Everyone agrees that Whitman and Dickinson are the two greatest poets of 19th-century America, but who is the third? Some readers say Whittier, others say Poe, and these days an increasing number say Herman Melville. The revaluation of Melville s poetry is due in large part to the influence of this landmark volume, for Melville the Poet has never found a more judicious, eloquent, or persuasive partisan than Robert Penn Warren.
In 1970, Warren published what was then (and what remains) the most comprehensive selection of Melville s poetry ever presented. The book brings together the best lyrics from Battle-Pieces (1866), John Marr (1888), and Timoleon (1891), as well as many poems unpublished during Melville s lifetime. Central to the selection are many long, self-contained passages from Clarel (1876), the book-length poem that Warren calls "an important document of our modernity . . . In fact, a precursor to The Waste Land, with the same central image, the same flickering contrasts of the past and the present, the same charade of belief and unbelief."
Warren introduces his selection with a valuable interpretive essay, and also provides copious textual and critical notes. It is a labor of love, this highly personal anthology: as Warren says in the preface, "I have called this book 'A Reader's Edition,' and the reader I refer to is myself. The book may be regarded as a log of my long reading of Melville's poetry, of my preferences, my impressions and speculations, my curiosities and investigations." Warren's Melville is, to our mind, the most important "selected" since Malcolm Cowley s Portable Faulkner. It s a book that not only showcases an American master at his most powerful, but also changes our perception of his work forever.