MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 20


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Herman Melville (1924)

Two Tales by Herman Melville, Limited Editions Club, New York, 1965; bound in stone cloth in stone and sage slip-case, with paintings by Robert Shore.

The hull deliberately recovering from the periodic roll to leeward was just regaining on an even keel, when the last signal, a preconcerted dumb one, was given.  At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece, hanging low in the East, was shot thro’ with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.

This beautiful little book is a retelling of the redemption story – and, judging from that citation, an unblushing one.  If you put aside Measure for Measure, Billy Budd may be the foremost statement in our literature of the agony of the law.  Must an innocent man suffer – in this case, die – for the sake of the law?  If you say that the law must be able to run over individual men, women and children, you are stating the basic premise of those totalitarian regimes that we most despise.  But if you say that the interests of one person may require you to break, or even just put to one side, the law, then you are undermining the rule of law, and that is all that stands between us and those regimes.  The law has therefore an ancient saying – hard cases make bad law.

During the Napoleonic War, a handsome young sailor, Billy Budd, was impressed into service on a British warship.  Billy is as innocent as he is handsome, and he is fortunate that his new captain is Captain ‘Starry’ Vere.  Vere is a civilised product of the Enlightenment with a refined sense of justice.  But Billy comes under the notice of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart.  Claggart is in effect the Chief of Police on the ship.  He is morally bereft.  He cannot stand being in the presence of beauty and goodness like that of Billy ‘Baby’ Budd.  He falsely accuses Billy of mutiny before Captain Vere.  Billy is horrified and incredulous.  When stressed, Billy’s voice falters.  When he is pressed for an answer, he strikes out at Claggart, and strikes him dead.

So, during a time of war, Captain Vere has witnessed a sailor strike and kill an officer.  He summons a drumhead court martial.  Billy is plainly guilty of the legal offence charged but the officers are reluctant to give a verdict that will see Billy hanged.  They agonise over Billy, but Captain Vere persuades them to do their legal duty.  Billy is hanged.  The threat of mutiny passes.  Captain Vere carries the responsibility for the death of Billy to his own death.

A morally innocent man has been killed to preserve the integrity of the law.  There is of course more to it than that.  If it may be said of Moby Dick that it badly needed an editor, that is not the case with Billy Budd.  Melville revised and revised the text for many years.  It was a great bundle of add-ons and scribbled marginal comments, and it was not published until after his death.  To most readers now, there is hardly a word out of place.  It covers about 70 pages in a Penguin, but it is spotted with digressions that contribute to its avuncular yet reflective story-telling character.

Melville begins his little novella by commenting on how sailors ashore would congregate around a ‘handsome sailor’.  It sounds like the phase some young schoolgirls go through in grouping around ‘queens’.  The ‘welkin-eyed’ Billy, or ‘Baby’ Budd, was one such sailor, cut out by his looks to be the favourite of his shipmates.  ‘He was young; and despite his all but fully developed frame, in aspect looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face, all but feminine in purity and natural complexion, but where, thanks to seagoing, the lily was quite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the tan.’

You see, Billy did not know where he came from.  He knew that he was a foundling and ‘noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse’.  He had no self-consciousness, but a simple innocence that was reflected in his looks.  He had a singular musical voice ‘as if expressive of the harmony within’.  He was a kind of ‘upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ‘ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company’.  He was doted on by the crew in the merchant ship from which the Royal Navy seized him – ironically, the Rights of Man – and her Captain bitterly lamented his loss.  Billy was his ‘peacemaker, like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy’.

Captain Vere was a bookish, decent, conservative bachelor.  Other officers of his rank thought that there was a ‘queer streak of the pedantic’ running through Captain Vere.  He may not have been as addicted to the hemp – for the lash or for the noose – as others of his rank, but his learning and civility covered no weakness on discipline or the need to observe the rigour of the law.  He was no softy.

Claggart was about 35.  He was much more intelligent than others of his level and ‘his hand was too small and shapely to have been accustomed to hard toil’.  The gossip on the gun decks was that he was ‘a chevalier who had volunteered into the King’s Navy by way of compounding for some mysterious swindle whereof he had been arraigned at the King’s Bench’.

Since Claggart is the strongest character in the triangle, he has attracted the strongest writing in the book, the opera and the film.  He is in the tradition of Iago:

… if Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly.

That could be word for word Claggart on Billy.  Shakespeare defined a similar envy in one of the assassins of Caesar.

… Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look

He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men.

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit.

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

While they behold a greater than themselves,

And therefore are they very dangerous.

Again, Claggart, chapter and verse.  If you hand those lines around in a large office and ask people whom they are reminded of, they will invariably indicate the resident smiling assassin.

In a narrative manner, but with a matter-of-fact investigative tone, Melville devotes lines of a very high order to Claggart.  The following words might have been applied to Heinrich Himmler:

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

One thing is clear from the available sources about the difference in the case of the Jewish hasid executed on account of his apparent goodness.  Captain Vere and his officers felt the full agony of the law, and they did their duty, in full measure.  Pontius Pilate did neither.  Rather than washing his hands, Pilate may just as well have thrown them up in the air – and there are some who say that he was joking as he left the place of judgment.

The stories of the sailor and the holy man have about them an aura of innocence being drowned and of the law being applied mechanically to hurt innocent people.  And, depending on your outlook on the world – of the law being applied to help the Establishment run over those too weak to look after themselves.

Pound for pound, or word for word, this book is as rewarding as any other on the shelf, and it works wonderfully in both the opera and the film.

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