The response to bibliographing nicole’s readalong of Clarel, Herman Melville’s massive 1876 epic poem of faith-and-doubt, has been fantastic, far above my expectations. As for the poem, having read just a bit, it is more or less as I expected, dense and complex. The sheer amount of stuff in the poem is the primary complication, but I had thought it would also be obscure, perhaps bafflingly so, and I was, I am happy to say, wrong about that. Melville’s poetry is, it turns out, often clearer than his prose. It’s often less poetic than his prose!
For example, this passage nicole found in Pierre (1852):
No Cornwall miner ever sunk so deep
A shaft beneath the sea, as Love will sink
Beneath the floatings of the eyes. Love sees
Ten million fathoms down, till dazzled by
The floor of pearls. The eye is Love’s own mag-
Ic glass, where all things that are not of earth,
Glide in supernatural light. There are
Not so many fishes in the sea,
As there are sweet images in lovers’ eyes.
And there’s more where this came from. Pierre is a novel; this is prose. I added the linebreaks and capitalization – but the first six lines really are perfect blank verse, although I am not so happy with the split in “magic”. An extreme case, maybe, but Melville’s actual poetry is rarely like this.
Or maybe it is:
The Maldive Shark (1888)
About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In triple white tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat –
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.
The poem is about the shark, as the title suggests, but from the odd point of view of the pilot-fish, which is why the shark is all mouth, why the mouth is metaphorically described six times in sixteen lines. Or, really, the perspective is the poet watching the pilot-fish direct the shark. I’ve read this before, in Chapter 18 of Mardi (1849), “My Lord Shark and His Pages,” where the “dotard lethargic and dull” is instead “[a] clumsy lethargic monster.” I have no idea when Melville wrote the poem, but the publication dates are forty years apart.
Melville’s poetry is decidedly not beautiful. I’ve become suspicious of literary beauty, actually, so I’m not to be trusted on this, but the effects of this poem surely come from something else. Melville can be plenty clumsy, too. I have my doubts about “charnel of maw,” for example, or the intrusion of the Fates. But – “Pale ravener of horrible meat”! That’s the stuff, or the poem is nothing. Or “They are friends” – after all of those teeth, that’s a deeply weird line. Friends!