- Purchase/rental options available:
Given the wealth of recent critical attention to Herman Melville’s poetry, many scholars have come to know in intimate detail Clarel, the eponymous protagonist of his 1876 Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land. Less familiar is Clarel’s medieval namesake who, perhaps surprisingly, is not an ardent but doubting Christian divinity student, but rather a bellicose Saracen king. This Clarel appears as a character in a series of medieval romances which recount his duel with Otuel, a Saracen knight who had recently converted from Islam to Christianity to fight with Charlemagne and Roland. Questions arise: did Melville name his Clarel after Clarel the Saracen? If so, how did he come across this minor figure from the vast archive of medieval literature? What effect did this Clarel have on the composition, content, or form of his Clarel? Putting the two Clarels together provides another unsettling context to think through Melville’s poem, and thus to rethink his relationship to both English (and continental) literary history and to the romance in particular. It opens another context to examine how Melville understands the relationship between poetry and history, and, given the context of the romances, to debates around representations of Islam.