On this Edition:

Although based firmly in the work others have done with this problematic text, in many ways this online edition is a very much a "new" edition of Melville's Billy Budd. While earlier editors do wonderfully to explain allusions and clarify context, the limitations of all print media necessarily reins in the editions.

Such limitations led Hayford and Sealts to note in the introduction to their edition that "two general courses are open to an editor. He may 'edit' the manuscript in the sense of preparing a text as near as he can make it to what he judges Melville would have (and this shades into should have) wanted a publisher to put before the reader, then or now [as Weaver did]; . . . [or] an editor may 'edit' the manuscript in the sense of reporting in every detail exactly what Melville put on the paper, including the revisions, and doing so in a way that accounts for all the writing of any sort that appears in the manuscript [as Freeman did]." In 1962, the editors of Billy Budd firmly believed that "that no single text can possibly encompass both Weaver's and Freeman's objectives" ("Introduction" 13).

In fact, this hypertext version complete with allusions, nautical references, illustrations, various links, etc. seeks largely to break free of those limitations. One can read the text and access helpful resources immediately. The cliched "click of a button" here becomes a tool for clarification and a means for understanding.

None of this, however, is to say that we should dispense with the printed text. I continue to believe that the actual physical interaction between a reader and a text remains central to the act of reading. Rather, one should look at the computer based edition as an expansion of the experiences for reading. Like any annotated edition, it is a resource.

At every point as you explore the site, try to keep in mind the general arrangement of notes, commentary, and illustrations. For example, in the text itself, clicking on words highlighted in blue will take you to a general glossary. The words are arranged in alphabetical order and are defined in the form in which they most often appear (e.g. "forbear" for "forebore"). You may explore other definitions by scrolling up and down, or you may return to the text by clicking on the "back" button. By clicking on words highlighted in green, you go to a separate glossary of naval and other nautical terms. Clicking on the words highlighted in red will take you to a discussion of the historical, biblical, and mythical allusions which flow constantly throughout the story. The editor's own commentary on central points in the text are set off by a small harpoon icon Harpoon. Click on it to explore some more complex discussion of specific points. Sections that merit more specific manuscript commentary are set off by a book icon Book. Clicking on it will take the reader to a more thorough discussion of manuscript variations. Finally, by clicking on the wheel icon you can access the collection of illustrations Wheel.

On Melville's Allusions:

    Biblical and Mythical

    The fact remains that enjoyment of much of western literature depends heavily upon the reader's ability to recognize lines of allusion arising from both the Bible and classical mythology. Armed with an arsenal of such references, Melville seems further to expect his reader to be able to make the same connections he does. While for many modern readers such references might seem abstract and foreign, Melville primarily draws from the mainstream of both traditions. The references he makes are generally to figures and events he assumes are central to the experiences of his readers.


    The historical setting that Melville chooses, perhaps unlike the more recognizable Biblical and historical allusions, is also of the utmost importance. The progress of events narrated is determined largely by the requirements of the time and place described. A working knowledge of the French Revolution, for example, not only contextualizes the entire work but further informs nearly every event described: the necessity of impressment, the overridingly French design of ships, the British presence in the Mediterranean, and even Vere's death. Likewise, understanding the rules which guide the Royal Navy at the end of the 18th century can help one better understand HOW Claggart, Vere, and Billy can do what they do.

Nautical Terminology

Melville also utilizes his own intimate knowledge of what life aboard a ship is like having spent much of his youth at sea. Billy Budd is certainly not the first time he drew from those experiences, for virtually everything he wrote during his early years from Typee to Moby Dick and Pierre are informed heavily by his experiences. Perhaps unfortunately, however, Melville sometimes assumes a bit too much of his readers' knowledge about the sea-faring life. In certain passages, he nearly gets lost -- or at least we do -- in the specifications and rules of naval decorum that control life aboard ship. Still, to his credit, he remembers often enough that not everyone has sailed the world and tries to clarify things for the lubbers among us.


As he does with allusions and nautical references, Melville requires of the reader that he always be pushing for comprehension for reading Billy Budd can never be a passive experience. On the contrary, Melville's own control of an extensive vocabulary demands that the reader always be aware. The so-called "Twenty-five Dollar Words" fill this short novel. It is not going too far to read the book with a dictionary close at hand.


After having worked with Billy Budd off and on (very much "on" as of late) for the past few years, I continue to find the novel both engaging and rewarding. Few things that I have read so successfully retain their freshness. The skillful diction, masterful syntax, incredible erudition, and general insight into the workings of the psyche mark Melville's work as singular. I hope that this website can help make this novel accessible to even more people and more enjoyable for us all.

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