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Any venerated event in the Navy must have its tangible monument for the sailors. For the affairs of Billy Budd, the spar from which he hung was watched and known for years as Billy's cross. A piece of the spar owned by a sailor would become a treasure, even if the owner didn't know the details of Billy's story. Also, a foretopman of the Indomitable composed a rude ballad that he named "Billy in the Darbies." It is the song of a man about to be hung, appealing to the memory of Billy and his beauty as he swung from the mainyard. The sailor in the ballad hopes he will be given a decent meal and something good to drink before he is strung up. He wonders which of his mates will actually have to hang him. He also hopes he might be dreaming as he drops into the fathoms. Finally, the sailor in the ballad calls the sentry to loosen the darbies (iron handcuffs) about his wrists. He is sleepy and wants to roll over.
It has been claimed that Melville, who often wrote poetry, completed the ballad first and then wrote the story of Billy Budd. It is called a "rude ballad," and it is, in fact, a rather surprising song with humorous words and an eerie ending. Since it appears at the end of the novel, it is questionable as to whether or not it was written before the novel; but it really makes little difference which came first. Melville seals the ballad and the story tightly together in this last chapter of the book.
The Billy in the song is not exactly the Billy of the story. When he says that "the game is up," it implies that the sailor really planned a mutiny. The differences, however, don't really matter. The important point is that Billy is venerated, even by those who don't know him or his true story. Although Melville denies that Billy Budd is a romance, it nearly becomes one through the ballad and through the veneration of Billy himself in splinters saved from his spar. It is undeniable that Billy Budd has become a legend, a myth of the dying Handsome Sailor