|"Oh, noble cock!":
Melville's Subversion of the Cultural Past in "Cock-a-Doodle-Doo!"
Being the winner of the 1991 University of Pennsylvania Humanities Prize (best essay by an undergraduate).
What could Socrates, the apostle Peter, William Wordsworth, Henry David Thoreau, and a chicken named Trumpet possibly have in common? All are players in Herman Melville's denial of the contemporary relevance of Western tradition in his short story "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! or the Crowing of the Noble Cock Beneventano." The central issue in the story is what the human characters are to make of the triumphal crowing of Merrymusk's cock, Trumpet. Melville introduces elements of poetry, philosophy, and religionthree activities which mankind has traditionally pursued in its search for meaning in lifeand leaves us to decide whether the best way to find meaning in the cock's crow is to view it poetically, philosophically, or religiously. In conducting this search for significance, Melville often employs humor to reveal the problems inherent in using each of these three activities as a means to understanding. In the end, all prove unsatisfactory; Melville effectively subverts the traditions of the cultural past.The first tradition to fall is that of poetry, in Melville's parody of William Wordsworth's "Resolution and Independence." In Wordsworth's poem, the poet-narrator ventures out for a nature walk on the sunny morning following a stormy night. He starts off in high spirits, but soon falls prey to doubts about the future. These doubts torment him until he sees an old leech-gatherer at work on the plain. The poet engages the old man in conversation, and leaves having drawn strength from the leech-gatherer's dignity in poverty.
The section which Melville parodies is one in which Wordsworth contemplates the sad fate of the poetic prodigy Thomas Chatterton, the neglect of whose work caused him to commit suicide at the age of seventeen:
I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
In Melville's version, we have:
. . . Of fine mornings,
Richard Chase has suggested that these imitative lines are not ultimately meant to disparage "Resolution and Independence"; that the substitution of "cocks" for "poets" is merely necessitated by Melville's choice of the cock as the focal point of the story, and that "the whole meaning [of 'Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!'] is similar to that of the poem." In other words, "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" is, like "Resolution and Independence," an affirmation of life in the aftermath of an emotional crisis. However, a careful look at the Melville excerpt makes it hard to accept this sort of "straight" reading of the story's relationship to Wordsworth's lines.
First, there is the phrase "lusty cocks." Even the most prudish among us would have to concede that, at the very least, Melville is being waggishly sexual in his choice of words. Indeed, this marks the beginning of the proliferation of the "cock as phallus" puns that are among Melville's main weapons in his attacks against tradition. Wordsworth's poem is meant to be read in deadly earnest, as the story of one man's paralyzing fears and self-doubts, and the spiritual regeneration he receives from an encounter with a materially deprived but mentally rugged old man. Melville's cock likewise bears a transcendent message, but its message is suffused with the sexual undercurrent inherent in the narrator's praise for the bird"Oh, noble cock! oh, noble man!" The suggestion here is that human transcendence has its roots in the physicality of sexsomething far less solemn than the physical labor of the leech-gatherer.
Considering the seriousness of tone which marks Wordsworth's poem, it seems clear that Melville (as the hand guiding the imaginary author of these parodic lines) intends "lusty cocks" to deflate the original's sense of self-importanceby playing upon the phallic pun and its implications for human transcendence, and also upon our modern conception of the low status of chickens in the animal kingdom. In light of the centrality of "Resolution and Independence" in the Romantic movement, it does not seem out of line to claim that Melville's objection to the speaker's self-importance in that poemsuch declamatory lines as "By our own spirits are we deified" fairly ooze hubriscan be taken as a general criticism of emotionally expressive poetry.
But the satire on poetry works on deeper levels as well. Taking a step back, if we view the poetic excerpt in "Cock-A-Doodle-Do!" just as art, we must conclude that it is simply the work of a bad poet. Note, for example, the seemingly negligent repetition of the word "fine," and the general halting quality of the excerpt when contrasted with the lines it is supposed to mimic. To suggest that a writer with Melville's command of the English language would write such an awkward line of verse without intending the awkwardness would be ludicrous. Melville is using the awkwardness to create a juxtaposition of an unnamed imaginary "bad poet" responsible for these lines in the fictive frame of the story with the "great poet" Wordsworth, sullying Wordsworth by mere professional association. Consider the line: "But when eve does come we don't crow quite so much...." This is a very prosaic line, and it would be difficult to conceive of its imaginary author's being able to successfully integrate the line into a poem with the flowing rhythms of "Resolution and Independence." When we add the aforementioned irreverence ("lusty cocks," etc.) of the "bad poet" to this lack of poetic skill, we can only conclude that the "bad poet" is meant to disparage Wordsworth.
Looking at the same line on a less involved level, its prose-like flatness can be construed as another cut at Wordsworth and poetry in general, here for their detachment from worldly reality as expressed by their detachment from the realities of everyday diction. Melville is attacking the artificiality of poetic language as seen in the inversion of word order and the changing of word forms to suit the meter and sound impressive. The lack of flow in the line forces us to notice the awkward substitution of "does come" for the simpler "comes," and makes us consider the line's general stiltedness. We are presumably to conclude that if poetry is divorced from reality, it will not be of any use in revealing the meaning of life's mysteriesfor if the language itself is false, how can the message it conveys be true?
This detachment from reality is reinforced by the use of the word "cometh" in the next line, which returns us to the bad poet/great poet level. In the context of the excerpt, the obsolete verb form is jarringly incongruous, to say the least. "Cometh" forcibly evokes the specter of Shakespeare and the great English Renaissance literary tradition in an obvious play for poetic credibility on the part of the "bad poet" who has written the excerpt. For all the criticisms that one may legitimately level at William Wordsworth, the gratuitous use of archaic verb forms is certainly not one of them. But the implication is that all poets are in some way traffickers in delusively unreal language.
Another problem with the straight interpretation of the Melville excerpt concerns the pathetic fallacy. How are we to take seriously a profession which laments "despondency and madness" in cocks? One may raise the objection that the imaginary "bad poet" is intended to be a chickenafter all, he does say "we cocks"but assuming this is the case, we are left with Wordsworth being equated with a fowl (or worse yet, a phallus), which is an even greater indignity than being linked to a bad human poet.
The final dimension of Melville's satire on Wordsworth involves the character of the leech-gatherer. Numerous critics have noted a similarity between the leech-gatherer and Merrymusk in their "cheerful poverty and indomitable faith...[and] the effect the two stoic men have on the narrator/persona in each work." The crucial stanza in Wordsworth's establishment of the leech-gatherer's dignity is the following:
His words came feebly, from a feeble chest,
There is in the old man's speech an unusual nobility of spirit, "above the reach/Of ordinary men," such as one might find in a devoutly religious man. Now, let us compare this with the description of Merrymusk in "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!"
Here, too, a character's worthiness is expressed in religious terms: "At times I imagined that he might even be an elder or deacon of some small country church." However, this praise is highly ironic, for in the next paragraph we learn that "[Merrymusk] would work hard a month with surprising soberness, and then spend all his wages in one riotous night." Melville completely undermines the dignified weightiness of the leech-gatherer's character by letting the ironic praise of his counterpart Merrymusk get entirely out of hand: "I thought it would not be a bad plan to run this excellent man for President of the United States. He would prove a great reformer of abuses."
The leech-gatherer's moral authority is more directly denied in the "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" narrator's reaction to an old man he meets during his initial search for the great cock. The old man is mending rotten fences, doing lonely, thankless work just as the leech-gatherer is doing. Is this an occasion for the narrator to feel the sort of reaffirmation of life that Wordsworth does? Hardly. It is more a chance for him to make caustic remarks about hick farmers: "And here I must say, that one cause of the sad fact why idiocy more prevails among farmers than any other class of people, is owing to their undertaking the mending of rotten rail-fences in warm, relaxing spring weather." This particular farmer makes an easy target: "On the face of the old man in question incipient idiocy was clearly marked." This savaging of the poor old fence-mender completes Melville's savaging of "Resolution and Independence." We leave this merciless mimicking with a deep sense that poetry cannot be trusted to settle any of life's questions, let alone decipher the great mysteries of existence, such as the message of cock's transcendent crowit takes itself far too seriously to be of any use to us. In choosing Wordsworth as his object of satire, Melville has been operating from the premise that to discredit any field of endeavor, it is sufficient to discredit one person who is the representative of his field in the public mind. His work is now complete.
If poetry will not serve as an adequate means to finding meaning, perhaps we need to look to a discipline whose practitioners are a bit more reliableperhaps there is some truth to the stereotypical image of poets having their heads in the clouds, not understanding anything about the real world. For millennia, philosophers have endeavored to find the great truths of the universe and use them to understand the world in which we actually live, so it seems only natural for Melville to turn his sights from poetry to philosophy. His satirical examination of philosophy concentrates on discrediting one ancient figure, Socrates, and one contemporary, Henry David Thoreauperhaps on the assumption that once the ends of a continuum are demolished, the middle will necessarily fall apart of its own. The charge against Socrates is again one of inflated self-importance; the main attack is against Thoreau, articulating a deep fear of Melville'sthat when we look at the cock's crow as philosophy, there is a very real danger that it may be used to justify some seemingly bizarre and destructive behavior.
The morning after first hearing the magnificent cock crow, the narrator makes a reference to Socrates in praising the bird: "Oh, brave cock!oh, noble Shanghai!oh, bird rightly offered up by the invincible Socrates, in testimony of his final victory over life." Two paragraphs later, the cock is referred to as "this bird of cheerful Socrates." What are we to make of this?
Melville is referring to the legend of Socrates' last words, spoken as the hemlock potion began to take effect. His final utterance to his followers was somewhat cryptic: "I owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it." Various interpretations of these mysterious words have surfaced over the centuries. The most relevant interpretation for our purposes was one that originated with Renaissance philosophers, who viewed Socrates' cock as man's soul. They noted that Pythagoras had used the phrase "feed the cock" to mean "feed the soul," and concluded that Socrates meant that he owed his soul to "the great Doctor of Souls," the legendary Greek god of medicine, Aesculapius. In Greek mythology, the cock was sacred to Aesculapius, and was sacrificed to him by people who recovered from illnesses. Socrates meant for his followers to sacrifice a cock to Aesculapiusparalleling the final offering made by inductees into the exclusive Society of the Greater Mysteriesfor in death he was now "to undergo the last test or discipline and was about to witness the revelation."
Returning to the story, we find that Melville has created a family in need of healing, the Merrymusks, whose experiences he uses to shred the solemn mystery of Socrates' last words. When the narrator has traced the cock to Merrymusk's house, and has gone behind the curtain to see the Merrymusk children, they ask to see Trumpet. The cock comes in and sits on the children's bed, and they lose themselves in his splendor: "They seemed to sun themselves in the radiant plumage of the cock." Then comes the payoff: "'Better than a 'pothecary, eh?' said Merrymusk. 'This is Dr. Cock himself.'" With that one line, Melville effectively skewers Socrates and Aesculapius both. The "Doctor of Souls" in "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" is a chicken. And if this is not enough, when we factor in the effect of the pun (Dr. Cock? Hmmm...sounds like someone pitching a wonderful new aphrodisiac elixir in the Spirit of the Times classifieds), we have no choice but to conclude that no great mysteries of life are going to be solved here.
Thus the beginning of the continuum has been dispensed with. Now we turn to the end, and Henry David Thoreau. W. B. Stein has pointed to a passage in Thoreau's essay "Walking" that may well have served as a jumping-off point for Melville:
The singer can easily move us to tears or to laughter, but where is he who can excite in us a pure morning joy? When in the doleful dumps, breaking the awful stillness of our wooden side-walk on a Sunday, or, perchance, a watcher in the house of mourning, I hear a cockerel crow far or near, I think to myself, "There is one of us well, at any rate"and with a sudden gush return to my senses.
Melville draws from this passage not only the figure of the exultantly crowing cock, but also the phrase "doleful dumps," which is used several times in "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!"most notably at the end, when the narrator proclaims that, after procuring the gravestone for the Merrymusks and their cock,
Stein asserts that the cock's main message to the narrator is to drop his preoccupation with the immediate present, paralleling another Thoreau line from "Walking": "Above all, we cannot afford to live in the present. He is blessed over all mortals who loses no moment of the passing life in remembering the past. Unless our philosophy hears the cock crow in every barnyard within our horizon, it is belated." But what happens when this idea is actually put into practice?
The "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" narrator interprets the cock's crow as a call to forget his present emotional and financial difficulties and enjoy himselfto be merry and "Never say die!"which would seem to be an endorsement of Thoreau. But as the narrator translates the idea into concrete actions, we see a radical inversion of Thoreau's message.
Freed from the burden of present cares, the narrator regains his zest for life: "Well, I have an appetite for my breakfast this morning, if I have not had it for a week before." But what he does with this zest is rather shocking. The first thing he does is make plans to club the dun who has been harassing him, citing the cock's crow as justification:
And, as if this were not enough, a second crow from the cock soon reaffirms this message in the narrator's mind: "Plainly Shanghai was of the opinion that duns only came into the world to be kicked, banged, bruised, battered, choked, walloped, hammered, drowned, clubbed!"
What is Thoreau's place in all of this? We may see the cock as representing Thoreau in the story, as the bearer of a visionary message. As we saw with Wordsworth earlier, mere association with the cock can have rather derogatory implications, and here Thoreau is actually being equated with the cock. But that is of relatively minor importance in the story's anti-Thoreau humor. The central issue here, as well as in the story's view of Christianity, as we shall see later, is where the responsibility lies for the narrator's seemingly perverse reading of the Thoreau/cock message. Is it the fault of the message or of the person who must decide upon its meaning?
Marvin Fisher has suggested that the narrator is almost totally responsible for the perversion of the cock's message. Fisher argues that the narrator displays many of the signs of paranoid schizophrenia, and thus cannot be trusted in his interpretation of the cock's crowing. Although his view of the narrator's paranoia is not shared by many others, Moss's arguments about Melville's feeling towards the Transcendentalists do seem to rule out the possibility that he considered Thoreau's ideas truly "evil."
The most likely explanation for the narrator's actions, and the most likely criticism of Thoreau, is that the cock's crow does not have a negative meaning, but rather lacks enough meaning to be objectively translated into actions. The cock's crow, or Thoreau's Transcendentalism, is either too vague, and as such, subject to a wide variety of interpretationsor else there is no message at all. Perhaps the cock's crow imparts euphoria and nothing else, allowing the individual to decide for himself how to react. In either case, the narrator is free to project his own desires onto the cock's crow. Because of the paucity of meaning in Thoreauvian thought and the necessary subjectivity in its interpretation, Thoreau's philosophy is unsuitable as a means to finding truth and meaning in life.
Thus we have seen that two man-centered (as opposed to God-centered) activities, poetry and philosophy, have proven inadequate to the task of revealing the meaning in life's ambiguities. One particular passage which praises the cock seems the final word on the absurdity of grounding truth and meaning in earthly reality:
Once again, the phallic pun shows its potency. The three words "Such a cock!" are enough to atomize all the hyperbole of the preceding paragraph. Lord Nelson, Charlemagne, phallusa progression perfectly suited to the task of deflating human beings' ideas of their own importance. We may assume that Melville has concluded that no merely human endeavor, whether poetry or philosophy or anything else, will be sufficient to show us meaning in this world. Left to themselves, people are incapable of such great feats; they are simply laughable.
In light of the failure of these man-centered activities, the logical next step is to consider religion as a possible source of truth and meaning. For Melville, the religion at hand is Christianity. In addressing the Christian religion in "Cock-A-Doodle-Do!," Melville taps into the long tradition of cock symbolism in Christianity, using it as the backdrop for an attempt to explain the narrator's bizarre reaction to the cock crow as Christian revelation.
From the outset, it is clear that the story has an important Christian subtext. The narrator's first reaction to the cock crow puts it into a Christian context: "What a triumphant thanksgiving of a cock crow! Glory be to God in the highest! It says those very words as plain as ever cock did in this world." In this context, the crowing brings the narrator a renewed vitality: "Why, why, I begin to feel a little in sorts again. It ain't so very misty, after all. The sun yonder is beginning to show himself: I feel warmer." The religious nature of this vitality is reinforced by the sun/Son pun and the fact that Melville has chosen to use the pronoun himself for the antecedent "sun."
To fully understand the religious content of the story, we must now look at the symbolic significance of the cock in the early church. We find that "the cock's early associations with light, healing, and regeneration made it the symbol of resurrection or of eternal life." The most famous Biblical cock story, of course, is that of Peter's denial of Christ. Jesus tells Peter that before the cock crows, Peter will have betrayed him thrice. Peter protests, saying that he would rather die than do such a thing to his Lord, but events prove otherwise:
Peter did betray Christ, but he subsequently repented and received forgiveness. So, in time, the cock of Peter's denial came to be a symbol of the call to repentance and the promise of redemption. As such, it was often depicted on the tombs of early Christians: "on early funereal monuments and in epitaphic verse, it was the guide of the souls of the dead, or the triumphant soul itself."
"Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" picks up the issue of redemption in Merrymusk and the narrator's reactions to the religious content of the cock's crow. W. B. Stein argues that the problem is that they take the promise of grace for sinnersa promise inherent in the tradition of cock symbolismtoo literally. The narrator errs in taking the promise of grace as justifying the gratification of "every self-indulgent whim of daily life" (we have noted that Thoreau's vagueness may have had this same effect); Merrymusk interprets the promise of grace as a call to renounce the physical body altogether, and dies in the misguided attempt to live with the cock's sublime crowing as his only means of subsistence. So, from one perspective, we might see Melville's criticism of Christianity as being directed towards the possible extremes in its interpretation. But, as we shall see, there is far more to the criticism than that.
Another interesting way of viewing Melville's treatment of religion in the story has been suggested by Beryl Rowland, who incorporates Stein's findings into a larger framework. She looks at how Melville inverts the traditional meanings of the Christian symbols in the story and suggests that Melville is actually constructing a sophisticated religious satire based on the traditional four-pronged method of scriptural interpretation, exegesis.
Exegesis involves looking at biblical texts on four different levels of meaningthe literal, the allegorical, the tropological or moral, and the anagogical or mystical. Rowland uses exegesis on "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" and contends that Melville disregards the literal level, and ironizes the other three levels. On the allegorical level, the cock's crowing transforms its hearers, but in a rather dubious way, by leading them to "a euphoria that induces total social irresponsibility." This we have already seen in Stein's commentary. In each man, the cock's crow fosters an impulse to escape present circumstances. The power of this escapist impulse is such that it is satisfied only in the narrator's complete withdrawal from social reality and Merrymusk's withdrawal from life itself.
On the tropological level, the cock creates a crowing that is interpreted by its hearers as a sort of poetry. Indeed, at one point, the narrator notes that the cock's crow is "like a very laureate." But the bird-poet's message of immortality through this poetry proves illusory, as he himself dies and is buried, surviving only in the carving on the gravestonea perverse perpetuation of the early tradition of cocks on the graves of Christians.
On the anagogical, or mystical level, we may view the cock as offering the promise of eternal life. At the end of the story, it seems that this promise may be coming true for Merrymusk and his family, though the narrator's viewpoint does not afford us any news from beyond the grave. We find reason to doubt the promise's fulfillment, however, when we realize that the cock itself has not received eternal life. As Rowland points out, "the symbol of eternal life, of Christ himself, is resurrected only as a wooden effigy over a grave."
This exegetical analysis is very helpful in sorting out much of the story's dizzying complexity (deluded narrator, cock-as-poet, cock-as-Christ, and so on), but for our purposes, at least one large question remains: is this complicated satire meant to criticize Christianity itself, or merely to show us one instance of the perversion of the Christian message by fallible human beings? There is evidence to support the claim that Melville's criticism is at least partially directed against Christianity itself.
At least one passage in "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!" strongly suggests that the cock's crowing contains elements of true religion which manage to break through the narrator's decidedly skewed viewpoint. When the narrator makes his first visit to Merrymusk's hut, his host exhorts the cock to give its best crow. The resultant blast shocks the narrator into at least a moment's glimpse of the cock's (and Christianity's) true message: "I leapt up from my chair. The cock frightened me, like some overpowering angel in the Apocalypse. He seemed crowing over the fall of wicked Babylon, or crowing over the triumph of righteous Joshua in the vale of Ashkelon." This a far cry from a call to club duns. It is perhaps the only time in the story when the narrator is confronted with the Truth, and, significantly, he recoils from it. The Truth encompasses righteous justice, not just saving grace, and this makes it too horrifying to bear. Herein lies Melville's main criticism of Christianitythat man must choose to live in a world of illusions and delusions because the truth and meaning that exists in the universe, as offered by the Christian tradition, is simply too frightening for us to confront. This criticism squares with Nathaniel Hawthorne's famous remark about Melville, that he could "neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief," and was "too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other."
So, in "Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!," Melville has used the search for the proper interpretation of the cock's crow as a metaphor for man's search for a means to understanding the truths of this world. Melville has dismissed the man-centered disciplines of poetry and philosophy, finding the former too inconsequential, and the latter too vague for his purposes. Turning his attention to the Christian God, he finds himself ultimately unable to rest secure in religious faith because of the prickly issue of divine justice. Like his characters, Melville must continue to live with those illusions which are necessary in order to make life bearable. But his attempt to find meaning has been a valiant one, and we should not let it go unappreciated.
Oh, noble cock! Oh, noble Melville!
7. Henry Thoreau: Selected Writings on Nature and Liberty, ed. Oscar Cargill (New York: The American Heritage Series, 1952), p. 138, quoted in William Bysshe Stein, "Melville Roasts Thoreau's Cock," Modern Language Notes 74 (March 1959): 218. [To citation in text]
Chase, Richard V. Herman Melville: A Critical Study. New York: Macmillan and Co., 1949.
Fisher, Marvin. Going Under: Melville's Short Fiction and the American 1850's. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977.
Moss, Sidney P. "'Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!' and Some Legends in Melville Scholarship." American Literature 40 (1968): 192-210.
Newman, Lea. A Reader's Guide to the Short Stories of Herman Melville. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1986.
Rowland, Beryl. Birds with Human Souls. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1978.
________. "Melville and the Cock That Crew." American Literature 52 (1981): 592-606.
Stein, William Bysshe. "Melville Roasts Thoreau's Cock." Modern Language Notes 74 (1959): 218-219.
________. "Melville's Cock and the Bell of Saint Paul." Emerson Society Quarterly 27 (1962): 5-10.
Wordsworth, William. The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, 2nd ed., ed. E. DeSelincourt. London: Oxford University Press, 1952.