Monday, July 26, 2010

The strangeness haunted him and grew - The Unstructured Clarel Readalong, eminently adapted for unpopularity

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.


  1. _Clarel_?

    I don't envy you.

    I can't stand Melville's short poems, and even thinking about reading a novel length one would be sufficient to send me babbling maniacally into the wilderness.

  2. A 500-page poem? Thanks, but I think I'll sit this one out.

  3. Yeah, the bit about being the longest certainly surprised me. I'm looking forward to your posts on American poetry as I am helpfully going into Clarel knowing virtually nothing on the subject. Ha! This will be fun.

  4. EL, what? I've read at least 6 poems as long or longer, all of which are excellent. What's the big deal?

    Ovid, Metamorphoses
    Dante, The Divine Comedy
    Ariosto, Orlando Furioso
    Spenser, The Faerie Queen
    Byron, Don Juan
    Merrill, The Changing Light at Sandover

    And I can think of another half dozen I'd like to read (Firdawsi, and The Ring and the Book, and...)

    The Merrill, please note, is American. That "longest" claim - I'll bet you six dollars that Charles Olson's Maximus Poems is longer than Clarel. Pound's Cantos, too.

    Fred - that's a wonderfully powerful reaction, and possibly an accurate representation of what actually occurs in Clarel.

  5. Hm. One could get pedantic and ask how do you measure the length of a poem? My copy of the Cantos has over 800 pages, but a lot of them are quite sparsely populated with words. Now Nikos Kazantzakis' The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel has nearly as many pages, each one crammed full of long lines (33,333 lines, if I remember correctly). But maybe the true measure is how long they take you to read – the Cantos have taken me 30 years so far...

  6. Philip - I agree. Lines, words, pages - I'm not sure how well these work for measuring prose, much less poetry.

    The Kazantzakis book is one of those I'd like to read! Someday.

  7. Feet! We should be measuring in feet!

    Now, who wants to count?

  8. The computer can do the counting. Someone must have programmed such a thing. Won't work for every language, though.

  9. Very excited. Have been waiting a while for this. Good luck, hearty poem travelers!