Posted by: Nathan | November 29, 2007

Melville’s Clarel

clarel.jpgBeginning my review journey through the various books I read last semester (don’t worry, I shan’t review all of them), I turn to Herman Melville’s Clarel. “Melville’s what?” you say? I hadn’t heard of it either until this term. It’s quite the tome: at right is a picture of me and the book that is to scale. All right, it’s not that big; almost half of the book is introduction, endnotes, commentary, and other stuff. However, a 500-page epic poem in iambic tetrameter isn’t going to attract a lot of readers.

All of the books I’ve read thus far in my life fall into three general categories regarding their accessibility. Class 1: Just about anyone can pick up said book and enjoy/get something out of it. Class 2: One needs some prefatory and background information, but the work is enjoyable and worthwhile to the average reader with a little effort. Class 3: Difficult. Don’t even bother unless you’re really invested in literature and have had a lot of classes. Clarel is easily Class 3; in fact, I wouldn’t read this baby unless you’ve had at least a junior or senior year majoring in Lit. I hope I’m not sounding snobby here, but Clarel is far from easy reading both stylistically and hermeneutically.

Melville is a great writer of prose, and my prof assures me that he can write poetry also, but Clarel isn’t a good example of Melville’s poetic prowess. Tetrameter is always slightly awkward in English–you always want to extend it into the more familiar pentameter, but Melville took it even a step further by making it rhyming iambic tetrameter. I love rhymed poetry when it’s good, but nobody’s going to write 500 pages of good rhymes. Plus, end-rhymes force the writer to rearrange squi’s diction (T.S. Eliot hated that), and that results in awkward lines. I remember one particularly poor moment was “‘Your drift I catch'”(4.8.61). Thanks, Yoda.

Clarel explores a lot of issues of faith and skepticism. The poem’s setting is the Holy Land, where the title character goes on a mini-pilgrimage with some random folks who represent various stages of belief. There’s a super believer priest, a scientific progress guy, a doubter, and lots of other fellows that fall somewhere in-between. Although most characters are representative in some way (almost like allegory), I could never tell them apart because all the dialog sounds the same. This is probably another bi-product of the tetrameter, but it’s a problem when you can’t tell your Derwents from your Mortmains.

As for the title character, Clarel is the center of the poem about which the other characters revolve. The reader becomes Clarel, listening to the various ideas, viewpoints and degrees of faith and evaluating each as it comes along. Clarel never lands anywhere, and neither does the poem. The Holy Land seems a barren place of former grandeur that no one knows what to do with; Clarel constantly encounters famous biblical places and leaves asking, “Is that it?”

The value of the book is the occasional spots of brilliance where Melville really cuts to the heart of things and asks hard questions about the nature of faith, history, democracy, and progress. I could give countless examples, but here’s one:

But in her Protestant repose / Snores faith toward her mortal close? / Nay, like a sachem petrified, / Encaved found in the mountain-side, / Perfect in feature, true in limb, / Life’s full similitude in him, / Yet all mere stone–is faith dead now, / A petrification? Grant it so, / Then what’s in store? what shapeless birth? (3.5.73-81).

Yep, Yeats’ “The Second Coming” is looming in the background already.

If you’re looking for a great book to read, don’t read Clarel. Its great sections certainly do not constitute a great whole. There are hundreds of better, more accessible books out there. However, if you’re in the mood for some self-punishment or your prof assigns this poem to you, my advice is read it in small chunks, look for the big questions, and pretend the text is in prose as much as possible. C-, 4.8/10. Certainly, what Johnson said about Paradise Lost is true of Clarel also: “no man wished it longer.”

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