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 exercise, but areas of overlap can be found 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.

To recap, Typee is a loosely autobiographical account of the weeks a young Melville spent living with an indigenous tribe on the French Polynesian island Nuku Hiva. Long story short: he and a buddy decided they didn't like the whaling ship they were on, and literally ran for the hills when the ship was docked at Nuku Hiva. "We'll just hide out, live off the land, and wait for the next ship to come along!" they figured. It didn't go according to plan: after a few days, Melville was separated from his shipmate, hobbled by a leg injury, and the at the mercy of the Typees, a local tribe with a reputation for cannibalism. As it turned out, the Typees were most generous hosts, and if the novel's account is to be trusted, Melville didn't have too bad a time with them.

Typee's treatment of the indigenous people of Nuku Hiva is undoubtedly kinder and more nuanced than, say, Cotton Mather's indictments of New England's native peoples. But as Melville was a Manifest Destiny-era author composing a novel in the tradition of the Indian captivity narrative, there were rules he had to follow and lines he couldn't cross. He certainly faced internal compunctions and external pressures to publish a book that fit the captivity narrative mold and didn't swerve too far off message. Consider that Typee's publisher had the following passage removed from the book's second American edition:
How little do some of these poor islanders comprehend when they look around them, that no inconsiderable part of their disasters originate in certain tea-party excitements, under the influence of which benevolent-looking gentlemen in white cravats solicit alms, and old ladies in spectacles, and young ladies in sober russet low gowns, contribute sixpences towards the creation of a fund, the object of which is to ameliorate the spiritual condition of the Polynesians, but whose end has almost invariably been to accomplish their temporal destruction.

Let the savages be civilized, but civilize them with benefits, and not with evils; and let heathenism be destroyed, but not by destroying the heathen. The Anglo-Saxon hive have extirpated Paganism from the greater part of the North American continent; but with it they have likewise extirpated the greater portion of the Red race. Civilization is gradually sweeping from the earth the lingering vestiges of Paganism, and at the same time the shrinking forms of its unhappy worshippers.
In a climate where Wiley and Putnam grimaced at Melville's pointing out that the European takeover of the American continent amounted to genocide, it's no surprise the fledgling author saw fit to mix his praise of the Typees with condescension, concede the superiority of Western society, and conclude his narrative in the prescribed manner: with a violent flight from his pagan captors to the ambassadors of Christendom waiting to receive him on the beach.

However deeply the ideas of Puritanical holy war and Manifest Destiny tinge the captivity narrative genre, a 1753 letter composed by one Benjamin Franklin suggests these episodes and their aftermaths weren't always so pat as the period's popular literature would have one believe:
The proneness of human Nature to a life of ease, of freedom from care and labour appears strongly in the little success that has hitherto attended every attempt to civilize our American Indians, in their present way of living, almost all their Wants are supplied by the spontaneous Productions of Nature, with the addition of very little labour, if hunting and fishing may indeed be called labour when Game is so plenty, they visit us frequently, and see the advantages that Arts, Sciences, and compact Society procure us, they are not deficient in natural understanding and yet they have never shewn any Inclination to change their manner of life for ours, or to learn any of our Arts; When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return, and that this is not natural to them merely as Indians, but as men, is plain from this, that when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them. One instance I remember to have heard, where the person was brought home to possess a good Estate; but finding some care necessary to keep it together, he relinquished it to a younger Brother, reserving to himself nothing but a gun and a match-Coat, with which he took his way again to the Wilderness.
It should be pointed out that this occurs in the middle of a section regarding humanity's natural disinclination to menial toil (which the state and lifestyle of the "unimproved" Indians demonstrate), and serves an argument as to why the poor shouldn't have a social safety net (it will make them even lazier). Day of the Tentacle was right: Franklin was a bit of an asshole.

There's corroboration to be found in the life stories of Mary Jemison and Eunice Williams, and in the strange, ambiguous saga of the Boyd family. These cases aren't typical, but there are enough of them to indicate that Franklin wasn't just credulously repeating urban legends of colonial Philadelphia.

All of this said: it always seemed exceedingly strange to me that Melville could so completely bury this episode of his life, if his literary output is any window into his thoughts. Though his second and third novels, Omoo (1847) and Mardi (1849), remain in the neighborhood of the South Pacific (disclosure: I have yet to read these), he quits the region in Redburn (1849) and White-Jacket (1850). The figure of Queequeg in Moby-Dick (1851) represents the last hurrah of the Polynesian isles in Melville's oeuvre. Between Moby-Dick and the other staples of an undergraduate reading list (all post-Moby), a Melville novitiate has no reason to suspect the precipitating event of the man's literary career was the month he spent marooned on a tropical island with a cannibal tribe. It just never comes up again.

Except in Clarel.

While Rolfe gazes at Saint Sabbas' palm tree, he's moved to recall the vegetation of the South Seas, and the emotion-charged reminiscence that follows recapitulates the plot of Typee, act by act—with the addition of a new epilogue. Reading this, it's easy, and probably not unreasonable, to speculate that Melville, more than thirty years after his adventure on Nuku Hiva, was indeed still haunted by his time there, and maybe—maybe only occasionally, maybe only slightly—regretted leaving.

Read for yourself:
By chance Rolfe won the rocky stair
At base, and queried if it were
Man's work or nature's, or the twain
Had wrought together in that lane
Of high ascent, so crooked with turns
And flanked by coignes, that one discerns
But links thereof in flights encaved,
Whate'er the point of view. Up, slow
He climbed for little space; then craved
A respite, turned and sat; and, lo,
The Tree in salutation waved
Across the chasm. Remindings swell;
Sweet troubles of emotion mount——
Sylvan reveries, and they well
From memory's Bandusia fount;
Yet scarce the memory alone,
But that and question merged in one:

  "Whom weave ye in,
Ye vines, ye palms? whom now, Soolee?
Lives yet your Indian Arcady?
His sunburnt face what Saxon shows——
His limbs all white as lilies be——
Where Eden, isled, impurpled glows
In old Mendanna's sea?
Takes who the venture after me?
   "Who now adown the mountain dell
(Till mine, by human foot untrod——
Nor easy, like the steps to hell)
In panic leaps the appalling crag,
Alighting on the cloistral sod
Where strange Hesperian orchards drag,

Walled round by cliff and cascatelle——
Arcades of Iris; and though lorn,
A truant ship-boy overworn,
Is hailed for a descended god?
   "Who sips the vernal cocoa's cream——
The nereids dimpling in the darkling stream?
For whom the gambol of the tricksy dream——
Even Puck's substantiated scene,
Yea, much as man might hope and more than heaven may mean;
   "And whom do priest and people sue,
In terms which pathos yet shall tone
When memory comes unto her own,
To dwell with them and ever find them true:
'Abide, for peace is here:
Behold, nor heat nor cold we fear,
Nor any dearth: one happy tide
A dance, a garland of the year:
      "But who so feels the stars annoy,
Upbraiding him,——how far astray!——
That he abjures the simple joy,
And hurries over the briny world away?
  "Renouncer! is it Adam's flight
Without compulsion or the sin?
And shall the vale avenge the slight
By haunting thee in hours thou yet shalt win?"

    He tarried. And each swaying fan
Sighed to his mood in threnodies of Pan.


  1. I'd never heard of the poem before, as I just read Moby-Dick, thought it was great, and moved on from Melville. Clarel sounds fascinating, although it's a bit unlikely that I'll actually read it. The only poem I know of that's longer than it is Browning's The Ring and the Book.

    1. Clarel is for connoisseurs, for sure. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who hasn't already read at least two non-Moby Dick Melville novels and all of his novellas. It's not the kind of quest one can tackle before doing some serious leveling.

      I was about to say you're probably not missing out—but, I think, the more Melville you read, the more of a disservice you do yourself by not exploring Clarel. So as long as you kept your experience with Herman restricted to Moby Dick, I don't think you're in any danger.

  2. I have just come to this spot in my reading of the poem. I think you have made a great connection to HM's earlier life. I wasn't able to figure out what was going on with Rolfe here--this musing seems apropos of....nothing I could figure. Right, the canto begins with a figure fleeing down the gorge, and moves to Adam fleeing Eden, and if Rolfe (as critics say) is the stand-in for Melville himself, all this, again, makes sense.

  3. Also want to add that your mention of white captives in Indian country was puzzling.I think you're saying that Melville couldn't stay with the Polynesians for the same reason that some white kids wouldn't go back to their birth families following years of captivity. The lesson is that a child inculcated stays that way when he/she grows up. Melville's inculcation was by and with the Puritans. And so away he went over the briny remove.

    1. True—though "Puritan" exaggerates Melville's upbringing. In any case, if there's a reason he had to get away, it's because he wasn't and would never be one of them.

      Though the European white visitor's astonishment toward the happy simplicity of "the savages" is a trope as old as the captivity narrative, the facts of Melville's life and the worldview he expresses in his fiction give it a clearer definition and greater poignancy than we should otherwise expect. He tasted life in a place where nobody (if we believe him) is wracked by intellectual and spiritual grief. Think of "Bartleby" and "The Tartarus of Maids:" in the society of the Typees, nobody wastes away to nothing through a life of drudgery and despair. Think of Marianna in "The Piazza;" nobody among the Typees is ever lonely. Think of all the insoluble problems presented in "Clarel" itself: nobody in the Typee village Melville knew was besieged by doubts about religion, science, progress, humanity, etc.

      Melville might well have wished he could have stayed and been made one of the tribe. Think of it. He could have stopped asking impossible questions. He could have stopped writing. He could have stopped striving. He could have been content. But the innermost necessities of his being compelled him to opt for the curse of the fruit.

  4. Thanks. Yes, Puritan is too categorical for his inculcation. My reading of a couple of biographies doesn't tell me where or why he steeped himself in theological questions. I associate incessant Bible study with Puritan influence. I want to oppose Polynesian escapism with Puritan stricture. He must have known his sex life would be better had he stayed, but then sex for Puritans was at some level wrong. If you'll send an email to, I'll reply with the poem I wrote on finishing Clarel.