Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea - figuring out how to read Clarel

How to read Herman Melville’s enormous 1876 Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage?  And, I know, why.  I’ll come back to that one, maybe.  How – that’s hard enough.  Dang thing is five hundred pages long, and dense, and complicated.

Nicole, leading the pilgrimage, has so far been writing about the quality of the verse, about its beauty.  She’s working on the central paradox of Melville’s poetry – why did an effusive, poetic prose writer like Melville want to constrain himself with formal verse?  Whatever his frustrations with his fiction might have been, why did he turn to poetry?  Why did he want to tell this particular story in verse?

The first thing that struck me about the verse of Clarel was how ordinary so much of it was:

Beside him in a narrow cell
His luggage lies unpacked; thereon
The dust lies, and on him as well –
The dust of travel. (1.1.11-14)

We’re at the very beginning of the poem, describing Clarel, the young divinity student and restless spiritual seeker.  Plain stuff.  There’s an image just before this, where Clarel’s room is “like a tomb new-cut in stone” which is all right, but still pretty simple.  The allusions, which start up soon, can be thick and obscure, but they’re mostly to the geography or history of Jerusalem, and footnotes dispel the obscurity.  But isn’t poetry supposed to be, I don’t know, fancy?

Some lines, some stanzas, are fancy.  I’ll borrow a favorite that nicole also mentions (the pilgrims are in the desert, ascending from the Dead Sea):

They climb. In Indian file they gain
A sheeted blank white lifted plain—
A moor of chalk, or slimy clay,
With gluey track and streaky trail
Of some small slug or torpid snail.
With hooded brows against the sun,
Man after man they labor on. (3.8.1-7)

The last two lines, and the first, are prosaic, Melville working on the action.  That’s where the verse is plainest – when Melville uses it to move characters around.  But that description – the incongruous slug appearing in the desert, even the four forceful adjectives before “plain” – that’s writing with a good chewy mouthfeel, to borrow a word from the breakfast cereal industry.  “With gluey track and streaky trail” – yum.

The snail trail is a clue, of sorts.  If I turn back to the beginning of the book, the first couple hundred lines, I find some things I had not really noticed before: a “sail-white town,” “the ice-bastions round the Pole,” “Banked corals,” “the reef and breaker,” and so on.  Clarel’s thoughts, and the poet’s description are crowded with sea imagery.  Everything is like something related to the sea.  The light coming from an inn is like “a three-decker’s stern lights.”  A tower is like a lighthouse.

The sea imagery permeates the entire book.  It’s a book by Herman Melville, yes.  But the linked imagery is also the core of the book, the way it functions.  “Sands immense \ Impart the oceanic sense” (2.11.25-36).  The brilliant culmination is near the middle of the book, when the pilgrims descend to the Dead Sea, an aquatic Hell:

Southward they file. ‘Tis Pluto’s park
Beslimed as after baleful flood:
A nitrous, filmed and pallid mud,
With shrubs to match. Salt specks they mark
Or mildewed stunted twigs unclean
Brushed by the stirrup, Stygean green,
With shrivelled nut or apple small. (2.28.1-7)

The pilgrims are now, in some sense, literally below the sea, by over 1,300 feet, and the imagery never lets them forget it.  Here's how Clarel ends:

Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
And prove that death but routs life into victory.  (4.35.33-34)

I’m pretty well convinced that Clarel is a great book, although one that perhaps has just as many readers as it should.  It took some work to learn to read it.  The web of interconnected imagery, that’s the artistic method of Clarel.  Not beautiful or striking lines, not that there aren't a number of those, and not that I don’t wish there were a few more.


  1. My first thought was that this is just what Melville does—how he knows how to write metaphorically. It's all over Pierre, too, after all. But it did begin to seem really all over Clarel, to the point where it seemed to Mean Something. I believe Bezanson actually describes the amount of sea imagery as "grotesque," but I find it quite the opposite of course.

    You make a good point about the action being more prosaic. Another thing to add to the re-read list of what to think about.

  2. Everyone writing a narrative poem has this problem. How do I simply say what's happening while restrained by the number of syllables and rhyme patterns and so on?

    I'm looking at Byron's The Siege of Corinth (1816) which has the same meter as Clarel. It's clear how he solves the problem - speed. You're not supposed to linger over a line but race forward to see what happens. It's an action movie in verse, and a good one.

  3. Congratulations on reading the whole shebang. With Moby-Dick Melville started going off course for the American reading public, who preferred solid, literal sea yarns to anything metaphorical, allegorical, philosophical. For them then, as now, it's the "real world" that beckons in all its concrete and convincing detail.

  4. Thanks - Clarel counts as an accomplishment.

    I am not so sure that the American reading public wants the real world particularly.