The question is not: Will I (meaning, you) read Herman Melville’s massive epic poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) for The Unstructured Clarel Readalong, hosted by bibliographing nicole, but rather: Can I (you!) stand to wait until the end of August? I know, I know – me too! I’m glad we all agree.
“Our friend there – he’s a little queer,”
To Rolfe said Derwent riding on;
“Beshrew me, there is in his tone
Naught of your new world’s chanticleer.
Who’s the eccentric? can you say?” (from II.4)
A little queer! Twenty years earlier, The Confidence Man had marked Melville’s retirement from prose fiction. He kept writing poems, though, a massive quantity of verse, much of it contained in the four cantos of Clarel, based loosely on Melville’s 1856 trip to Palestine. Can that be right, nicole, that this is the longest American poem? Some lunatic must have surpassed it. Maybe it’s the longest published American poem.
As for length, it’s a mere five hundred (500) pages in the Northwestern-Newberry edition which nicole and I will both be using. That’s not counting the additional four hundred (400) pages of apparatus, which includes a one hundred (100) page essay by Walter Bezanson that is apparently essential, so be sure to build that in to your schedule.
In chamber low and scored by time,
Masonry old, late washed with lime –
Much like a tomb new-cut in stone;
Elbow on knee, and brow sustained
All motionless on sidelong hand,
A student sits, and broods alone. (I.1 – the very beginning)
Poor Melville. No one read this poem for decades. Melville himself said it was “eminently adapted for unpopularity.” I’ll bet he was right about that – he was a clever fellow.
I have been pulling quotations from the Library of America American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century, Volume Two, which excerpts thirty pages of Clarel. The title of the post is Canto I, Book 1, line 173. That growing strangeness is what I hope will happen as I read Clarel. What I fear will happen is that the book will be completely incomprehensible.
But though the freshet quite be gone –
Sluggish, life’s wonted stream flows on. (from IV.33)
More American poetry, all this week. I’ve got to prepare for Clarel. Gonna be a dang hard book.