Reading Clarel During the Pandemic

Reading Herman Melville’s Clarel, the longest poem written by an American, was a beautiful meditation for me, and did not take long. Melville’s prose is better than his poetry, although one could argue his prose is poetry. But the curious thing about Clarel is that its scaffold is more solid and much more beautiful than that of the novel Pierre, which I’ve also read and written about recently. Robert Penn Warren cites its architectonics as one of its most impressive features while complaining that the poem is far too long and too “static”. He writes this in the introduction to the Selected Poems published by Barnes & Noble which devotes almost a third of its pages to selections from Clarel. Before going on I strongly encourage the reader not to read Clarel in bits and pieces. No, the poem must be read entire, each measured word, from first to last.

Warren’s criticism that the poem is “static” has more to do with narrative details than with flow. Melville’s labored rhythm and rhyme according to Warren create sluggishness and length, but the poem’s static feel results from a lack of action. While the architectonics are impressive (Clarel embarks from a “tomb” on a physical journey to restore his inner spirituality, encounters various men of the world, is exposed to their worldviews and different levels and degrees of faith, undergoes the death of a woman he loves and reenters the tomb where he began, then emerges at Easter equipped to build his self anew) the action itself is static. Even though everything happens, nothing happens. Warren seems to be saying simply that Melville’s language is clumsy and the poem overall is boring, but the idea of the poem and large chunks of it are brilliant. If that were true then reading selections would not only be rewarding, but preferable to reading the whole thing. But I do not think that is the case. On the contrary, it is not possible to fully appreciate the poem without taking in the whole thing.

While I grant that the poem’s biggest flaw, perhaps its only flaw, is that Melville’s meter and rhyme isn’t tight enough, I don’t think more drama or action is required and would not characterize their lack as “static”. With the pandemic we are in a state of limbo, as Clarel was. That is just to say that maybe conditions are right for a reader to have greater appreciation for what the poem as a whole offers. Clarel is in a state of limbo. His faith isn’t gone, but it has gone undercover. He wants to find it, renew it. What he finds instead is doubt upon doubt followed by death. An extended touring trip like the one he goes on is by definition a static thing: it takes its time and is almost desultory, with no precise goal or deadline. Whole periods of it, hours, days are suffused by a torpor of ‘nothing happening’, just the back of a horse and endless sun and sand. Melville doesn’t tell you anything, indeed he shows you, he takes you there. Torpor may be too strong a word, but something close to it occupies Clarel’s whole world, inside and outside, and as we have seen with our look at Pierre, Melville’s specialty is how he fuses man’s interior to his exterior states. Melville’s measured language despite its faults does a good job of taking you through it. And let’s be honest, a trip like this has a lot of discomforts. Clarel is not supposed to be comfortable. Could the poem be tighter and shorter? Yes, but it’s far from bad. I like to think as well about the man who wrote it. His literary career had ended. Moby Dick was considered a failure. He couldn’t find a publisher for The Isle of the Cross and that novel may be lost forever. No one cared. He was working as a clerk. Writing Clarel was a form of meditation. Reading it is too.

I like the “static” nature of the poem, if you want to call it that. It puts me right in the saddle with the sun in my eyes. I have been there, after all. I know what it’s like. There was a period in my life when I had decided to stop trying to sell my art. I had no prospects and that August was the hottest and driest I could remember. It seemed that my life had all but stopped and I didn’t know when or if it would begin again. This is the situation of Clarel, the man and the poem.

And when those monologues and dialogues occur, Melville lets them stand alone. He doesn’t put you inside Clarel’s mind to struggle with them. This is the dignity of the poem. It’s as if you are on that horse. You must decide what to think about them. He doesn’t stand outside and critique them either. That’s why the choice of the epilogue in which the poet addresses Clarel was extraordinarily risky. That he pulled it off is an amazing literary feat. Doubt stays with the poem to the end—of course! And it’s still “static”. What does Clarel do? We don’t know. The important question is, what shall we do? What Clarel does is irrelevant. The poem has made it so. The poem leads to this: what Clarel is now in a position to do via his orientation to himself/the world, to begin building himself—that is the issue of the poem. Melville shows this using Clarel as the vessel with or through which he carries you, the reader, through the poem. The pace is slow, as it should be, as on a horse preserving its water moving through a rough and burning landscape. Nothing is possible for someone who is unprepared. Possibility opens up for someone who is, even if he has lost his faith and even if the person he loves most has died.

I’ve been reading Céline’s Rigadoon on my lunch breaks (I work in a grocery store, by the way), after just finishing North. My ruined paperback contains an introduction by Kurt Vonnegut. Of all of the deaths of great artists I’ve seen (and Lyle Mays recently) Vonnegut’s death in 2007 continues to hurt the most simply because I believe the world desperately needs him (you may take this as an invitation to read any one of his books). In that introduction he wrote that Céline did not insult the poor and powerless “with the idea that death was somehow ennobling to anybody”. Here I find a possible objection to Clarel, both its form and content. Every reader, on his or her own, with their own experiences and tastes must decide if that last line in Clarel somehow “ennobles” death or simply allows the living to go on. I highly recommend it, but not until you’ve read every single word that comes before.    

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2 Responses to Reading Clarel During the Pandemic

  1. Outstanding. Pure, concentrated Melville. I will say, this book did take me a long time, to read. It was hard!

    • I expected it to be a slow read and was surprised by how fast I got through it. That may be due to the strange climate we are going through. Perhaps if it were just a bit shorter it would have more readers.

      Good health and reading to you.

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