November 21, 2019

Why are the red-cross knights so shy? The weirdness of Melville’s poetry


Imagine my delight when I learned late last year that our namesake the great Herman Melville also wrote … epic poetry? As it turns out, late in life, forgotten and largely alone, Melville actively forsook fiction in favor of poetry, in a kind of grim invisible gesture of renunciation. The result was an 18,000-line epic poem called Clarel, which is possibly the least-read work by a major artist in the canon. Excited by the prospect of finding something genuinely boring and weird, I procured a copy and dove in.

Clarel is … well, first of all, understand that Paradise Lost is about 11,000 lines long, so if you can imagine a poem that is half again as long as John Milton’s masterwork, but considerably more confusing, you’re on the right track. It’s written in a bizarrely archaic argot that sounds like Sir Walter Scott-via-Tennyson plus a dash of the wilder elements of Blake:

In Crete they claimed the Tomb of Jove
In glen over which his eagles soar;
But thro’ a peopled town ye rove
To Christ’s low urn, where nigh the door
Settles the dove …

Hmm. I pushed on for another half hour of this, stopping to text a friend of mine, a novelist whose reaction (above) was somewhat predictable. The going became slow, then downright arduous. I used my calculator to discern that I had read approximately 0.9% of Clarel. I like weird poems about Jesus as much as the next guy, but the ornate diction and sing-songy rhyme made it hard to focus. Could it just be me? I checked in with my friend Sheila Liming, a professor of 19th-century American literature at the University of North Dakota. Dr. Liming wasted no time with her response: “I’ve never actually been able to finish Clarel, as interesting as I think it is as an artifact. It’s a tough slog.” Well! That’s a relief! Not just me! Still, I soldiered on:

Unvexed by Europe’s griveing doubt
Which asks And can the Father be?
Those children of the climes devout
On festival in fane installed
Happily ignorant, make glee
Like orphans in the play-ground walled …

The next day’s New York Review of Books brought a whole essay on Melville’s poetry, including Clarel, natch, by the great Helen Vendler. Paydirt! I read on in search of guidance, but even Dr. Vendler proved discouraging: “Melville,” she noted, “does not care whether his putative readers can follow his allusions.” She ends her excursus by volunteering her opinion that in order to truly “relish the poem,” it is necessary to read it … three times. Well! I’ve got that to look forward to, I guess! In the meantime, you’ll find me over here, by the thrillers!




Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.