The John Claggart Appreciation Society

Often, John Claggart, Master At Arms on board the Indomitable, is only depicted as a kind of Sir Spank-A-Lot. Only derived from the one chapter in Melville’s novel that is solely about him I will try to explain to what conclusions I have come.

The full text of the novel is available at the University of Virginia

…But among the petty-officers was one who having much to do with the story, may as well be forthwith introduced. His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it.

A very interesting choice of words, to describe a character that cannot be really fathomed. It also puts him firmly in place by stressing his low rank.

This was John Claggart, the Master-at-arms. But that sea-title may to landsmen seem somewhat equivocal. Originally, doubtless, that petty-officer’s function was the instruction of the men in the use of arms, sword or cutlas. But very long ago, owing to the advance in gunnery making hand-to-hand encounters less frequent and giving to nitre and sulphur the preeminence over steel, that function ceased; the Master-at-arms of a great war-ship becoming a sort of Chief of Police, charged among other matters with the duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks.

This is, of course, also a honest attempt to explain the tasks of a Master At Arms to the land-lubber reader. But still, it hints that John Claggart can wield a sabre, sword, etc., so well he can actually teach it. He must have learned it before joining the navy.

The dry expression of “preserving order”  is slightly funny seen in correlation to the later mentioned suspicion that he might have been pressed directly from jail himself. So this is like you would say in German,  “den Bock zum Gärtner machen”, in English it is apparently “to set a thief to catch a thief.”

Also, he could have explained the tasks of a Master At Arms in a different chapter, by perhaps giving an outline how a ship’s chain of command works in general, but he chooses to put this in the Claggart chapter. So, this already gives a nice sum-up about what Melville says on the whole in the following: A man’s title or a name is not all there is to it.

Claggart was a man about five and thirty, somewhat spare and tall, yet of no ill figure upon the whole. His hand was too small and shapely to have been accustomed to hard toil.

Okay, so he is — like Vere — the bookish sort, but altogether different. If he survived so far, he is of noble origin — because even as the most skilled of thieves, or contract killer, some hard work in between jobs cannot fully be avoided, I guess.

The face was a notable one; the features all except the chin cleanly cut as those on a Greek medallion; yet the chin, beardless as Tecumseh’s, had something of strange protuberant heaviness in its make that recalled the prints of the Rev. Dr. Titus Oates, the historic deponent with the clerical drawl in the time of Charles II and the fraud of the alleged Popish Plot.

A Greek medallion – awwww… So, he was strikingly handsome, Melville only chooses not to be so openly gay as to mention the word “beauty” and “handsome” yet again.

Why the mentioning of the chin?


Titus Oates


Oates was convicted  with plotting treason. Nothing so special about his chin. S. says he was also gay — but then, Lully was too but Claggart doesn’t have his chin — not sure if Melville cared, or knew anything about Oates’ sexual orientation.




Tecumseh. There is funnily a famous painting, painted a few years after BB is set, in 1806, picturing him in a British uniform. He is supposed to have been made British general, but in fact he was not. But — interesting career.
(the german site is better than the English one on that)

“Tecumsehs Erziehung wurde nach dem Tod seines Vaters von dem fähigen Shawnee-Häuptling Blackfish und seinem Bruder Cheeseekau (Chiksika) übernommen. Großen Einfluss auf ihn hatte auch seine Schwester Tecumapease, eine ungewöhnliche Frau, der Tecumseh vermutlich seine außergewöhnlich humanen Überzeugungen verdankte.”

Tecumseh was raised without a father, as a foster child of a chief – alright. I thought, even Melville knew that much, even without wikipedia^^.

As we all know, unless we forgot in our mommy brain, he was a military leader, and wanted to form an alliance of the native Americans to enforce a political solution. A man of the brain. Funny in addition to that, that the picture could well be Claggart as Melville describes him, and, furthermore, that wikipedia stresses his humanity.

Tecumseh was also someone who adopted perfectly, but never fit in British society on the whole, he shares this trait with Claggart.

It served Claggart in his office that his eye could cast a tutoring glance. His brow was of the sort phrenologically associated with more than average intellect; silken jet curls partly clustering over it, making a foil to the pallor below, a pallor tinged with a faint shade of amber akin to the hue of time-tinted marbles of old.

What exactly is a tutoring glance? Mild, kind, teacher’s one? Natural authority? I suspect, a mixture. Fatherly, etc….

Phrenology was a big subject at the time Melville lived, infamously continued to ridiculous extremes by the NSDAP, so.. never mind what he looks like — I assume a high, wide line of forehead and eyebrows, but the core is: He is of more than average intellect.

I added a chapter about phrenology out of a hilarious book here, apparently a broad chin means amongst other traits sexual ardor 😀
The author I won’t mention, as I think he is still ashamed, though presumably long dead.

Jet black hair is rare in England at the time. He must be … at least half-something. Most probably, a jew. Fits the Judas motive too, tbh. Other theories like… Italian, French, etc… may fit, but don’t explain the rest of his meticulously described appearance. I don’t know one single Greek or Italian person that doesn’t — at the first beam of sun — grab a frappé or an espresso if they can, and recline in an armchair. If there is no armchair, they will mysteriously appear on porches and before cafés within minutes (at least around here).

And — they are bound to get color, and quickly. So, semitic origin fits better, first of the overall bad reputation they had (even to Melville, racist idiot, welkin-eyed Billy, omg…) Plus, the tendency it takes ages to grow a beard, shared with Tecumseh, fits this picture.

This complexion, singularly contrasting with the red or deeply bronzed visages of the sailors, and in part the result of his official seclusion from the sunlight, tho’ it was not exactly displeasing, nevertheless seemed to hint of something defective or abnormal in the constitution and blood.

It was only in part due to the fact that he shunned sunlight, so the other part is his origins.

Abnormal and defective are harsh words. Back then, everything was a sickness of the blood. From leukemia to simply having the “wrong” origins or “treacherous” blood – back then a villain was born a villain. They tried to derive features that all thieves etc. had in common at Melville’s time. Surely, Hitler perfectioned it, but the ideas were around everywhere else in Europe quite a while before the time, the racial bs was only a culmination.

But his general aspect and manner were so suggestive of an education and career incongruous with his naval function that when not actively engaged in it he looked a man of high quality, social and moral, who for reasons of his own was keeping incog.

Okay. Educated, and he behaves not like a MAA, but incongruous to it, means a lot better than the normal MAA. Better only meant in demeanor here. In his spare time – he looks… of course meant in the way that looks, especially first glances can be deceiving.

Appearance: High quality man in general, social, and even moral. He has a secret, hence incog.

So … whence does the difference spring between .. a moral, and social person and the happily flogging maniac? This is the first part on which I really get nosy.

Nothing was known of his former life.

By whom? This is the question.Melville socializes more than a bit with the average sailor, a lot less with the officers he omits almost in total. So – the average crewman knows nothing. Why, is simple. It was far before their time, and rumors mixed until the knot between made-up stories and original ones couldn’t be untied anymore.

If Vere or the other officers know … If he was pressed from jail, the ones who pressed them know, and it is difficult to get rid of that image. People tend to remember. The navy at the time, officers’ ranks – how many warships had they got? Lets say a 100, admiralty is ashore, some on shore–leaves… at the utmost, there are 3k officers I guess.

3k is like .. a small university.. classes mix, people gossip, are tossed together in different combos every semester… sooner or later you know ALL if you want. So. He is GOOD. Maybe he even devised the weirdest stories himself to distract. I once turned a psycho off by saying … hey I got to pick my bf up from jail, on Saturdays he is allowed to go outside for an hour… Works. And people believe it without a glance.

It might be that he was an Englishman; and yet there lurked a bit of accent in his speech suggesting that possibly he was not such by birth, but through naturalization in early childhood.

Must be after 10 years of age, because before you learn any language without any accent. Unless kept indoors with a private teacher, like Gilda, perhaps, with only contact speakers of a different tongue. This also hints at a noble origin, as all others helped their parents already before 10 years of age, no way to avoid picking up a language without any accent otherwise.

Interesting Melville omits what class accent he speaks. But then, Melville was American.

Among certain grizzled sea-gossips of the gun decks and forecastle went a rumor perdue that the Master-at-arms was a chevalier who had volunteered into the King’s Navy by way of compounding for some mysterious swindle whereof he had been arraigned at the King’s Bench. The fact that nobody could substantiate this report was, of course, nothing against its secret currency.

grizzled – nagging
to be arraingned – to be charged before a court
compounding can be – consisting of, or aggravating

Well, here Melville goes Dibbler style. I think it is a false track, because it is too smug a story. But it hints what would be absolutely an IC thing for Claggart, something he would perfectly be capable of, or at least, that the sailors deem there was. Officers don’t make assumptions, but then, they don’t w… er… gossip. They are puritan.

Such a rumor once started on the gun decks in reference to almost anyone below the rank of a commissioned officer would, during the period assigned to this narrative, have seemed not altogether wanting in credibility to the tarry old wiseacres of a man-of-war crew.

Means … nowadays, it would be incredible. A wiseacre is a “Klugscheißer…” a Mr Know-it-all. Tarry as an adjective… must be more or less tarrying, but not quite, more like, the … in German you would say, ” die ewigen Ratschtanten” in a very informal translation ..

So this states – back in the time, it was a credible rumour, so – something like that, but … perhaps not quite.

And indeed a man of Claggart’s accomplishments, without prior nautical experience, entering the navy at mature life, as he did, and necessarily allotted at the start to the lowest grade in it; a man, too, who never made allusion to his previous life ashore; these were circumstances which in the dearth of exact knowledge as to his true antecedents opened to the invidious a vague field for unfavorable surmise.

Melville frequently shows me how my English is lacking…
invidious – spiteful, nowadays… envious is not enough, there is additional malice in it.
surmise — assumption
dearth — a dry period, like”Dürre” in German, metaphorically the complete lack of something.

Invidious… of what? Of being thirty-and-five and to be MAA which an education hinting you could be king of England and be good at your job?

“He never made allusions to his previous life ashore. “Also interesting. But then – whom to talk to. Middies are above his rank. AND they are about 20 years younger! Officers shun him, the captain addresses him with “…, man” in Britten’s opera, which is very rude, or at least I find.

So – whom to socialize with? Maybe per chance he has got another guy on the ship he likes, a carpenter or something, but I doubt even that. The question strongly arises by now… WHY tf is he doing this job at all? Answer must be – he cannot simply go back, or the life he would face would be worse than that on the Indomitable, which says something.

But the sailors’ dog-watch gossip concerning him derived a vague plausibility from the fact that now for some period the British Navy could so little afford to be squeamish in the matter of keeping up the muster-rolls, that not only were press-gangs notoriously abroad both afloat and ashore, but there was little or no secret about another matter, namely that the London police were at liberty to capture any able-bodied suspect, any questionable fellow at large and summarily ship him to dockyard or fleet.

summarily – without much formalities

I still doubt that Claggart was a “common” criminal. But – why does Melville enlarge this subject to almost a whole  page in the following? The London police is specifically mentioned; I think, but cannot really corroborate it, that Claggart might have a connection there. He surely is not from a shitty place (at the time) as Brighton or Portsmouth. Perhaps the paragraph hints at something else too, concerning the choice of words. But this is far into subtexty level now – A summary on a ship, held by a captain, is the same as the word implies, a court held without any much formalities, plus you can be convicted for the mere suspicion – the jurisdictional term at the time, too. So, the use of “suspect” and not bluntly “criminal” or “shadowy figure”, plus the “summarily”, where Melville could have chosen a dozen other terms, like “to rid themselves from this scum of mankind” to .. “without much further ado…” etc., hints for me that the choice of word is careful and deliberate. But, I may be wrong. Nevertheless, I think that Claggart was convicted on the base of a scarcely proven suspicion.

Furthermore, even among voluntary enlistments there were instances where the motive thereto partook neither of patriotic impulse nor yet of a random desire to experience a bit of sea-life and martial adventure.

I just read “marital adventure” – gosh, I’m tired. Okay. This is trying to paint a picture that all sorts of scum were on board a warship. Mostly in the lower ranks, because others don’t simply enlist.

Insolvent debtors of minor grade, together with the promiscuous lame ducks of morality found in the Navy a convenient and secure refuge. Secure, because once enlisted aboard a King’s-ship, they were as much in sanctuary, as the transgressor of the Middle Ages harboring himself under the shadow of the altar. Such sanctioned irregularities, which for obvious reasons the Government would hardly think to parade at the time, and which consequently, and as affecting the least influential class of mankind, have all but dropped into oblivion, lend color to something for the truth whereof I do not vouch, and hence have some scruple in stating;

I doubt that Claggart is a promiscuous lame duck – maybe he is promiscuous concerning flogging, but – he tries to make this personal… ❤ Surely he is not simply an insolvent debtor either. It is only to distract from the next lines imho. Now the pictures start to get biblical, there is at least one more reference hidden.

The picture of “harboring” not only on “sacred ground”, but on the most sacred of places, under the shadow of an altar, is strange. It makes you think of entombment, especially with the choice of the word shadow. It is a sanctuary, but a confining one, not depicted as something altogether friendly, nice, warm and snuggly.

After that Melville goes Dibbler-ish again, but we are used to that by now. Mostly the Dibbler parts are the more important ones, as all his alleged rants, when he says “but I digress,” this is in fact often the most important part.

…something I remember having seen in print, though the book I can not recall; but the same thing was personally communicated to me now more than forty years ago by an old pensioner in a cocked hat with whom I had a most interesting talk on the terrace at Greenwich, a Baltimore Negro, a Trafalgar man. It was to this effect: In the case of a war-ship short of hands whose speedy sailing was imperative, the deficient quota in lack of any other way of making it good, would be eked out by draughts culled direct from the jails.

So that part  has been reported to Melville  in person. Not about Claggart, of course not. Only banter in general, with a random. But it is put in the chapter solely about John Claggart. Oh, and also Melville wants to hint apparently that he isn’t a racist – nice attempt, Melville, welkin-eyed-boy fancier. But still – what counts is, it is a personal testimony. So, Claggart was from jail. He was not a suspect, he was convicted. And NOT for street robbery. Not for rape either, as any noble family would have bought him out of the trouble. In the Navy, e.g. rape was only if either the woman did not consent – in a loose term , or was under 12 or something. And only very severe cases were persecuted. This was at a time where there still was the right of the first night in people’s heads. See Nozze di Figaro. So – it must have been murder, or treason. Treason gets you before a court martial, or spontaneously executed in a friendly sort of way, so – it must be murder, or rather – manslaughter, as murder had a death-penalty by then I think, even in England, but not sure.

It can also have been a nasty mixture of various offences, but I think murder is the most simple solution.

For reasons previously suggested it would not perhaps be easy at the present day directly to prove or disprove the allegation. But allowed as a verity, how significant would it be of England’s straits at the time, confronted by those wars which like a flight of harpies rose shrieking from the din and dust of the fallen Bastille.

A strait is also a nautical term, meaning a narrow passage, as in “dire straits” 🙂

A nice comparison, in a very poetic metre too, and with alliterations like “the din and dust” … great phrase. The flight of the harpies… Black, menacing shape, female, avenger … hmm Claggart, a bit, perhaps, what is he avenging? Whom does he want to make pay?




This is Kalaino, one of the harpies, only called “the Dark one”. Female. Obvious from the picture, isn’t it?

Reference is furthermore interesting – but this is also a very subtexty assumption on my behalf.

“Die Harpyien werden als schnell wie der Wind und als unverwundbar beschrieben. Trotzdem wird erzählt, dass Podarge von Herakles getötet wurde: Die Harpyien sollten den blinden König Phineus quälen, indem sie ihm das Essen aus dem Mund raubten. Sie ließen ihm allerdings immer gerade genug, um zu überleben. Die Argonauten vertrieben darauf die Harpyien mit Hilfe der Söhne des Nordwindes Boreas. Podarge wurde dabei von einem Pfeil getroffen.”

Herakles was a guy that didn’t have only strength. He had guts. And brains – like Augias’ stable business, etc., when I remember correctly. He didn’t achieve what he is by force alone. Neither does Billy. But here the reference almost ends, as Melville doesn’t let Billy be a hero. In the Disney movie –which omits the tasks of Hercules almost all – Hercules is a bit limited to  his physical abilities, and ends up with a slightly lewd girl who is no “virgin”, not even in the loosest possible sense. Very sympathetic. I would so wish BB the same fate. Hercules also sings quite nice in it 🙂

Still, Hercules as well as Billy share more than one trait. They have a very noble father. Billy – unknown, but strongly hinted it might be even a king. Hercules – Zeus, of course. They both don’t really die but are upon death made immortal, Hercules by his father’s side, depicted as a constellation, and Billy, transfigured into an abstract Jesus-like figure by Melville.

Perhaps Melville also wants to hint that the world is so f*cked up in total at the time that not even a Hercules would be of any avail, not even a Jesus. “Blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fighting peacemakers,”referring to Billy, stresses the Jesus motive, as it is ofc a mocking of the Sermon of the Mount. (“What did he say, blessed are the cheesemakers?” Life of Brian)

The charm of all of those three figures, Hercules, as well as Jesus, and Billy, arises because they care so little about their own destiny, and a great deal for others’.

In der Aeneis des römischen Dichters Vergil finden sich Harpyien im 3. Buch auf den Strophaden, einer Inselgruppe im Westen der Peloponnes. Sie haben dort vor ständigem Hunger bleiche Gesichter und beschmutzen die Opfermahlzeiten des Aeneas und seiner Mannschaft mit ihren Ausscheidungen. Aeneas begegnet Harpyien auch in den Vorhallen der Unterwelt im 6. Buch, wo sie neben Gorgonen und Kentauren hausen.

Assuredly, Melville knew Vergil, or he wouldn’t have made Vere a fan of classic literature and wouldn’t have  chosen the allegory.

Vergil summed up: A harpy is:  a pale-faced creature. Pale from deprivation — a harpy is a creature of the wind, what hunger can she have? Not a craving for mixed pickles and chocolate, surely. They sully the sacrifices of Aeneas;  which means,they give a shit about others’ God+King+Country business.

Interesting, also something that stresses the “set a thief to catch a thief” motive, when a harpy should be brought into a position to ensure exactly that.

They despise others’ values. And furthermore, though a creature of the wind, they inhabit the Tartaro… in nice company. Eternally confined below decks, so to speak.

It is perhaps a bit too subtexty. But I think Melville deliberately put this picture in this specific chapter — the only one that is only about Claggart.

That era appears measurably clear to us who look back at it, and but read of it. But to the grandfathers of us graybeards, the more thoughtful of them, the genius of it presented an aspect like that of Camouns’ Spirit of the Cape, an eclipsing menace mysterious and prodigious.

O my, just found another link…

Biblical references in BB.. okay.




These lines are referring to Adamastor, what he did is

“Adamastor emerges as the giant of classical literature who threatens (but fails) to destroy da Gama’s fleet as they return by the Cape of Good Hope.”

The words chosen are ambivalent. He didn’t say “marvellous”. A prodigy is not necessarily a good thing. “Eclipsing” stresses this. So there is a clash of the “genius” and the “menace, mysterious and prodigious”. The absolute same words might apply to Claggart. He is a genius, a ferreting mind, and also a menace, equally mysterious, and imho prodigious. (The John Claggart Appreciation Society is hereby founded… )

The eclipse is a very archaic symbol for impending doom.

This Adamastor guy — I admit, I never heard of him before — wants to destroy Vasco da Gama’s fleet, but fails. Claggart also can destroy Billy, but he cannot break the spirit, the defiance in the final choir, the seed that will forever be there, which makes Britannia shake in its foundations a few years after, not only, but also because guys like him who dare to object, and bitchslap when appropriate, not heeding the consequences.

A link to Camoes’ work can be found here:

Not America was exempt from apprehension. At the height of Napoleon’s unexampled conquests, there were Americans who had fought at Bunker Hill who looked forward to the possibility that the Atlantic might prove no barrier against the ultimate schemes of this French upstart from the revolutionary chaos who seemed in act of fulfilling judgement prefigured in the Apocalypse.

This snipped stresses the aforementioned. The seed is laid, “apprehension” is at the time more neutral I guess than nowadays. It is a foreboding, a vague mixed-feelings sort of hope mingled with fear. Bunker Hill was a disaster, a victory for the British, but too dearly bought. It gave a great surge of sympathy and enthusiasm to the Americans, in fact. So this is also a hint not dropped at random. It also can be seen as reference to Billy, as well as the “French upstart” a common synonym for Napoleon ofc. And it is stated that even the ones who were defeated WISH for being defeated… and utterly. And repeatedly.

What that means for Claggart – as this is still the chapter ONLY referring to him, I leave open here 😀

And the Apocalypsis… with the stress of the final judgement it will bring, the yearning it implies for the world being so simple once again — only devided in good, and evil.

On board the Indomitable, it is not so. Vere is if anything, a Pilate. Vere doesn’t even have a final act where he finds his balls in a secret, hidden place, as Pilate has when saying “What I have written, I have written.” Claggart is not purely evil, he is the law, a great bit like the Phariseans in the Bible, who in fact think they are right, at all times. (“Lässest du diesen los, so bist du des Kaisers Freund nicht!” / “Kreuzige, kreuzige, kreuzige ihn!” J.S. Bach)

Still, “Billy Budd Sailor” is no Bible fanfic. Melville picks motives, but doesn’t adopt one person in total, the closest match is Billy. Claggart is a mixture, as well as Vere. The world is complicated, in Jesus’ time as well as in Billy’s. Claggart is made interesting, as he unifies the Phariseans and Judas in one person. (“Ich bin’s nicht!”). But then, the Novice also fits the Judas picture, complete with the money he is tempted with. Claggart as well as the Novice have a hint of Judas for me.

Also, there is a hint of St. Peter in Vere, but I will come to that maybe in another rant.  Peter, after having betrayed Jesus, cries — “bitterly”. Vere does not cry though — neither does Pilate, it is ooc.

[37] Peter said unto him, Lord, why cannot I follow thee now? I will lay down my life for thy sake.
[38] Jesus answered him, Wilt thou lay down thy life for my sake? Verily, verily, I say unto thee, The cock shall not crow, till thou hast denied me thrice.
(John 13)

[61] And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.
[62] And Peter went out, and wept bitterly.

(Luke 22)

Pilate, whom Bach in his St. John’s passion lovely pictures as being always sent around, out, in, out, in, talking to Jesus, then to the Phariseans, and back again. He knows that setting Jesus free would be the right thing to do, that’s why he defends his INRI inscription. But still, he gives in to law, morals, and everything attached. This is Vere, without the spine Pilate shows. But back to the far more interesting character, John … Claggart…

But the less credence was to be given to the gun-deck talk touching Claggart, seeing that no man holding his office in a man-of-war can ever hope to be popular with the crew. Besides, in derogatory comments upon anyone against whom they have a grudge, or for any reason or no reason mislike, sailors are much like landsmen; they are apt to exaggerate or romance it.

And here he ties the knot again to Claggart, so the reference won’t be totally missed… 🙂
Though Melville superficially softens it up, it stresses in fact that John Claggart is not liked by the crew, rather the opposite, in fact. He talks badly about the common seamen, at least superficially, but it doesn’t sound convincing. It is like saying an automatic “don’t listen to what people say, the dress really becomes you…”

About as much was really known to the Indomitable’s tars of the Master-at-arms’ career before entering the service as an astronomer knows about a comet’s travels prior to its first observable appearance in the sky.

A very strange comparison that Melville choses here. A comet is almost always foreboding the beginning of something new, it has been frequently associated with the birth of christ that was  announced by the Star of Bethlehem, also obviously a comet, as stars are by definition relatively fixed, and planets’ orbits were well studied and predicted by the sages. So what is Claggart. A harpy? A saviour? The beginning of a new era hinted in the type of man itself? But why this flawlessly pure motive? Especially in connection to the aforementioned eclipse, it draws a brilliant ambivalent picture of someone who was perhaps not so flawed to start with. What eclipsed this sun in the first place…

Wikipedia: Halley’s appearance in 12 BC, only a few years distant from the conventionally assigned date of the birth of Jesus Christ, has led some theologians and astronomers to suggest that it might explain the biblical story of the Star of Bethlehem. However, there are other explanations for the phenomenon, such as planetary conjunctions, and there are also records of other comets that appeared closer to the date of Jesus’ birth.[59]

The verdict of the sea quid-nuncs has been cited only by way of showing what sort of moral impression the man made upon rude uncultivated natures whose conceptions of human wickedness were necessarily of the narrowest, limited to ideas of vulgar rascality, — a thief among the swinging hammocks during a night-watch, or the man brokers and land-sharks of the sea-ports.


Melville is very harsh with the sailors’ judgement, but in fact, he stresses it. What he says is: They might be a bit simple at heart but they don’t like him. And as they only grasp the utmost extent of violence apparently, Claggart is exactly that. Physically abusive. A vulgar rascal. Perhaps not a man broker, but surely hanging around in the vicinity of swinging hammocks during night-watches 😀

It was no gossip, however, but fact, that though, as before hinted, Claggart upon his entrance into the navy was, as a novice, assigned to the least honourable section of a man-of-war’s crew, embracing the drudgery, he did not long remain there.

I am not clear what this is hinting at, I have to ask somebody what the “least honourable section” refers to. He embraced the drudgery — as he is not described as a guy particularly fond of physical work, this also hints that he can endure hardships as long as it serves his career.

The superior capacity he immediately evinced, his constitutional sobriety, ingratiating deference to superiors, together with a peculiar ferreting genius manifested on a singular occasion; all this capped by a certain austere patriotism abruptly advanced him to the position of Master-at-arms.

Those are my favourite lines of the whole novel. I dream of putting this in a job application under “personal qualities”.

to evince — to prove

The paragraph is stunning. Why did he “only” become Master At Arms? He has superior capacity. Of what, is not stated. Surely not polishing deck boards. Constitutional sobriety. This is a good thing, is it not, on board a warship, and at his particular job… When others panic, he is calmness itself. He is always in charge of his own decisions, because that is was sobriety mostly means. “Austere patriotism” is a great phrase. A well practised just-so-sufficient “yea, King, country, whatever… “

This certain “singular occasion” where his genius manifested — this would be my hook for any fanfic to start with. What might that have been? Before he was nothing, the events abruptly made him Master At Arms.

Of this maritime Chief of Police the ship’s-corporals, so called, were the immediate subordinates, and compliant ones; and this, as is to be noted in some business departments ashore, almost to a degree inconsistent with entire moral volition.

This is interesting, maybe it isn’t painted in more colours by Melville only due to the fact that “Billy Budd Sailor” is a fragment. This was late-baroque area. There were very very firm hierarchical structures at the time. If even some of the same military organization find the devotion of the Master At Arms’ subordinate disturbing, this says something. You get a hint in Claggart’s interactions with the Novice.

Though Melville doesn’t specifically mention Claggart, it is obvious this also refers to him.

His place put various converging wires of underground influence under the Chief’s control, capable when astutely worked thro’ his understrappers, of operating to the mysterious discomfort, if nothing worse, of any of the sea-commonalty.

This is of course describing the power at least a clever Master At Arms had at the time.  But there is more to it. I guess “working through the understrappers” means the same as “pulling the strings”. Still it enhances the undercover part, as well as the underground influence.

Claggart is not a man who attacks in broad daylight and openly. He lets others do the work.

I hope I delighted you with my rant!


3 thoughts on “The John Claggart Appreciation Society

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