Melville's writing style shows enormous changes throughout the years as well as consistencies. As early a juvenile piece as "Fragments from a Writing Desk" from 1839, scholar Sealts points out, already shows "a number of elements that anticipate Melville's later writing, especially his characteristic habit of abundant literary allusion." Typee and Omoo were documentary adventures that called for a division of the narrative in short chapters. Such compact organization bears the risk of fragmentation when applied to a lengthy work such as Mardi, but with Redburn and White Jacket Melville had turned the short chapter into an instrument of form and concentration. A number of chapters of Moby-Dick are no longer than two pages in standard editions, and an extreme example is Chapter 122, consisting of a single paragraph of 36 words (including the thrice-repeated "Um, um, um.") The skillful handling of chapters in Moby-Dick is one of the fullest developed Melvillean signatures, and is a measure of "his manner of mastery as a writer," Individual chapters have become "a touchstone for appreciation of Melville's art and for explanation" of his themes. In contrast, the chapters in Pierre, called Books, are divided into short numbered sections, seemingly an "odd formal compromise" between Melville's natural length and his purpose to write a regular romance that called for longer chapters. As satirical elements were introduced, the chapter arrangement restores "some degree of organization and pace from the chaos." The usual chapter unit then reappears for Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man and even Clarel, but only becomes "a vital part in the whole creative achievement" again in the juxtaposition of accents and of topics in Billy Budd.
Melville's early works were "increasingly baroque" in style, and with Moby-Dick Melville's vocabulary had grown superabundant. Bezanson calls it an "immensely varied style." Three characteristic uses of language can be recognized. First, the exaggerated repetition of words, as in the series "pitiable," "pity," "pitied," and "piteous" (Ch. 81, "The Pequod Meets the Virgin"). A second typical device is the use of unusual adjective-noun combinations, as in "concentrating brow" and "immaculate manliness" (Ch. 26, "Knights and Squires"). A third characteristic is the presence of a participial modifier to emphasize and to reinforce the already established expectations of the reader, as the words "preluding" and "foreshadowing" ("so still and subdued and yet somehow preluding was all the scene...," "In this foreshadowing interval...").
After the hyphenated compounds of Pierre, words and phrases became less exploratory and less provocative. Instead of providing a lead "into possible meanings and openings-out of the material at hand," the style now served "to crystallize governing impressions." The diction no longer attracted attention to itself, except as an effort at exact definition. The language reflects a "controlling intelligence, of right judgment and completed understanding." The sense of free inquiry and exploration which infused his earlier writing and accounted for its "rare force and expansiveness," tended to give way to "static enumeration." Added "seriousness of consideration" came at the cost of losing "pace and momentum." The verbal music and kinetic energy of Moby-Dick seem "relatively muted, even withheld" in the later works.
Melville's paragraphing, in his best work, is the virtuous result of "compactness of form and free assembling of unanticipated further data," such as when the mysterious sperm whale is compared with Exodus's invisibility of God's face in the final paragraph of Chapter 86 ("The Tail"). Over time Melville's paragraphs became shorter as his sentences grew longer, until he arrived at the "one-sentence paragraphing characteristic of his later prose." The opening chapter of The Confidence-Man counts fifteen paragraphs, seven of which consist of only one, elaborate, sentence, and four that have only two sentences. This contributes in large part, Berthoff says, to the "remarkable narrative economy" of Billy Budd.
Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.—Matthew 10:15
I tell you it will be more tolerable for the Feegee that salted down a lean missionary in his cellar against a coming famine; it will be more tolerable for that provident Feegee, I say, in the day of judgment, than for thee, civilized and enlightened gourmand, who nailest geese to the ground and feastest on their bloated livers in thy paté-de-foie-gras.— Melville paraphrases the Bible in "The Whale as a Dish," Moby-Dick Ch.65
In Nathalia Wright's view, Melville's sentences generally have a looseness of structure, easy to use for devices as catalogue and allusion, parallel and refrain, proverb and allegory. The length of his clauses may vary greatly, but the "torterous" writing in Pierre and The Confidence-Man is there to convey feeling, not thought. Unlike Henry James, who was an innovator of sentence ordering to render the subtlest nuances in thought, Melville made few such innovations. His domain is the mainstream of English prose, with its rhythm and simplicity influenced by the King James Bible.
Another important characteristic of Melville's writing style is in its echoes and overtones. Melville's imitation of certain distinct styles is responsible for this. His three most important sources, in order, are the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton. Scholar Nathalia Wright has identified three stylistic categories of Biblical influence. Actual quotation from any of the sources is slight; only one sixths of his Biblical allusions can be qualified as such.
First, far more unmarked than acknowledged quotations occur, some favorites even numerous times throughout his whole body of work, taking on the nature of refrains. Examples of this idiom are the injunctions to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, death on a pale horse, the man of sorrows, the many mansions of heaven; proverbs as the hairs on our heads are numbered, pride goes before a fall, the wages of sin is death; adverbs and pronouns as verily, whoso, forasmuch as; phrases as come to pass, children's children, the fat of the land, vanity of vanities, outer darkness, the apple of his eye, Ancient of Days, the rose of Sharon.
Second, there are paraphrases of individual and combined verses. Redburn's "Thou shalt not lay stripes upon these Roman citizens" makes use of language of the Ten Commandments in Ex.20,[c] and Pierre's inquiry of Lucy: "Loveth she me with the love past all understanding?" combines John 21:15–17[d] and Philippians 4:7[e]
Third, certain Hebraisms are used, such as a succession of genitives ("all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob"), the cognate accusative ("I dreamed a dream," "Liverpool was created with the Creation"), and the parallel ("Closer home does it go than a rammer; and fighting with steel is a play without ever an interlude").
A passage from Redburn (see quotebox) shows how all these different ways of alluding interlock and result in a fabric texture of Biblical language, though there is very little direct quotation.
The other world beyond this, which was longed for by the devout before Columbus' time, was found in the New; and the deep-sea land, that first struck these soundings, brought up the soil of Earth's Paradise. Not a Paradise then, or now; but to be made so at God's good pleasure,[f] and in the fulness and mellowness of time.[g] The seed is sown, and the harvest must come; and our children's children,[h] on the world's jubilee morning, shall all go with their sickles to the reaping. Then shall the curse of Babel be revoked,[i] a new Pentecost come, and the language they shall speak shall be the language of Britain.[j] Frenchmen, and Danes, and Scots; and the dwellers on the shores of the Mediterranean,[k] and in the regions round about;[l] Italians, and Indians, and Moors; there shall appear unto them cloven tongues as of fire.[m]— The American melting pot described in Redburn's Biblical language, with Nathalia Wright's glosses.
In addition to this, Melville successfully imitates three Biblical strains: he sustains the apocalyptic for a whole chapter of Mardi; the prophetic strain is a presence in Moby-Dick, most notably in Father Mapple's sermon; and the tradition of the Psalms is imitated at length in The Confidence-Man.
An edition of Shakespeare's works came in Melville's possession in 1849, and his reading of it greatly influenced the style of his next book, Moby-Dick (1851). The language of "Shakespeare went far beyond all other influences" upon the book, in that it made Melville discover his own full strength. On almost every page debts to Shakespeare can be discovered. The "mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing" at the end of "Cetology" (Ch.32) echoe the famous phrase in Macbeth: "Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." Ahab's first extended speech to the crew, in the "Quarter-Deck" (Ch.36), is "virtually blank verse" and so is Ahab's sololoquy at the beginning of "Sunset" (Ch.37):'I leave a white and turbid wake;/ Pale waters, paler cheeks, where'er I sail./ The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm/ My track; let them; but first I pass. ' Through Shakespeare, Melville infused Moby-Dick with a power of expression he had not previously possessed. Reading Shakespeare had been "a catalytic agent" for Melville, one that transformed his writing "from limited reporting to the expression of profound natural forces." The extent to which Melville assimilated Shakespeare is evident in the description of Ahab, which ends in language "that suggests Shakespeare's but is not an imitation of it: 'Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked from the skies and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!' The imaginative richness of the final phrase seems particularly Shakespearean, "but its two key words appear only once each in the plays...and to neither of these usages is Melville indebted for his fresh combination." Melville's diction depended upon no source, and his prose is not based on anybody else's verse but on "a sense of speech rhythm." Melville's mastering of Shakespeare supplied him with verbal resources that enabled him "to make language itself dramatic" through three essential techniques:
- To rely on verbs of action, "which lend their dynamic pressure to both movement and meaning." The effective tension caused by the contrast of "thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds" and "there's that in here that still remains indifferent" in "The Candles" (Ch. 119) makes the last clause lead to a "compulsion to strike the breast," which suggests "how thoroughly the drama has come to inhere in the words;"
- The Shakespearean energy of verbal compounds was not lost on him ("full-freighted");
- And, finally, Melville learned how to handle "the quickened sense of life that comes from making one part as speech act as another - for example, 'earthquake' as an adjective, or the coining of 'placeless,' an adjective from a noun."
Melville's style seamlessly flows over into theme, because all these borrowings have an artistic purpose, which is to suggest an appearance "larger and more significant than life" for characters and themes that are "essentially simple and mundane." The allusions suggest that beyond the world of appearances another world exists, one that "exerts influence upon this world, and in which ultimate truth resides." Moreover, the ancient background thus suggested for Melville's narratives – ancient allusions being next in number to the Biblical ones – invests them "with a certain timeless quality."