It's not that I am anti-big book by a long shot or haven't been moved and changed in the way other lives change us by long biographies, but short, incisive biographies are a canto of Paradise all their own. Elizabeth Hardwick might wish to return to earth to write my biography. Her Herman Melville is so beautiful, especially considering obstacles inherent in so formidable a subject.
And speaking of Melville, here is one of his poems. I trust Hardwick in her contention (and everyone else's) that his fiction outshines his poetry but the following is a good poem so go figure."The bibliographic material on Melville is intensive, extensive farming, ever piling up like threshed what to go off to the silo," Hardwick writes. Just read the book, okay? The Penguin Lives series excels in production of short interpretations of lives. Longer than Plutarch's Lives (individually) but not by too much.
The Maldive Shark
About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat—
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.
Herman Melville, poem courtesy of Poets.org; illustration from http://www.mundofractal.net/wp-content/gallery/gallery-13/sharks.jpg.