Thursday, May 11, 2017

Mar Saba & Melville's memory


For the last month or so I've been taking my time wending through Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), Herman Melville's last major work and the single longest poem in American literature. (Longer than the Iliad, longer than Paradise Lost.) I'm still thirty-one cantos from reaching the end, and maybe I'll have more to say about the book as a whole at a later date. For now I'd just like to share something that surprised and touched me.

Likening Clarel to Canterbury Tales would be a mostly facile comparison, but there are areas of overlap in the bare outlines of the cast: the cavalcade we follow on a tour through the environs of Jerusalem to the Dead Sea to Bethlehem is composed of archetypal figures with differing perceptions of the nineteenth century's accelerating social transformations and the state of Christianity under the siege of science. We have the benignant but ineffective liberal clergyman, the biblical literalist millennarian, the disillusioned European revolutionary, the atheistic man of science, and so on.

The titular Clarel plays the part of the sheltered, privileged theological student who takes the trip to bolster his flagging faith and ease his doubts. But it is not Clarel into whom Melville breathes the most of himself: that would be Rolfe, a middle-aged dilettante who speaks with volubility and exuberant frankness, and who paradoxically combines a penchant for austere theology with a distrust of religious and moral absolutism. And, like Melville, Rolfe was a mariner in his youth.

During a visit to the ancient Greek Orthodox monastery Mar Saba, we have a sequence in which five of the pilgrims, positioned at different heights upon the cliffs and terraces, regard a lone palm tree on a ledge, reputed to have been planted by Saint Sabbas himself over 1300 years before. The soliloquy Rolfe delivers here is by far the most interesting, and it's eye-popping for a Melville fan.

Before we go any further with Rolfe and the palm, we'll need to revisit Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), Melville's first (and most contemporaneously successful) novel.