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Melville, Interrupted
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Like others of his kind, [Melville] failed; he stopped writing prose, and turned to a frankly highbrow, unpopular kind of poetry, publishing at the end of his career two volumes of verse, privately printed, in editions of twenty-five copies each. (It is not of sufficient body and strength, nor of sufficient influence, to have a place in this narrative, I should note.)

—Roy Harvey Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry (1960)

In January 1857, Herman Melville spent little more than a week exploring Jerusalem and the Jordan and Dead Sea regions. Between 1870 and 1875, he drew on this experience, recounted in the journal of his Mediterranean tour, and on accounts by other travelers for the writing of his epic narrative Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876). Like many other American travelers to Palestine—including Mark Twain, John Lloyd Stephens, and Bayard Taylor, Melville tells of American pilgrims returning to the origin of their Judeo-Christian belief system within the territory of the Ottoman Turks and other Muslims. This encounter becomes an occasion to connect America, Europe, and the Middle East into a syncretic transnational matrix in which belief systems are woven together to illustrate the "intersympathy" of the planet's "creeds." In this matrix, conflicting interpretations of religion, as well as different affective relations with metaphysical phenomena, interact without cohering into a monocular vision. My premise is that Melville's equivocal treatment of religion suggests a secular strain in what Paul Giles identifies as the "comparative cosmopolitanism" of Clarel: what enables the cosmopolitan community of the pilgrims is the "one fold / Of doubt" they inhabit (C, 3.16.258-59). A lack of religious certainty makes possible an experience of a common world. And not only for the pilgrims: this lack synchronizes and weaves together the "New World" and "elder Europe" with Palestine (C, 4.21.153, 152). Mortmain, the Swede—one of the representative men accompanying Clarel—calls the clouds shadowing the pilgrims' trail "The mortcloths in the funeral / Of gods!" (C, 2.14.70-72). In Clarel, creeds and nations form the warp and woof of this procession, Melville's cosmopolitan loom.

Early reviewers saw Clarel as a sign of Melville's declining literary career, if they bothered at all to read the eighteen-thousand-line epic, written mostly in irregularly rhyming iambic tetrameter. It has been customary to view Melville's poetry in general as an interruption of his career as a novelist, as if between 1857's Confidence-Man and 1891's "Billy Budd," which began as the ballad "Billy in the Darbies," Melville only dabbled with poetry. This construction of Melville's career is borne out by post-World War II dismissals of his poetry, such as that of Roy Harvey Pearce, and his frequent exclusions from histories of American poetry. During this period, perhaps only Robert Penn Warren, who viewed Clarel as a precursor to the work of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, was willing to make large claims for this poetry. While the poems have drawn more attention in recent years and now appear in such anthologies as John Hollander's American Poetry: The Nineteenth Century (1993), Melville's eleven years of novel writing might always weigh heavier than the three decades of poetry. Yet recent attempts to emphasize the transnational character of his writing seem more congenial to the poetry than the Cold War reading of Melville as the romancer of American liberal individualism, or judgments taking him to task for ideological blind spots and practices "analogous to the terms of America's national sovereignty." This new emphasis suits Clarel, the "Fruit of Travel of Long Ago" sequence (1891), and such poems as "At the Hostelry" and "An Afternoon in Naples," in which Melville explores Italy, "Art's Holy Land." Even in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War, we find transnational double visions in which it is evident that "In North and South still beats the vein / Of Yorkist and Lancastrian" (CP, 48). In such moments, this poetry exemplifies C. L. R. James's insight that Melville is "writing of America, but . . . thinking of the world," a claim Donald Pease takes as a precursor...

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