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  • Early Modern Poetics in Melville and Poe: Memory, Melancholy, and the Emblematic Tradition by William E. Engel
  • Robert Sandberg
WILLIAM E. ENGEL Early Modern Poetics in Melville and Poe: Memory, Melancholy, and the Emblematic Tradition Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2012. xiii + 204 pp.

This book explores possible answers to a complex question of long-standing interest to readers of Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe: How did their reading and study of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature, philosophy, and art influence them throughout their careers in their choice of subjects, themes, expository styles, generic forms, rhetorical devices, and narrative strategies? Engel examines this question in relation to Melville in a chapter analyzing “The Encantadas.” Then, in a separate chapter, mutatis mutandis, he explores possible answers to similar questions in relation to Poe in an analysis of “The Raven.” In both the Melville and Poe chapters, he discusses the multiple ways each author appropriated the generic forms, rhetorical techniques, subjects, and themes widely used by late Renaissance and early modern writers and artists. He identifies and analyzes the literary influence of Edmund Spenser, Robert Fludd, Francis Bacon, Robert Burton, Sir Thomas Browne, William Shakespeare, Francis Quarles, and John Milton, and demonstrates the pictorial influence of allegorically or emblematically portrayed subjects in the art of Albrecht Dürer, Hans Holbein the Younger, Salvator Rosa, and the various artists who created engravings and illustrations for sixteenth-and seventeenth-century emblem books. With the exception of Salvator Rosa’s melancholic landscape paintings, Engel provides handsome reproductions of each of the engravings he describes and analyzes in both the Melville and Poe chapters—Dürer’s Melencolia, I (1514), Holbein’s “Pallida Mors” from Imagines Mortis (1572), the frontispiece to Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy (1660), the frontispiece and selected emblem plates from Quarles’s Emblemes Divine and Moral (1635), the frontispiece and selected emblem plates from Quarles Complete Works (1880), and Gustave Doré’s “Perched on a Bust of Pallas” engraving from the series of engravings he created for an 1884 edition of “The Raven.”

Nineteenth-century reviewers and publishers were among the first to note that Melville’s study of the humanistic learning of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries provided him with models of allegory, drama, narrative, and philosophical inquiry that he could emulate and adapt for his own literary purposes. [End Page 92] In the introduction to the first posthumous edition of Typee (1892), Arthur Stedman suggested that Melville’s reading of the seventeenth-century writings of Sir Thomas Browne likely influenced him as he composed his third novel: “It must have been soon after the completion of Omoo that Melville began to study the writings of Sir Thomas Browne. Heretofore our author’s style was rough in places, but marvellously [sic] simple and direct. Mardi is burdened with an over-rich diction, which Melville never entirely outgrew.” During the more than 120 years since Stedman made this observation, critics, publishers, and editors, many of whom Engel cites, have continued to analyze how Browne and other Renaissance and early modern authors and artists, including the translators of the King James Bible, likely influenced Melville’s writing.

The book’s four chapter titles—”Introduction: Stylistic Choices and Intellectual Armature,” “Melville’s Melancholy Landscapes,” “Poe’s Mirrored Memory Palaces,” and “Conclusion: Reclaiming Irredeemable Loss”—provide a snapshot of Engel’s plan and approach. The chapters on Melville and Poe are each divided into three titled subsections, which, somewhat inconveniently, are not listed in the table of contents. The three titled subsections of the Melville chapter are “Salvator R. Tarnmoor’s Mnemonic Itinerary,” “Allegories of Decay and the Decay of Allegory,” and “Mime and Masquerade in the Theatrum Mundi.” The three titled subsections of the Poe chapter are “The William Wilson Effect,” “Magical Architecture and Chiastic Echoes,” and “Emblems of Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance.”

In the introductory chapter, “Stylistic Choices and Intellectual Armature,” Engel provides an overview of the “tropes, image clusters, and themes associated with the mnemonic habits of thought fundamental to the early modern emblem tradition” that he will argue Melville and Poe used “to varying degrees” (1). After surveying the various late Renaissance and early modern rhetorical tropes and visual...


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