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Ekphrastic Composites in “At the Hostelry”: Van de Veldes, Tromps, and Trompes l’Oeil DENNIS BERTHOLD Texas A&M University T he lines on the facing page are taken from “At the Hostelry” Melville’s second longest unpublished poem after its companion piece “Naples in the Time of Bomba.” Both poems exemplify Melville’s use of ekphrasis (the verbal description of works of art or especially striking scenes) that Douglas Robillard considers characteristic of Melville’s late poetry.1 The textbook example is John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but the technique can be extended to painting, landscape, or imaginary art works, as in Robert Browning ’s “My Last Duchess.” Ekphrasis is especially evident in “At the Hostelry,” which contains numerous verbal pictures such as the one in the lines quoted. As Robert Sandberg has shown, “Hostelry” and “Bomba” initially existed as separate poems, then as companion pieces, then as a single volume arranged by a fictitious editor, and finally as narratives interspersed with the Burgundy Club sketches, which are primarily prose portraits of the poems’ narrators, the Marquis de Grandvin and Major Jack Gentian.2 Yet for all of Melville’s shifting aims and repeated revisions, these poems compound theme and technique as brilliantly as the verses in Battle-Pieces or Clarel. The section quoted above illustrates how Melville achieves poetic richness by combining allusions and images that seem conventional and accessible but are in fact deeply imagined and manipulated into a unique word-painting that is wholly his own. These lines, which are spoken by a seventeenth-century Dutch painter, like Dutch genre painting itself, appear mimetic but are actually richly symbolic. The combination of verisimilitude and imagination in the stanza reveals Melville’s reflections on both personal and national tragedy, and his frustration with fatherhood and the results of the Civil War. C  2007 The Authors Journal compilation C  2007 The Melville Society and Blackwell Publishing Inc 1 See Douglas Robillard, Melville and the Visual Arts: Ionian Form, Venetian Tint (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1997). 2 Robert Allen Sandberg, “Melville’s Unfinished Burgundy Club Book: A Reading Edition Edited from the Manuscripts with Introduction and Notes” (diss., Northwestern, 1989), 21-28. I use Sandberg’s version because it will form the basis for the text to be used in the forthcoming Northwestern-Newberry edition of the unpublished works. L E V I A T H A N A J O U R N A L O F M E L V I L L E S T U D I E S 97 D E N N I S B E R T H O L D “At the Hostelry” is primarily a narrative debate on the merits of the picturesque among twenty-four Old Masters who represent different countries, eras, and styles; it is a fantastic and ghostly confabulation in the tradition of Walter Savage Landor’s popular Imaginary Conversations (1824-29, 1853). Jacopo Tintoretto, Michelangelo, Jan Steen, Albrecht Dürer, Peter Paul Rubens, and many others who never met in real life gather in an upper room of Delmonico’s restaurant in Manhattan to eat, drink, and have a good-natured discussion about the meaning and proper use of the picturesque in painting. While the debate ends inconclusively, the various definitions reveal the instability of the picturesque, a term that aestheticians and art historians still quarrel about. Stanza 5 adds marine painting to the discussion, a genre that, as Robert K. Wallace has shown, held particular appeal for Melville and especially exemplifies his ekphrastic technique. In his extensive analysis of the SpouterInn painting in Moby-Dick, Wallace shows how Melville’s “word-painting” provides an “imaginative composite” of multiple pictorial and verbal sources, a complex layering of source materials that creates a palimpsest of harmonizing and contending allusions.3 The epigraph to stanza 5 explains that “One of the greater Dutchman [sic] dirges the departed three-deckers of De Ruyter and Van Tromp” (Sandberg 87)—Melville’s way of saying that Van de Velde laments (or “dirges”) the decline of Holland’s immense battleships and glorious naval heroes. Admiral Michael De Ruyter (1607-1676) sailed under Admiral Van Tromp in the First Anglo...


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