Summary and Analysis
Recalling the tradition of the Handsome Sailor, the unnamed narrator recalls seeing an example in Liverpool many years before — the striking figure of a native African above average in height. Around his neck he wore a brightly colored scarf which fluttered against his dark, naked chest.
Such a figure is the Handsome Sailor of this story, bright-eyed Billy Budd, aged twenty-one, a foretopman of the British fleet whom Lieutenant Ratcliffe of the H.M.S. Bellipotent forcibly transfers from the English merchantman, the Rights-of-Man. Captain Graveling, of the latter ship, tells the impressment officer that before Billy came, the "forecastle was a rat-pit of quarrels." Listening with amusement, Lieutenant Ratcliffe cynically replies, "Blessed are the peacemakers, especially the fighting peacemakers!" As the cutter pushes off, Billy jumps up from the bow, waves his hat to his shipmates, and bids them and the ship a genial goodbye.
Billy is just as well received on the H.M.S. Bellipotent as he was on the Rights-of-Man. He scarcely notes the change of circumstances. As he is being formally mustered into service, an officer inquires about his background and birthplace. Billy, whom the narrator describes as "little more than a sort of upright barbarian," replies that he doesn't know. To the question of who his father was, Billy replies, "God knows, sir." He explains that he was found in a basket hung on "the knocker of a good man's door in Bristol."
Perfect as this Handsome Sailor might appear, he is handy with his fists when provoked and does have one innate weakness: he is inclined to stutter or become frustratingly speechless when provoked.
The novel, a sea tale set in the age before steamships, opens with the overtones of a legend. Associating the term "Handsome Sailor" first with the African and then with the hero, Melville gives his work a universality which is essential to its meaning. From the beginning, Billy Budd manifests superhuman qualities, many of which suggest a mythic, or Christ-like, figure. Captain Graveling, who values Billy's good traits, refers to him as his jewel and his peacemaker.
Billy Budd lives during a time when order and human rights are threatened. Acquainted with the procedure of impressment, he does not hesitate when Lieutenant Ratcliffe selects him for service to the king, George III. There is irony and pathos in Billy's impulsive, sincere gesture in jumping up in the cutter and bidding farewell to "old Rights-of-Man." The lieutenant gruffly orders him to sit down, demonstrating that Billy is indeed departing from a world of peace and rights and into a world of guns and arbitrary military discipline.
This episode also foreshadows the confrontation in which Billy, a fighting peacemaker," will strike Claggart. Earlier, aboard the Rights-of-Man, Billy had been bullied by Red Whiskers. One day Billy struck a single stunning blow and astonished the bully with his quickness. Since that day, Red Whiskers, as well as the rest of the crew, has been a friend of Billy, who appealed to others because of his pure virtue and cheerful countenance.
man-of-war an armed navy vessel.
Aldebaran bright red star in the eye of the constellation Taurus and the brightest of the Hyades.
Ham In Genesis 9:22–25, Ham is Noah's son and father of many nations. Tradition claims that Noah cursed Ham's offspring with black skin because Ham dishonored his father.
Anacharsis Cloots The Baron de Cloots, according to Thomas Carlyle in his French Revolution, amassed a group of men from a variety of countries at the French National Assembly.
pagod an archaic spelling of "pagoda," meaning pagan idol.
Assyrian priests . . . grand sculptured Bull Priests in Babylonia, a great kingdom on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, worshipped Baal, the god of fertility and rain, in the form of a great bull.
Murat Joachim Murat (1767–1815), Napoleon's marshal and King of Naples, gave himself airs in both dress and mannerisms.
close-reefing topsails in a gale climbing out on a yardarm during bad weather to tie up the sails so that they will not be ripped by strong winds.
Flemish horse a rope used as a foothold.
Bucephalus the favorite horse of Alexander the Great.
welkin-eyed having eyes as blue as the sky.
impressed on the Narrow Seas forced to leave private employ and enter the Royal Navy while sailing the Irish Sea or the English Channel.
Bellipotent The ship takes its name from an archaic adjective meaning "mighty in war."
forecastle the area on the bow (forward end) of the ship where the sailors live.
Irish shindy a noisy brawl.
buffer of the gang a malcontented or incompetent crew member.
capstan an upright, revolving post around which rope is wound.
waxing merry with his tipple becoming happily intoxicated.
hardtack a ship's biscuits.
Apollo the ancient Greek sun god revered for his physical beauty.
cutter a rowboat.
coxswain a steersman.
taffrail railing around a ship's stern.
rated as an able seaman top ranking for a sailor, above "ordinary seaman" and "boy."
starboard watch of the foretop a guard post on a platform at the front mast on the right side of the ship.
dogwatch a short period of duty between 4 and 6 p.m. or 6 and 8 p.m.
the Saxon strain characterized by blond hair, fair skin, and blue eyes.
halyards ropes used to raise and lower sails.
the Graces three sisters from Greek mythology who bestowed charm and beauty.
by-blow an illegitimate child.
dance-houses, doxies, and tapsters . . . a "fiddler's green" dance halls, prostitutes, and bartenders create a sailor's paradise.
Cain's city In Genesis 4:17, Cain, a son of Adam, commits the first murder against his own brother, is exiled, and founds a city.
Caspar Hauser a wandering youth of unknown origin who appeared in Nuremberg in 1828.
the good-natured poet's famous invocation a quotation from Book IV of Martial's Epigrams.
one of Hawthorne's minor tales "The Birthmark."
the envious marplot of Eden the serpent that tempted Eve in Genesis 3:4–5.