‘Misgivings’ by Herman Melville, written in 1860, is a two stanza poem that is written in iambic pentameter and separated into two seven-line stanzas. The poem totals to fourteen lines, putting it in the realm of a non-traditional sonnet. “Misgivings” follows the rhyme scheme of ababacc dbdbdee. This repeating, but the varied pattern gives the poem a jarring tone. The reader is bounced back and forth between rhyming and un-rhyming lines, just as the landscape in the poem is being besieged by the storm.
Summary of Misgivings
The poem begins with the speaker describing a landscape that is on the verge of a rapid change. There is a storm coming into the land that is going to destroy the “autumn browns” of and replace them with darkness. The wind is blowing, and the valleys are flooding with water. The power of the storm is so intense that a “spire” is blown down; it crashes into the buildings below. “Misgivings” works as an expansive metaphor for the way that Melville felt about the future of the country. There was a disaster on the horizon and nothing that anyone could do about it.
He continues on to state that the hope he, and others, felt for their own future is lost. There is more “crime” than optimism at this point. Even a child can see what is coming for them. There are horribly dark clouds over a distant mountain, and all of a sudden the storm explodes into the valley and the water is raging in a torrent through the gorges. Everything is going to be consumed and the foundations of America are going to “shake.”
Analysis of Misgivings
When ocean-clouds over inland hills
Sweep storming in late autumn brown,
And horror the sodden valley fills,
And the spire falls crashing in the town,
I muse upon my country’s ills—
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime.
This poem begins with the speaker describing a mutating landscape. The land is rapidly changing from peaceful to “storming.” The scene is set by the description of “ocean-clouds,” or storm clouds that blow in from the ocean, making their way to settle above “inland hills.”
These hills had been spattered with the deep browns of autumn, but now, as the storm has moved over them they have darkened. This is not a deeper, natural shade that they have been changed to, but the dark of a “horror” that has fallen over the “valley.” Once dry, the landscape has now become “sodden” with the rains that were driven in by the storm.
The speaker is observing this scene from some unspecified place of temporary safety. From where he is he can see that the power of the storm has destroyed a “spire” in “the town.” It came fell, coming “crashing” down into town. This specific and contained destruction inspires the speaker to a moment of consideration. He “muse[s]” on the state of his country.
It is important to understand that while the speaker might be treating this destruction as a metaphor within the poem, in real life, the destruction was much more real. This piece was first published in 1860, during the heightened tensions before the start of the Civil War. Melville, like many other Americans at this time, was watching his country fall apart. There was nothing he could do to stop it, but that did not quell the horror he felt for the future.
In the final two lines of this first stanza, the speaker is trying to come to terms with the fact that America had presented those within her lands, an optimistic future. One that held the “fairest hope” in the world. This hope, though, is now directly linked with “man’s foulest crime.” The tide is soon to turn, and Melville felt it coming.
Nature’s dark side is heeded now—
(Ah! optimist-cheer disheartened flown)—
A child may read the moody brow
Of yon black mountain lone.
With shouts the torrents down the gorges go,
And storms are formed behind the storm we feel:
The hemlock shakes in the rafter, the oak in the driving keel.
In the second stanza, things become even darker for this metaphorical town, and thereby for the United States. It is as if mankind has given in to the darker nature that was lurking beneath all the optimism and hope that he had thus far promoted. The “dark side” of nature is now being “heeded” and those who once shouted out an “optimist-cheer” have ceased. The people are “disheartened” and know that what nature has already done to them, with the horrific storm in the first stanza, is only the beginning. There is much more to come; even a “child” can see that.
The speaker states that anyone, even a “child may read the moody brow” of the mountain in the distance. All can see the dark storms ready to consume the country, but once more, there is nothing anyone can do about it.
Suddenly, in the last three lines of the poem, it seems as if something has been set loose. The storm is truly here and “With shouts” either from the people, or emanating from the storm itself, “torrents” of water are flowing “down the gorges.” This flooding is all-powerful and unstoppable.
Behind the storm that is currently battering the United States, there is another that everyone can feel, on its way. There is much more to come. By the time that the storms are at their highest point, the “hemlocks” that make up the rafters of a house, and the “oak” that makes of the “keel” of a ship, will be shaking. No one will have a solid, safe, dependable place to stand or live.
About Herman Melville
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. Melville suffered from scarlet fever as a child from which he never fully recovered; his vision was permanently damaged. Beginning in 1839 Melville began to work on various merchant ships after not being able to find a job in New York. After various voyages, being captured by cannibals, and jail for mutiny, he decided to start putting down his stories on paper.
In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, with whom he would eventually have four children and four years later he would write his most popular novel, Moby-Dick. It was not until after his death that his work would begin to receive critical acclaim. After delivering a series of lectures in the late 1850s, working as a customs inspector for the next 20 years, Melville died of a heart attack in 1891. He is now considered one of the greatest American writers.