“The Berg” is a poem appearing in Herman Melville’s collection John Marr, and Other Sailors; With Some Sea-Pieces. Melville published his volume at his own expense in 1888. By that point in his life, Melville was three years in retirement from his job as customs inspectors in New York and Moby-Dick was into nearly its fourth decade of forgotten obscurity. More than thirty years had passed since Melville had published his last novel and in the interim he had focused his writing attention—when he mind-numbing position on the docks allowed it—to composing poetry.
Twenty-two years earlier Melville published a collection of poems about the Civil War titled Battle-Pieces which was greeted with as much enthusiasm as Moby-Dick. Just as that novel is today viewed as one of the prime contenders for the Great American Novel, so has Battle-Pieces come to be viewed as one of the two or three greatest books of poetry to come out of the Civil War. Melville got to enjoy the fruits of his current reputation while he was alive. After initial success with novels that earned him the nickname “the man who lived among the cannibals” his writing became more profound and complex and less instantly marketable. He enjoyed some success as a book reviewer and short story writer, but by the time he got his job as a customs inspector, he was essentially writing poetry for the love of writing poetry. He published his collections with his own money and saw no profit from the return of their meagre sales.
“The Berg” is a poem about a man who dreams of a ship seeming to be steered purposefully—as if driven by madness—into the powerful solid block of ice that rips the ship apart and sends it sinking down to the surface of the ocean. Afterward, it still sits impassive and indifferent to the role it played in the tragic circumstances of a ship seemingly consumed with a self-destructive passion. It just may be that the poem is not really about an iceberg and a ship.