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Melville, Herman. "Billy in the Darbies".

Summary and Analysis

The poem gave rise to Melville's novella Billy Budd, Sailor which explains the background of the poem. The poem's speaker is Billy, the poem is concerned with his hanging. Similarly as the novella, the poem abounds in Biblical parallels. Billy's attitude and sentiments are simple and innocent. The execution obviously copies the crucifixion of Jesus, only the surroundings and the context are naval.

Night. Billy is grateful for the priest's praying for him. His attention is however attracted to the moonshine which appears and will disappear in the dawning which is to be his last. Billy muses about the fact he is going to be hanged. He imagines himself like a pearl in a pendant. The pearl is precious like Billy's character, and it is usually white, suggesting Billy's innocence.

Billy must be up early in the morning and he is given but a biscuit and a parting cup. This breakfast resembles the church ceremony of receiving Christ's body and Christ's blood. The crucifixion is described in a dream-like quality, the boundary between the description of the action in real time and between Billy's only imagining it is indistinct. Billy himself thinks he is only dreaming and not dying. He imagines how his body will be buried in the sea and how he will dream there fast asleep. He feels sleepy and tired and the last thing he asks is the loosing of his darbies (i.e. irons).


  • Author

    Melville, Herman. (1819 - 1891).
  • Full Title

    "Billy in the Darbies".
  • Form


Works Cited

Melville, Herman. "Billy in the Darbies". In: Billy Budd, Sailor and Other Stories. NY: Penguin, 1986.


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