Friday, July 02, 2010

can a super famous writer still be underrated?

this short paragraph from the beginning of melville's benito cereno completely kills me:

the morning was one peculiar to that coast. everything was mute and calm; everything gray. the sea, though undulated into long roods of swells, seemed fixed, and was sleeked at the surface like waved lead that has cooled and set in the smelter's mold. the sky seemed a gray surtout. flights of troubled gray fowl, kith and kin with flights of troubled gray vapors among which they were mixed, skimmed low and fitfully over the waters, as swallows over meadows before storms. shadows present, foreshadowing deeper shadows to come.

i think if greatness, like men, lead by example, this here little fragment professes at least a whiff of melville's greatness; but i had no intention to post some well thought out argument towards a deeper appreciation, just a slight drawing of attention to a gem.

in truth, i have not read a more beautiful little paragraph in a long time, and as much as my intention was to simply post it and leave it at that, i've been sick in bed all day and me and my cold medicine have decided together that i should bend my mind a little more... so i hope that based on the above, you will agree that melville is underrated, and also that in view of what lies below, you will indulge me in a bit of rambling...

a short list of words and a phrase that melville uses in the paragraph that i've never seen nor heard:

roods, sleeked, "waved lead", and surtout .

(in terms of surtout apparently blogger has never seen the word either as it comes up as being misspelled). sleeked and "waved lead" i can picture towards meanings in my mind's eye, but roods and surtout i do not have any meaningful grasp of (yes, i know i can look them up if i do so desire, but i'd rather let them settle within me before such uncoverings).

here are some words that appear in sequential order in the same sentences and sound fantastic together, almost like poems:

sea, though
roods of swells, seemed
the surface
cooled and set
the smelt-
er's mold.

of troubled
gray fowl,
kith and kin
of troubled
gray va-
among which
they were
low and fit-
fully over
the waters,
as swallows
over meadows
before storms.

to come.

here are some words within sentences that seem to speak to sentences before and after them:


every-thing gray.
the sea, though.

roods / swells, seemed / sleeked / surface / set /smelter's mold.
sky seemed / surtout.


gray / gray.

vapors / skimmed / swallows.
shadows / foreshadow-ing/shadows.


here are words from various sentences that seem to be speaking to each other (and are best read aloud):

morning coast troubled
swells lead set smelter's before
everything everything mixed skimmed which fitfully
gray undulated waved gray gray vapors among gray they
peculiar surface undulated present
though undulated mute roods cooled
long calm mold troubled
sleeked seemed lead see lead seemed deeper were deeper
sky flights kith kin fixed flights
low over over meadows shadows foreshadowing shadows waters swallows storms come
surtout fowl

here are fragments of melville's entire paragraph written from end to beginning, with some words taken out:

come to shadows deeper
foreshadowing, present shadows.

storms before meadows over swallows
as, waters
fitfully and low skimmed,
mixed were they which
among vapors gray

the in set and cooled
that lead
waved like surface
seemed, swells
of roods long into undulated

sea the. gray everything;
calm and mute was everything.

peculiar one was the morning.

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Anonymous Amy said...

Rood is the old english word for a pole (also a unit of measurement and the word for a church cross, hence rood screens in old churches, which is probably not of significance here) and a surtout is a cavalry officers grey overcoat.

3:45 PM  
Blogger sroden said...

hi amy,

significant or not, that rood is a word for pole, as well as a unit of measurement, is wonderful wonderful... so thanks much for that!!! and between the screens in old churches and a cavalry officer's grey overcoat, i think melville might be channeling a song or two by the carter family :-)

12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Steve, it really is a little paragraph of sound and wonders! there were a lot of words i didn't know in it, but i'll stick to the chosen mysterious pair:

/ surtout, (now rare) Overcoat, esp. of frock-coat shape.
/ rood 1. the cross of Christ (arch., often in oaths, as By the R-); crucifix, esp. one raised on middle of - screen, wooden or stone carved screen separating nave & choir;- arch, between nave & choir;- beam, cross-beam, usu. as head of - screen, supporting-; -cloth, veiling - in Lent; -loft, gallery on top of -. screen.
2. Quarter of an acre (esp. as loose term for small piece of land; not a - remained to him)

both from the 1952 edition of the Concise Oxford Dictionary. shame i couldn't use the original typography & signs!

get well soon!

4:51 PM  
Anonymous Terry said...

Steve, I assume you have read Melville's The Encantadas, which might be my favorite piece of writing of all times. Get well.

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if "surtout" originally came from the French; which means "above all".

10:25 AM  

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