Melville has already shown that the chaplain’s religion must subordinate itself to the power of war, and here his narrator describes the absolute example of the cold and spiritless nature of warfare. The Bellipotent meets its match in the French war ship Athée, or Atheist. Such a title of “infidel audacity” is, to the narrator, “the aptest name, if one consider it, ever given to a warship,” thus implying that all warships, regardless of nationality, are dedicated to an essentially godless pursuit. It is this infidel power to which Vere eventually succumbs, with the name of the innocent Billy Budd on his lips as he breathes his last.
Captain Vere’s death scene recalls Chapter 4, where the narrator reveres Captain Nelson for his spiritual, sentimental nature. Despite Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar, the narrator’s contemporaries disparage Nelson and ridicule him for his vainglorious qualities, indicating a shift to a colder and darker conception of war, more powerful but less human. Here again, the irreverent war machine continues to kill off the more honorable, spiritual captains in the name of power and success. More important, however, war takes not only the captain as sacrifice, but the Handsome Sailor too. While introducing Vere’s scene with the Athée, the narrator indicates that he has already shown “how it fared with the Handsome Sailor during the year of the Great Mutiny.” Ominously, the narrator refers not just to the death of Billy Budd the individual man, but to the death of the Handsome Sailor ideal itself, sacrificed on the alter of the Mutiny Act and the war gods.
Despite the ambiguous circumstances of Billy’s condemnation and death, however, the narrator shows that his legend will grow among naval circles, lending support to the lesson that actions themselves override the intentions and motives behind them, whether good or bad. The military newspaper clearly has the wrong story, but the narrator also shows that those who venerate the spar-piece of Billy’s execution “as a piece of the Cross” do not have the story straight either. Over the succeeding days and months, Billy’s legend is transformed into an indisputable narrative, much in the fashion that Jesus’ legend slowly solidified among the apostles of what eventually became the early Christian church. In this way, a scriptural hodgepodge, rather than the true words and actions of Billy Budd, becomes the object of worship and veneration. Like John, Luke, Mark, Matthew, and, most of all, Paul, the anonymous foretopman acts as a secondhand chronicler, and the words of his poem become conflated with Billy’s actual fate, just as the Gospels and Epistles presume to speak for Jesus.
Taking up the theme of a possible resurrection, Melville creates a scene of dispute between the believer and the doubter in the forms of the ship’s purser and surgeon. The purser, noting the odd circumstances of Billy’s death, chances to ascribe some supernatural power to his passing. As a scientist, the surgeon dismisses any such notion, refusing to believe in the individual’s power to transcend nature. Moreover, Melville’s opinion in the resurrection debate lies with the scientific surgeon. The narrator describes the purser as “more accurate as an accountant than profound as a philosopher.” In addition, references to Billy as a man with a profound connection to primitive nature abound in the work, and resonate with the surgeon’s interpretation of his death. The final lines of the final poem situate Billy in the weeds at the bottom of the ocean, not resurrected in heaven.
This does not mean, however, that Melville prefers to look at the world in such a scientific way. Rather, like the surgeon, Melville and his narrator depart at the end of the book in a vague and somewhat unsatisfactory fashion, leaving an ambiguous poem to sum up the tale. In the scene with the purser, the surgeon departs quickly but uneasily. He sharply cuts off his dialogue with the purser prior to coming to any agreement or conclusion, preferring to rest on the foundations of science than to risk delving into an unknown and potentially treacherous subject for him. Similarly, Melville retreats like the surgeon, recognizing only what he can see: the pervasive nature of evil among mankind and the powerlessness of the so-called redemptive Christian tradition in the face of such evil.
To his credit, Melville’s narrator warns his readership that the story will not tie up in a clean fashion. Thus, in concluding with the final poem, Billy Budd spirals into a web of indeterminate authorship, intention, and verity. Billy’s story, the narrator concludes, always appears in skewed terms from secondhand sources and should never receive the blind trust that so many so freely offer it. Thus, it is fitting that in closing the story of Billy Budd, the narrator relates that “the general estimate of his nature … found rude utterance from another foretopman” gifted “with an artless poetic temperament.” The emphasis on “poetic” suggests the poem suffers from unavoidable embellishment—unavoidable because the sailor who wrote the poem did not witness all the proceedings or have access to Billy’s thoughts.