- Memory’s Mirrored Designs in Melville and Poe
William Engel’s Early Modern Poetics in Melville and Poe addresses the reverberations of a narrow suite of early modern aesthetic principles in the formal architecture of Melville’s and Poe’s most elaborately crafted works. The emphasis here is on form and aesthetics, for though its title may suggest a broad historical source study, Engel’s work assumes the multiple references to early modern literature in both authors’ careers as a given point of departure, not as a subject of inquiry. Penetrating and surgical rather than compendious and expansive, Engel’s study launches from the source work of earlier scholars by focusing on a single formal inheritance—the chiasmus broadly construed—and reconstructing its charged significance in early modern theories of the emblem and of the art of memory. Engel argues that Melville and Poe, in different ways, incorporate and adapt the chiasmus pattern (ABC::CBA) and related rhetorical tropes in order to align their own literary work with the concerns, theories, and affective valences those tropes sustained in classical and early modern discourse. Explicitly disavowing broad-stroke consequences—Melville and Poe are not to be taken as “representative exemplars of the mid-nineteenth-century Atlantic Seaboard literary scene,” nor is the book meant to “assert some grand paradigm-bending theory”—Engel locates the stakes of his study in a more author-centric, formal, and aesthetic register. Melville and Poe, according to Engel, turn to earlier, “admittedly exhausted themes, modes of expression, and formal schemes” in order “to give voice to their nuanced understandings of mourning, melancholy, and loss” .
In the classical tradition, chiastic and emblematic forms were associated with the art of memory, and their rigid organizational schemes were constructed as bulwarks against the threat of forgetting. Engel shows how, in Melville’s and Poe’s hands, those same forms turn inward upon themselves: though the inherited problem for them is similar, “the hunt for some means to address—if not to repair—the ruins of a fallen world” , the strategies are less hopeful, more self-reflexive. For Melville, these chiastic forms operate through “radical irony and oblivescence,” and for Poe, through “paradox and potentially believable hoaxes” . For both, the appropriation of forms associated with memory [End Page 124] becomes a self-defeating maneuver: “The drive to preserve and extend memory implicitly acknowledges its susceptibility to dissolution, decay, and disappearance—to loss” . At its furthest extent, then, Engel’s study returns by a surprising route to a familiar-sounding conclusion, the poststructuralist-tinged claim that both writers confront and demonstrate how the forms that generate meaning also obscure and undermine that meaning: “And so in the production of chiasmus one can find a reshaping of the order of thought that takes form finally as an allegory at odds with its own mechanisms of generating meaning” . It is the route—through a nuanced introduction to the early modern emblematic tradition, the allusions to it in Melville and Poe, and the extended close reading of only two short works as the primary evidence—that distinguishes Engel’s book and provides a unique outside perspective on what Melville and Poe look like as inheritors of and participants in a specific strand of the early modern tradition.
The early modern poetics of Engel’s title is primarily the role of chiasmus in the related discourses of the art of memory and the emblematic tradition. This is Engel’s wheelhouse, as he has established his reputation as an early modern scholar through a series of monographs about early modern mnemonic culture and chiasmus: Mapping Mortality: The Persistence of Memory and Melancholy in Early Modern England [Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1995]; Death and Drama in Renaissance England: Shades of Memory [Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002]; and Chiastic Designs in English Literature from Sidney to Shakespeare [Burlington: Ashgate, 2009]. In turning to Melville and Poe, then, Engel recruits them into a story about form and memory that he has traced...