What an extraordinary two-hundredth birthday present for Herman Melville: a handsome Library of America edition collecting all of his poems in one volume, and in reliable textual form, too. Two crisply drawn maps, a chronology, over fifty pages of detailed notes provided by his best biographer, and a midnight-blue ribbon marker: Melville would have been surprised by all the attention. He had wanted poetry to be his do-over, his last attempt, after his novels failed to please, to make himself relevant. To no avail. The name, as Robert Penn Warren acidly observed, was dead before the man.

Fortunately, the Melville we encounter in the Complete Poems seems very much alive. Take “Montaigne and his Kitten,” a delightful riff on a brilliant sentence buried in one of the French philosopher’s essays: “When I play with my cat, who knows if I am not a...


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