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Revolutionary Changes in Sensibility”: References to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in W. H. Auden’s 1949 Page-Barbour Lectures1

Jacek Partyka


The article centers on The Enchafèd Flood: The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, a series of Page-Barbour Lectures delivered by W. H. Auden at the University of Virginia in 1949, in which he analyzed the Romantic and late nineteenth-century images of the sea, contrasted with images of the desert, giving a partisan interpretation of Melville’s selected prose (Moby-Dick in particular). As his reconsideration of the iconography is underpinned by a political agenda, in this article I comment on Auden’s lectures as exemplifications of a particular, pivotal moment in the development of Melville studies after the 1920s revival.

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  • 1 The research for this article was possible thanks to the grant that the University of Białystok rec (...)
  • 2 See, for example, the two series of meditative poems “Horae Canonicae” and “Bucolics.”
  • 3 A comprehensive review of critical works published during the period of the so-called Melville Revi (...)

1In the late 1940s and the 1950s, after W. H. Auden had settled in New York City, his poetic preoccupations were less marked by self-analysis and political dilemmas, moving instead into the domains of history, religion, and nature.2 He was more engaged with the literature of his new homeland, and the early American poem entitled “Herman Melville” is only one indication of this. The present article centers on The Enchafèd Flood: The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, a seldom-read book documenting a series of Page-Barbour Lectures delivered by Auden at the University of Virginia in 1949, in which he analyzed the Romantic and late nineteenth-century images of the sea and the desert, giving an interpretation of Herman Melville’s selected prose. Auden examined territories of the Romantic and contemporary experience through the myth of the heroic artist and considered the relation between the individual and society in these two historical contexts. His lectures are an example of Melville studies after the 1920s revival.3 As argued below, Auden’s reading of the nineteenth-century iconography of the sea, Moby-Dick in particular, is subtly underpinned by a political agenda, which the poet himself tried to camouflage at the time. To contextualize my discussion, I briefly refer to a few examples of Melville criticism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and then consider selected early critical reception of The Enchafèd Flood by John E. Housman, Richard Chase, and Monroe K. Spears.

  • 4 An essential (but not discussed herein) contribution to the critical reflection on Melville's work (...)

2As for the approach to Melville’s prose and poetry in the U.S. during and in the wake of World War II, we note a critical watershed moment and an evident politicization of points of view, particularly on the meaning of Moby-Dick.4 Increased interest in the nineteenth-century narrative about whale hunting was further driven by the Cold War climate. In the mid-1980s, commenting on F. O. Matthiessen’s groundbreaking study American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), New Historicist Donald Pease argued that Melville’s text was given prominence as an instance of direct expression of the intellectual contention between good and evil, between Ishmael—who allegorically codifies freedom—and Ahab, the hegemonic ruler (113-17). This, of course, was true not only of Melville’s novel; similarly, other canonical texts were read through an ideological lens by the critical establishment of the era. Criticism of such kind, still held in considerable esteem in the academy, brings to the fore the apocalyptic elements of Melville’s novel—Pequod is a microcosm of American diversity in terms of class and race, and its destruction is the demise of the symbol. Likewise, the ocean is the site of imperialist conquest and its ultimate defeat. The final scene of the story, a cataclysmic image of the sinking, turned the attention of Matthiessen and other commentators towards Ishmael, who survives as the embodiment of American freedom and is the guarantor of the salvation of American heritage.

3The 1947 study Call Me Ishmael by Charles Olson, Matthiessen’s student and a soon-to-be accomplished poet, was the result of fourteen years of trail-blazing archival research. Olson’s analysis of Moby-Dick only partially meets the criteria of a scholarly work; instead, it is a series of often loosely connected theses and observations, taking the form which he proposed as most adequate for poetry: “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION” (“Projective Verse” 52). Compared with any other critical text of the Melville revival period, the way Olson approaches the nineteenth-century classic novel is closest to Auden’s poetic, rhizomatic ruminations presented at the University of Virginia two years later.

  • 5 This is a reference to an archeological point near the town of Folsom, New Mexico, the 1927 excavat (...)

4Olson’s analysis revolves around the following thesis: “I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave5 to now” (Call Me 11). As is further argued, Melville’s novel stresses the American desire to conquer and appropriate the vastness of space in order to force it into submission. Whaling expeditions were the first spectacular manifestation of this desire: they entailed a considerable financial outlay, expansion of fleet size, hierarchization of labor force, organization, and logistics. In this view, Ahab becomes a figure of total control, an individual treating the world around him as the domain of resources to be used: “To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby-Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource” (12). The use of the word “democrat” is significant. The whaling industry, as a rule, was based on collective effort, which proved to be a challenge to the very idea of democracy. The Pequod crew could be considered—metaphorically speaking—as the embodiment of a democratic ideal: a few dozen people from different social strata, with different skin colors, and different ethnic backgrounds, taking joint action to achieve a set goal. They are a harmonious community. On the other hand, the structure of the whaling industry—indeed, any industry—is strictly hierarchical. It is based on the capital of investors, the decisions of managers, and the technology implemented by the trained workforce. To a degree, then, it resembles the aristocratic order, which Melville himself points out in two chapters entitled “Knights and Squires.” Paradoxically, as Paul Christensen notes, in the first half of the nineteenth century, as a result of the expansive development of industry, the idea of American democracy “was subverted by the economic structure it had nourished” (32).

5Upon its publication, Richard Chase’s Herman Melville: A Critical Study (1949) was hailed as a monumental monograph and “the flagship text of a burgeoning liberal model of American studies” (Redding 168). Recognizing Melville as “one of our fathers,” Chase seeks answers to the question, “What do they [Melville’s books] say to us in our time of trouble?” (vii, xii). At the same time, his musings are a pretext for formulating a definition of the so-called ‘new liberalism,’ of which Chase is an ardent advocate. He rejects all the errors and pipe dreams of the ‘old’ version of liberal-progressive thought: the naive belief in the inevitability of civilizational progress; the misrecognition of the motives that guide individuals in their behavior; the belief that literature can directly contribute to economic changes in society and the improvement of the livelihood of the masses; and the lack of a clear judgment of communist totalitarianism (vii). Chase understands liberalism very broadly as the thought that is free from dogmatism, skeptical, and, most importantly, open-minded. Thus formulated, it becomes a capacious concept, for one can be simultaneously a liberal and a conservative, a religious person, or an atheist. In fact, the problem with the definition of liberalism had already become evident in the 1930s, when it endorsed power politics. On a more general level, the doctrine had consistently failed to recognize that “[n]o view of life can protect itself against the attritions of history if it cannot see man’s lot as a tragedy” (viii). The shallowness and selectivity of the liberal mindset, as Chase asserts, had been anticipated by Melville, who portrayed it in his major novel in the character of Ahab:

Liberal-progressive thinking in America has been remarkable for the magnitude of the rejections it has made. Where but in Moby-Dick shall we find such a terrifying picture of a man rejecting all the connection with his family, his culture, his own sexuality even, expunging the colors from the rainbow, rejecting the stained imperfections of life for a vision of spotless purity and rectitude attainable only in death…? (ix)

  • 6 Melville was fascinated with this Prussian nobleman, the first advocate of the idea of a world parl (...)

6The failure to see man’s lot as defenseless against the immanent fatalism of history is discussed by C. L. R. James in Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Melville and the World We Live In (1953). James was a leftist, a Trotskyist (he met with Trotsky in 1939 in Mexico), an anti-communist, and an advocate of harnessing the potential of popular culture in activism to support revolutionary change in American society. For James, Melville is an example of an author who, writing in the mid-nineteenth century, managed to describe the reality of the mid-twentieth century in an “unsurpassed” way (7). First, in this view, the madness of one man who “piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down” (Moby-Dick 148) is no less than an analog of the madness of Hitler and Stalin, which grew out of the humanist subsoil. Melville, as James argues, gave us Ahab, “the most dangerous and destructive social type that has ever appeared in Western civilization” (15). Secondly, the whaling expedition is a metaphor for modern civilization’s movement toward—unsuccessful—fulfillment. The officers on board are the intelligentsia with technical knowledge and managerial ability; the harpooners and the rest of the crew are the so-called ‘ordinary’ people. On a microscale, the two groups together should form something like a federation or la république universelle du genre humain in the spirit of Anacharsis Cloots.6 This perspective and James’s strong opinions have a clear Marxist slant:

People write repeatedly that Melville describes the technique of the whaling industry as if he were drawing some sort of textbook or manual. Melville is doing nothing of the kind. He has painted a body of men at work, the skill and danger, the laboriousness and the physical and mental mobilization of human resources, the comradeship and the unity, the simplicity and the naturalness. (35)

7The world of Moby-Dick is the world of social inequality and the madness of the individual with hegemonic inclinations. The metaphorical civilizational voyage ends in failure, and in the course of it, Ahab is preoccupied with two fundamental issues: “(1) science, the management of things; and (2) politics, the management of men” (James 21). Not even for a moment can he afford to reflect critically on his attitude toward the people he supervises: “[h]e has been trained in the school of individualism and an individualist he remains to the end” (17).

  • 7 Such radical opinions, formulated by James in the early 1950s, partly coincide with Czeslaw Milosz’ (...)

8The notion of individualism in the broadest sense surfaces again in James’s assessment of Ishmael. The narrator of Moby-Dick is detached from the pressing issues of reality, an intellectual whose view of the world is poisoned by scientism. Most crew members, to a greater or lesser degree, are antagonistic to Ahab—but not Ishmael. Such passive individuals, James reasons, are extremely dangerous the moment they leave their own small world of abstract thinking and begin to function among workers. Ishmael is, therefore, no less than “an intellectual Ahab” (47). Avoiding direct confrontation with evil, including the evil of a social nature, is essentially an attitude of submission.7 This is why Ishmael “is a completely modern young intellectual who has broken with society and wavers constantly between totalitarianism and the crew” (46).

9The juxtaposition of Ahab’s proto-totalitarianism with Ishmael’s vacillation and ineffectiveness exemplifies the sharp distinction between totalitarian thinking and “freedomism,” the belief that freedom allows one to rise above all conditions and influences (Redding 168). Politically, James’s condemnation of Ishmael’s futileness was developing against the backdrop of the doctrine of Harry S. Truman (from 1947 to 1953), which implied a break with the policy of isolationism in favor of actively supporting countries where totalitarian rule, especially communism, was bred (the policy of containment). Truman’s reasoning was of a zero-sum variety: ‘we’ Americans versus ‘them’ communists, regardless of the region of the world where intervention was required. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, analogical binary reasoning took over how literary works were often interpreted. James’s own ideas developed as a counter to the dichotomous thinking, monocultural politics, and nationalism of the Truman era. He unmasked and at the same time corrected the dominant historiography, dialectical in spirit.

10Auden’s The Enchafèd Flood: The Romantic Iconography of the Sea is a collection of three lectures, the subject matter of which, in fact, largely replicates the contents housed in his earlier poetic works, especially in the long poem “The Sea and the Mirror,” as well as in essayistic writings and reviews written in America. The lectures were held on March 21, 23, and 24, 1949; two of their titles are taken from William Wordsworth’s description of sleep in the fifth book of The Prelude (lines 50-140): “The Desert and the Sea,” “The Stone and the Shell,” followed by “Ishmael-Don Quixote.” The full title comes from Shakespeare’s Othello: “I never did like molestation view / On the enchafèd flood” (Act 2, Scene 1, lines 16-17). The original manuscript from which Auden read has not survived. We do, however, have access to a copy made by the scholar and poet Alan Ansen, containing essential passages that did not make it into the 1950 book version (Auden, Prose 704) but are helpful when examining the lecturer’s hidden agenda.

11As Auden points out in a fragment omitted in the final published text, dating back to 1907, the tradition of the Page-Barbour lectures has been to invite speakers who direct the audience’s attention to “a subject relevant to the problems and perplexities of the present age” (Prose 704-05). This is essential information. In the case of The Enchafèd Flood, the chosen problem concerns “[r]evolutionary changes in [the] sensibility” (7) of Western man, which took place toward the end of the eighteenth century. To demonstrate them and point out their paramount importance, literary references to one central theme—the sea—are particularly illuminating. The changes, Auden implies, are directly related to the ills plaguing the Western world in the middle of the twentieth century, after the war and the Holocaust, and during the Cold War era. In this way, the beginning of the first lecture states the primary intention of the entire series.

12Auden chooses two groups of texts for analysis. The basis is constructed on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” and, in a prominent way, Melville’s Moby-Dick. The subsidiary texts include the poetry of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Tennyson, and Hopkins. In the ancillary notes (they do not appear in the book version—arguably to the detriment of the clarity of the whole reasoning), Auden specifies the various objectives as follows: lecture one examines “the relation between the romantic symbols of sea and desert and the social conditions of the urbanization and crowd publics with which the romantic poets were faced”; lecture two aims to “review the intellectual and ideological situation to relate it to the symbols of stone and shell” (Prose 705). The final one centers on the notion of the Romantic hero. The lectures are examples of comparative research, but, at the same time, are often based on close reading—Auden gives a tour de force of intriguing juxtapositions, connections, parallels, numerical summaries, calculations, etc. The choice of readings can be astonishing—for example, the prose of Jules Verne and “The Hunting of the Snark” are mentioned as representing Romantic travel literature. Auden examines marine iconography to show the implicit thinking of Romantics about life in society, nature, heroism, and the Divine. Here, let us add, is hidden the spiritual transformation he himself experienced after arriving in the U.S., and his fascination with the writings of Søren Kierkegaard.

13The conclusion of the last talk sums up the whole discussion about the legacy of Romanticism and points, if indirectly, to the social and political situation of the Western world after World War II:

We live in a new age in which the artist neither can have… unique heroic importance nor believes in the Art-God enough to desire it, a period, for instance, when the necessity of dogma is once more recognized, not as the contradiction of reason and feeling but as their ground and foundation, in which the heroic image is not the nomad wanderer through the desert or over the ocean, but the less exciting figure of the builder, who renews the ruined walls of the city. Our temptations are not theirs. We are less likely to be tempted by solitude into Promethean pride: we are far more likely to become cowards in the face of the tyrant who would compel us to lie in the service of the False City. It is not madness we need to flee but prostitution. (Prose 91)

14What would the temptation of prostitution consist of? As Auden sees them, Romantics are idealized and idealizing heroes and loners. Their status, attitudes, and particularly their way of thinking about the expected roles to be performed in the community differ significantly from the position and mindset of modern writers, who have to face the pressure of political propaganda in the postwar era. Whether one belongs to the capitalist system or the communist regime does not seem to play much of a role in this case.

  • 8 In a volume published in 1940 under the title Another Time, it is said of the anonymous title chara (...)

15To better grasp the main idea of the lectures, it is helpful to recall the distinction Auden made between the concepts of History and Nature. The former refers to events of a unique, irrevocable character following one another linearly; the second is the realm of repetition. Human experience simultaneously plays out in both orders (Prose 161-64). This distinction has moral implications and affects not only the situation of the contemporary artist, but also the meaning of art as a form of unfettered expression. The public sphere of life is increasingly dominated by thinking in the spirit of expected behavior, statistics, submission of the individual to regulations imposed by the majority, and conformity.8 People are thus treated as if they were only part of the order of Nature. Political authority, rejecting the order of History as Auden understands it, treats art, an activity resulting from individual choices, with suspicion. In other words, art is not to be trusted because it testifies to the existence of personal choices (Mendelson xv).

  • 9 The awarding of this prize reverberated much more widely. As Clare L. Spark notes, “The Saturday Re (...)

16In the late 1940s, the artist’s entanglement in politics is best exemplified by the ongoing case of Ezra Pound, who was charged with treason by the U.S. government for openly supporting Italian fascists in his radio broadcasts. In reaction, Bennett Cerf, co-founder of Random House, refused to include Pound’s poems in an anthology of American poetry then under preparation. That became the cause of a bitter quarrel with Auden, Random’s contracted author, who strongly demanded that literature be kept separate from current political affairs. In 1948, Auden voted to award Pound the Bollingen Prize for The Pisan Cantos. It was a gesture of defiance against the prevailing atmosphere in American culture, and not an expression of reading preference—as he openly admitted, he did not particularly like the work (Prose 101-02). His aversion to politics and politically-oriented criticism of poetry pushed him into trouble of a strictly political nature. “The whole Pound business has turned very ugly,” he wrote in a letter to Rhoda Jaffe, “I was misquoted in Congress and half expected to be subpoenaed by a committee” (qtd. in Carpenter 363). We may only guess to what extent the incident impacted the content of the lectures.9

  • 10 A telling opinion in this regard was expressed by E. M. Forster: “[Auden] elicits a response which (...)

17The Enchafèd Flood is commonly considered either one of the poet’s most intricate critical texts (Carpenter 362) or one full of simplifications, trivial remarks, and assertions unsupported by facts (Rowse 90-91). According to some opinions, the lectures should not be considered in terms of their scholarly value since they constitute a long poem, constructed as a collage of quotations and commentaries (Osborne 231).10 Yet, no matter how we classify these literary analyses, one thing is sure: Auden presents a subjective and biased reading of the symbolism of the stone and the shell from Prelude. The stone stands for thorough, scientific knowledge; the shell indicates the gift of poetry and the prophetic. Both elements, so the argument goes, are essential to the existence and functioning of “the City.” To this concept Auden always gives a specific meaning—it embodies community life, or—more broadly—civilization. The conclusions are as follows: first, the Romantic mindset and sensibility (along with its nomadic tendencies) are no longer an essential inspiration for the modern world. Far more relevant today is a different type of hero—the builder, who works toward erecting what has fallen into ruin. The diagnoses are formulated in rather general terms. Auden does not explain what specifically rebuilding the City would entail. He moves into regions of abstraction, and such behavior is in keeping with his stated refusal in the 1940s and later to get involved in disputes on politics or social issues. On the other hand, he does not meet the criterion set for speakers invited to the University of Virginia; he does not directly name specific pressing problems of the present day. All this is perhaps the poet’s deliberate choice to save Romantic literature, Melville’s prose in particular, from the crude political readings so prevalent in America at the time.

18The critical reception of The Enchafèd Flood in the early 1950s was rather lukewarm. In his short review, John E. Housman argues that Auden’s understanding of selected aspects of Romantic literature is inaccurate and ultimately unconvincing. The Moby-Dick case is a good example. The analysis of the novel, while not lacking in depth, betrays clear debts to Matthiessen’s American Renaissance. Housman reconstructs Auden’s reasoning before taking issue with it. For the Romantic artist, the sea or the desert are testing grounds, dangerous areas. The sea voyage or desert crossing—deliberate exposure to peril—is undertaken because it is the only way to affirm one’s freedom. Such reasoning brings the Romantic hero closer to archetypal figures such as Don Quixote and Ishmael (the latter name referring both to the biblical figure and the Melvillian exile), who achieve their precarious, unstable freedom—or freedomism—at the price of abandoning the community. Where, asks Housman, is the hard evidence, specific examples? “[R]omantic poetry, in Mr. Auden’s opinion, does not suit the present age, which requires poetry attenuated by subservience to dogma. How does Mr. Auden know this…?” (Housman 260).

19Richard Chase, generally sympathetic to the book, criticizes Auden’s smug tone (and his “condescension”), as well as the excess of strong, unjustified opinions: “Mr. Auden’s iconography is a sharp lance, but the romantic beast is elusive, various, strategic, accommodating, reactive” (“Another Harpoon” 721). An excerpt from Prelude—which for Auden is the starting point for considering the essence of Romanticism—describes a situation in which the poet has fallen asleep while reading Don Quixote. In his dream, he sees a mysterious wanderer on a camel. The figure resembles both a Bedouin (hence Auden’s later references to the character Ishmael) and the hero of Cervantes’ prose. The rider holds a stone (geometry, mind, knowledge) and a shell (poetic imagination), and carries out the annihilation of the “children of the earth” (Wordsworth 272). Having hidden both objects, the wanderer moves away toward the desert. As Auden suggests, this is how the two gifts, imagination and reason, were treated by Romantic artists. His assessment of such an attitude to life is unequivocally negative, yet still puzzling and arbitrary: the Romantic is a “resolutely perverse” individual (Chase, “Another Harpoon” 718).

20According to Chase, the choice of Moby-Dick as the main text for the considerations carried out in the Page-Barbour lectures is not fortunate. What is problematic is not only the validity of the arguments and relevance of the examples chosen for interpretation, but also the commensurability of the historical contexts of Melville’s novel and Auden’s commentary. In other words, one should carefully consider to what extent the difference of the hundred years separating their publication impacts the ways Romantic sensibility is understood and judged:

Mr. Auden writes in a post-political era and in a post-political frame of mind. Melville did not. If Ishmael was seeking for the meaning of self in relation to God, he was also seeking for the ‘new nation’ promised him by the Old Testament. It is significant that Mr. Auden entirely ignores this part of the prophecy and the quest, just as it is significant that in a section of his book entitled ‘Politics and Individualism’ there is nothing about politics and that in his schematization of the kinds of hero—the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious—there is no account of the culture hero or the political hero. Ishmael may be a ‘white man and a Presbyterian,’ but he is also an American democrat. (720)

21Chase’s puzzling term “post-political,” which is now associated with the theoretical thought of Jacques Rancière or Alain Badiou rather than anything else, seemingly names a particular historical moment described by the influential American sociologist Daniel Bell. Back in the 1950s, Bell had already predicted the end of the great humanist ideals of nineteenth-century provenance, arguing that the hopes placed in them in the postwar era lay spectacularly in ruins. In The End of Ideology (1960), Bell remarks that the 1930-1950 period was a time of crisis in many fields: economic meltdown, sharp class divisions, the birth of Nazism and Fascism in countries hitherto considered exceptional in terms of cultural development and broad humanistic reflection, the world war, and the genocide. The postwar reality, however, brought a change. Bell prophesies the end of all ideologies and political doctrines: they lose legitimacy in affluent societies, paralyzed by indifference to communal values. Calls for the revolutionary undermining of liberal democracy and capitalist order no longer have a chance of success. We are now observing, Bell argues, “the tragic self-immolation of a revolutionary generation that had proclaimed finer ideals of man” (393). For American intellectuals, this means one thing: “ideology, which once was a road to action, has come to a dead end” (393). As Bell continues, the impermanence of the concept of ideology is permanently inscribed in its essence, whereas the essence of ideology is the simplification of reality. Therefore, people subjected to it do not feel the need to confront the problems of social and political life in a critical, subjective way. Ideology is a “vending machine” for producing ready-made formulas, explanations, and recommendations (405). When apocalyptic thinking creeps into ideology, it becomes a weapon, and its use can lead to disastrous consequences. Interestingly, Bell refers to a book by Chase entitled The Democratic Vista, which addresses the withering of the old violent polemics about the shape of political and social life in America and examines “different facets of the ‘interim’ or cold-war state of mind which has typified the last ten or fifteen years of American life” (The Democratic ix). Chase, who calls for a revival of intellectual ferment, is therefore an ideal recipient of Auden’s lectures on Romanticism.

22Monroe K. Spears’ review of The Enchafèd Flood is largely apologetic, apparently because he was on friendly terms with the poet (291). He emphasizes Auden’s tendency to address important contemporary issues—literature’s moral and religious dimensions and its relationship to social life and politics. This was, as Spears implies, certainly the case not only in the English period of the poet’s work, but also at the beginning of his stay in the U.S., even if the poet himself would not admit to this. Adopting Auden’s literary-historical perspective, Spears sees Romantic attitudes to politics, aesthetics, and religion as reactive to the patterns of thinking prevalent in the eighteenth century. The Romantic hero is torn between two orders of experience, between two truths—an objective, geometric one (the stone) and a subjective, poetic one (the shell). The former is connected with the desert area, the latter with the sea. Discussing excerpts from Coleridge’s poetry and Melville’s prose, he quotes from Auden’s lecture: “On the one hand, the poets long to immerse in the sea of Nature, to enjoy its endless mystery and novelty, on the other, they long to come to port in some transcendent eternal and unchanging reality from which the unexpected is excluded” (Prose 54). All the above raises the question of whether, in the 1940s, Moby-Dick provided a pretext and an example for demonstrating the value of de-romanticized literature.

23A poem that is contextually relevant to understanding the arguments presented at the University of Virginia is Auden’s famous “The Shield of Achilles” from 1952. The theme of this ekphrastic piece is taken from Homer’s Iliad. It is a rejection of the tendency, irreversibly outdated in Auden’s opinion, to think about man’s role in the world through the central figure of heroism:

She looked over his shoulder
  For ritual pieties,
White flower-garlanded heifers,
  Libation and sacrifice,
But there on the shining metal
  Where the altar should have been,
She saw by his flickering forge-light
  Quite another scene.

Barbed wire enclosed an arbitrary spot
  Where bored officials lounged (one cracked a joke)
And sentries sweated for the day was hot:
A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground. (Poems 417-18)

24The passage alludes to an episode in which the goddess Thetis asks Hephaestus, the god of smiths and craftsmen, to make new armor for her son Achilles. In the original myth, Hephaestus forges an intricate shield, in which scenes of battle are placed alongside scenes from everyday life and the natural world, which stresses that war is something noble and glorious. Evoking classical tradition, Auden shatters the Romantic paradigm of thinking. Thetis expects the grandeur of the world to adorn the shield, but finds there the reality of concentration camps. Instead of glorifying war, the poem emphasizes the horror that war creates. The recommendation seems clear: art must face the pain of the real rather than indulge in the pursuit of delusion of dreams. The blade of critique is aimed at those “who continue to find allure in the wished-for grandeur of conquest and subjugation” (Lucas 163).

25Identifying the type of protagonist that dominates the literature of a given historical period (and not just a literary era) makes it possible, as Auden points out, to describe its characteristic intellectual milieu, particularly the dominant views on the role of society, and the status of the individual in the public sphere. In other words, literature is a medium that shapes our thinking, while at the same time concisely (and precisely) reflecting it. Moreover, it draws attention to the period’s most pressing but unsolved problems. The heroes of Classical and Renaissance literature were considered exceptional because of their relationship with others, and in this sense, the hero’s downfall was tragic in social rather than individual terms. The type that Auden describes as Ishmael-Don Quixote is a solitary figure who wields custody of imagination and knowledge, but refuses to share them with anyone, keeping “the shell and the stone to himself” (65).

26The social perspective, so prominent in Olson’s and James’s books on Moby-Dick, is also an important element of The Enchafèd Flood. One of the first crew members that Auden chooses is the carpenter, a minor character, who sees the world entirely through the prism of the work he does, and for whom it has become the only raison d’être. He is unconcerned by the course of his existence and uninterested in understanding the world better, as, indeed, are most of the people aboard Pequod.

27The readings of Melville’s prose by Olson, Chase, James, and Auden are all, to a lesser or greater degree, characterized by symptomatic reading. All four readers are usufructuaries, i.e., they usurp the right to use freely and profit from the classic text, which is seen as a commentary with an ad hoc meaning, easily transferable to various historical, social, and political contexts. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, as reading literature never takes place in a mental vacuum. The reader is always guided by some pre-understanding, always moving on the perimeter of the hermeneutic circle. Also, it must be emphasized yet again that the examples come from a particular period, following an unprecedented civilizational collapse.

28Auden was well aware that Romanticism was not a monolithic phenomenon, but a cultural phenomenon full of contradictions. It gave the world the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley (whom Auden loathed and did not mention in The Enchafèd Flood), as well as the prose of Melville. At the same time, Romanticism was a proposal for a certain paradigm (with numerous variants) of thinking about the world, life in the community, and politics. Auden’s experience as the leading poet of his generation—a label he was given in England before the outbreak of World War II—would always remind him of the dangers lurking for a writer overly focused on the immediate, the changeable. In this light, the lectures on the iconography of the sea are an interesting example of his strategic and diplomatic balancing between, on the one hand, a highly abstract consideration of symbols and motifs, and, on the other, a recommendation on how to think about the most pressing problems of the present day. Last but not least, in many respects, Auden’s diagnosis of the era is convergent with the hidden agenda in Chase’s and James’s critical works, namely that “the non-aligned individual became the valorized subjectivity of the early years of the Cold War” (Redding 177). It was precisely that valorization that became the main target of Auden’s critique in his 1949 Page-Barbour Lectures.

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Arvin, Newton. Herman Melville: A Critical Biography. The Viking Press, 1957.

Auden, W. H. The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. Prose. Volume III. 1949-1955. Edited by Edward Mendelson, Princeton UP, 2008.

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Bell, Daniel. The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Harvard UP, 1988.

Chase, Richard. “Another Harpoon.” The Kenyan Review, vol. 12, no. 4, 1950, pp. 717-21.

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Lucas, John. “Auden’s Politics: Power, Authority and the Individual.” The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden, edited by Stan Smith, Cambridge UP, 2005, pp. 152-64.

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1 The research for this article was possible thanks to the grant that the University of Białystok received from the Polish Ministry of Education and Science under the Regional Initiative of Excellence program for 2019-2022, project number 009/RID/2018/19.

2 See, for example, the two series of meditative poems “Horae Canonicae” and “Bucolics.”

3 A comprehensive review of critical works published during the period of the so-called Melville Revival is presented by Sanford E. Marovitz, who stresses that the term is problematic and “its exact meaning remains unclear” (515).

4 An essential (but not discussed herein) contribution to the critical reflection on Melville's work was the National Book Award-winning biography of the writer by Newton Arvin. It recognized Melville’s philosophical proclivities, placing him among the Transcendentalists and emphasizing the ambiguity of his works: “[Melville’s] fables, his images, his personages... [are] the bearers of complex and unstable meanings” (166). Importantly, Arvin’s publication indicates the author’s clear indebtedness to psychoanalytic theories and eschews commentary of a political, ad hoc nature.

5 This is a reference to an archeological point near the town of Folsom, New Mexico, the 1927 excavation of which proved that human beings lived in North America during the last Ice Age, i.e., several hundred years earlier than previously assumed.

6 Melville was fascinated with this Prussian nobleman, the first advocate of the idea of a world parliament. While referring to harpooneers, Ishmael calls them “[a]n Anacharsis Clootz [sic] deputation from the isles of the sea, and all the ends of the earth” (Melville, Moby-Dick 101).

7 Such radical opinions, formulated by James in the early 1950s, partly coincide with Czeslaw Milosz’s diagnoses in his seminal Captive Mind (1953), where the Polish expatriate poet and essayist uses the term “Ketman” (borrowed from Arthur de Gobineau) to describe various camouflage techniques used by intellectuals living in communist Poland after World War II. Out of the various kinds that Milosz lists, “Professional Ketman” seems most fitting in the context of James’s criticism of Ishmael: “[I]t is reasoned thus: since I have no control, and since I have but one life and that is fleeting, I should strive to do my best. I am like a crustacean attached to a crag on the bottom of the sea. Over me storms rage and huge ships sail; but my entire effort is concentrated upon clinging to the rock, for otherwise I will be carried off by the waters and perish” (65). James, in the context of the Cold War era, and Milosz, in the context of East European history of the 1950s, comment on the ways “men rationalized their subservience to tyranny” (James 59).

8 In a volume published in 1940 under the title Another Time, it is said of the anonymous title character of the poem “The Unknown Citizen” that “in everything he did he served the Greater Community” (Poems 368).

9 The awarding of this prize reverberated much more widely. As Clare L. Spark notes, “The Saturday Review of Literature, in articles by Robert Hillyer and Dr. Frederic Wertham, censured the Bollingen Prize [and] Pound…, starting a campaign that culminated in the removal of federal arts funding until 1965 with the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts. Hillyer also argued that New Criticism was a protofascist tendency. The Partisan Review intellectuals (Richard Chase, Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Harry Levin, Newton Arvin, Lionel Trilling, most of whom were actively promoting Melville after World War II) signed the famous letter attacking the Saturday Review for ‘its methods.’ The Partisan Review intellectuals were defending modernism, they said, and the separation of art and life” (629).

10 A telling opinion in this regard was expressed by E. M. Forster: “[Auden] elicits a response which I cannot always explain. Because he once wrote, ‘We must love one another or die’ [in the poem ‘September 1, 1939’], he can command me to follow him… The Enchafèd Flood is itself a poem. Though the tone is critical, it is not constructed like a lecture-house or a thesis. Brooding in it is the ruined or unbuilt city, and we must either build it or die” (qtd. in Osborne 231).

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Electronic reference

Jacek Partyka, Revolutionary Changes in Sensibility”: References to Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in W. H. Auden’s 1949 Page-Barbour LecturesEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 19-1 | 2023, Online since 07 September 2023, connection on 29 September 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Jacek Partyka

Jacek Partyka is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Philology, University of Białystok, Poland, where he teaches courses in the history of American literature, intertextuality, and comparative studies. His research interests center on American late modernist and postmodernist poetry (Charles Reznikoff, Louise Bogan, Elizabeth Bishop, Susan Howe), literary representations of genocide (Edward Lewis Wallant, Cynthia Ozick, Charles Reznikoff), W. H. Auden’s reinvention of himself as a new poet in the US, and the literature of the Jewish diaspora in New York City. He has recently published Disarchiving Anguish: Charles Reznikoff and the Modalities of Witnessing (2021).  

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