion." He elicits "an ambiguous smile in one or two harder faces among the bluejackets." And he "showed in face that humane look of reposeful good nature which the Greek sculptor in some instances gave to his heroic strong man, Hercules." He is, he tells them, a foundling, with no knowledge of his paternity, left "in a pretty silk-lined basket" at the door of a good man in Bristol, so he's "a presumable by-blow, and, evidently, no ignoble one." But he is also illiterate, and, "like the beautiful woman in one of Hawthorne's minor tales, there was just one thing amiss in him." In moments of stress, he is afflicted with a stammer." As Melville insists, this is a sign "that he is not presented as a conventional hero, but also that the story in which he is the main figure is no romance."

Simon Keenlyside as Billy Budd
The time, Melville now tells us, is the summer of 1797, just after the mutiny at Nore, an anchorage in the Thames, which was essentially a strike for better pay and other improvements in the conditions of sailors. "To the British Empire the Nore Mutiny was what a strike in the fire brigade would be to a London threatened by general arson." 

The captain of the Bellipotent is Edward Fairfax Vere, "a bachelor of forty or thereabouts, a sailor of distinction even in a time prolific of renowned seamen." He is "the most undemonstrative of men" and "though practical enough upon occasion would at times betray a certain deaminess of mood." His nickname, "Starry Vere," which comes from a passage in Andrew Marvell's "Upon Appleton House," emphasizes both his aristocratic lineage and his "dreaminess of mood." In contrast to the illiterate Billy Budd, Vere has "a marked leaning toward everything intellectual" with  a "bias toward those books to which every serious mind of superior order occupying any active post of authority in the world naturally inclines." He is also a Burkean conservative, opposed to revolutionary ideas "not alone because they seemed to him insusceptible of embodiment in lasting institutions, but at war with the peace of the world and the true welfare of mankind."

Terence Stamp as Billy Budd
And then there's John Claggart, the master-at-arms, a job that is "a sort of chief of police charged among other matters with the duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun-decks." Claggart is "about five-and-thirty, somewhat spare and tall, yet of no ill figure on the whole. His hand was too small and shapely to have been accustomed to hard toil." Here we can compare Billy's "indurated hand dyed to the orange-tawny of the toucan's bill, a hand telling alike of the halyards and the tar-bucket." Claggart's "brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average intellect," but there is an amber hue to his skin that not only contrasts with the "red or deeply bronzed visages of the sailors" but also "seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood." There is even something suspect about his birth, as there is about Billy's, except that in Claggart it lies in his accent, which suggests that he's not a native Englishman but acquired his speech "through naturalization in early childhood." There is something secretive, something "off" about Claggart.
About as much was really known to the Bellipotent's tars of the master-at-arms' career before entering the service as an astronomer knows about a comet's travels prior to its first observable appearance in the sky.
Meanwhile, Billy is making himself comfortable on the ship, but he is "horrified" when he watches another sailor being flogged for missing his assigned duty, and vows never to find himself in that situation. And there's some trouble "about such matters as the stowage of his bag or something amiss in his hammock" that brings a "vague threat" from one of the ship's corporals. But he finds a friend in old Dansker, who has a scarred cheek and a face "peppered blue" from having been near a fired musket, which has earned him the nickname "Board-Her-in-the-Smoke." The Dansker starts calling Billy "Baby," and when Billy confides in him the small trouble he's encountered, "laconically said, 'Baby Budd, Jemmy Legs,' (meaning the master-at-arms) 'is down on you.'" Billy protests that Claggart always says nice things to him, and the Dansker replies, "And that's because he's down upon you, Baby Budd."

The next day Billy spills his soup on the newly scrubbed deck, right in the path of Claggart. But the response from the master-at-arms is "Handsomely done my lad! And handsome is as handsome did it, too!" Which encourages Billy to think the Dansker is wrong. But after ignoring Billy's accident, Claggart speaks sharply to a drummer-boy who accidentally collides with him and gives him "a sharp cut with the rattan."

And now Melville explores Claggart's perverse and secret antipathy toward Billy as a kind of "natural depravity" that "folds itself in the mantle of respectability" and "is without vices or small sins.... In short, the depravity here meant partakes nothing of the sordid or sensual." He is a madman "of the most dangerous sort, for their lunacy is not continuous, but occasional, evoked by some special object." And "whatever its aims may be -- and the aim is never declared -- the method and the outward proceeding are always perfectly rational."
Now something such an one was Claggart, in whom was the mania of an evil nature, not engendered by vicious training or corrupting books or licentious living, but born with him and innate, in short, "a depravity according to nature."
Here it's good to recall what Melville wrote about Billy earlier: "Billy in many respects was little more than a sort of upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company." It's Billy's innocence and "his significant personal beauty" that stir Claggart's malice.
If askance he eyed the good looks, cheery health, and frank enjoyment of young life in Billy Budd, it was because these went along with a nature that, as Claggart magnetically felt, had in its simplicity never willed malice or experienced the reactionary bite of that serpent.... One person excepted, the master-at-arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.
Claggart covets Billy's innocence but realizes he is incapable of it -- it's something he has never known, and therefore it torments him. Claggart's "motiveless malignancy," to borrow Coleridge's characterization of Iago, is an "elemental evil" within that he is unable to overcome: "apprehending the good, but powerless to be it."

Claggart has a henchman, a corporal known as "Squeak," who recognizes his master's obsession with Billy and does everything he can to feed it, "perverting to his chief certain innocent frolics of the good-natured foretopman, besides inventing for his mouth sundry contumelious epithets he claimed to have overheard him let fall." And "Claggart's conscience ... justified animosity into a sort of retributive righteousness," setting off a "clandestine persecution of Billy."

But other people have their eye on Billy, too. Namely the ship's malcontents who, assuming that as an impressed sailor, Billy shares their sense of the wrong done to them. One of them approaches Billy at night and tries to enlist him in their cause, but Billy, shocked by the very idea into a stammer, threatens that he will "t - t - toss you back over the r - rail!" He "instinctively" recognizes "evil of some sort." But though he knows he should report the encounter, he also realizes "that it would savor overmuch of the dirty work of a telltale. He kept the thing to himself." But he confides the gist of it to the Dansker, who once again repeats his warning that "Jemmy Legs is down on you."

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