Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

by Herman Melville

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Melville's long poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) was the last full-length book he published. Until the mid-twentieth century even the most partisan of Melville's advocates hesitated to endure a four-part poem of 150 cantos of almost 18,000 lines, about a naïve American named Clarel, on pilgrimage through

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Melville's long poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876) was the last full-length book he published. Until the mid-twentieth century even the most partisan of Melville's advocates hesitated to endure a four-part poem of 150 cantos of almost 18,000 lines, about a naïve American named Clarel, on pilgrimage through the Palestinian ruins with a provocative cluster of companions. But modern critics have found Clarel a much better poem than was ever realized. Robert Penn Warren called it a precursor of The Waste Land.

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Herman Melville's long poem, (1876), written almost midway between Moby-Dick (1851) and Billy Budd, sailor (left unfinished upon Melville's death in 1891), was the last full-length book Melville published. Probably his least known major work, Clarel confronts the apparent collapse of revealed religion in the face of contemporary culture and the growing pressure of Darwinism. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
Melville Series, #12
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Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 2.20(d)

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A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Copyright © 2008

Herman Melville
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2540-7

Chapter One The Hostel

In chamber low and scored by time, Masonry old, late washed with lime-Much like a tomb new-cut in stone; Elbow on knee, and brow sustained All motionless on sidelong hand, 5 A student sits, and broods alone.

The small deep casement sheds a ray Which tells that in the Holy Town It is the passing of the day-The Vigil of Epiphany. 10 Beside him in the narrow cell His luggage lies unpacked; thereon The dust lies, and on him as well-The dust of travel. But anon His face he lifts-in feature fine, 15 Yet pale, and all but feminine But for the eye and serious brow-Then rises, paces to and fro, And pauses, saying, "Other cheer Than that anticipated here, 20 By me the learner, now I find. Theology, art thou so blind? What means this naturalistic knell In lieu of Siloh's oracle Which here should murmur? Snatched from grace, 25 And waylaid in the holy place! Not thus it was but yesterday Off Jaffa on the clear blue sea; Nor thus, my heart, it was with thee Landing amid the shouts and spray; 30 Nor thus when mounted, full equipped, Out through the vaulted gate we slipped Beyond the walls where gardens bright With bloom and blossom cheered the sight.

"The plain we crossed. In afternoon, 35 How like our early autumn bland-So softly tempered for a boon-The breath of Sharon's prairie land! And was it, yes, her titled Rose, That scarlet poppy oft at hand? 40 Then Ramleh gleamed, the sail-white town At even. There I watched day close From the fair tower, the suburb one: Seaward and dazing set the sun: Inland I turned me toward the wall 45 Of Ephraim, stretched in purple pall. Romance of mountains! But in end What change the near approach could lend.

"The start this morning-gun and lance Against the quarter-moon's low tide; 50 The thieves' huts where we hushed the ride; Chill day-break in the lorn advance; In stony strait the scorch of noon, Thrown off by crags, reminding one Of those hot paynims whose fierce hands 55 Flung showers of Afric's fiery sands In face of that crusader-king, Louis, to wither so his wing; And, at the last, aloft for goal, Like the ice-bastions round the Pole, 60 Thy blank, blank towers, Jerusalem!"

Again he droops, with brow on hand. But, starting up, "Why, well I knew Salem to be no Samarcand; 'Twas scarce surprise; and yet first view 65 Brings this eclipse. Needs be my soul, Purged by the desert's subtle air From bookish vapors, now is heir To nature's influx of control; Comes likewise now to consciousness 70 Of the true import of that press Of inklings which in travel late Through Latin lands, did vex my state, And somehow seemed clandestine. Ah! These under-formings in the mind, 75 Banked corals which ascend from far, But little heed men that they wind Unseen, unheard-till lo, the reef-The reef and breaker, wreck and grief. But here unlearning, how to me 80 Opes the expanse of time's vast sea! Yes, I am young, but Asia old. The books, the books not all have told.

"And, for the rest, the facile chat Of overweenings-what was that 85 The grave one said in Jaffa lane Whom there I met, my countryman, But new-returned from travel here; Some word of mine provoked the strain; His meaning now begins to clear: 90 Let me go over it again:-

"Our New World's worldly wit so shrewd Lacks the Semitic reverent mood, Unworldly-hardly may confer Fitness for just interpreter 95 Of Palestine. Forego the state Of local minds inveterate, Tied to one poor and casual form. To avoid the deep saves not from storm.

"Those things he said, and added more; 100 No clear authenticated lore I deemed. But now, need now confess My cultivated narrowness, Though scarce indeed of sort he meant? 'Tis the uprooting of content!" 105

So he, the student. 'Twas a mind, Earnest by nature, long confined Apart like Vesta in a grove Collegiate, but let to rove At last abroad among mankind, 110 And here in end confronted so By the true genius, friend or foe, And actual visage of a place Before but dreamed of in the glow Of fancy's spiritual grace. 115

Further his meditations aim, Reverting to his different frame Bygone. And then: "Can faith remove Her light, because of late no plea I've lifted to her source above?" 120 Dropping thereat upon the knee, His lips he parted; but the word Against the utterance demurred And failed him. With infirm intent He sought the house-top. Set of sun: 125 His feet upon the yet warm stone, He, Clarel, by the coping leant, In silent gaze. The mountain town, A walled and battlemented one, With houseless suburbs front and rear, 130 And flanks built up from steeps severe, Saddles and turrets the ascent-Tower which rides the elephant. Hence large the view. There where he stood, Was Acra's upper neighborhood. 135 The circling hills he saw, with one Excelling, ample in its crown, Making the uplifted city low By contrast-Olivet. The flow Of eventide was at full brim; 140 Overlooked, the houses sloped from him-Terraced or domed, unchimnied, gray, All stone-a moor of roofs. No play Of life; no smoke went up, no sound Except low hum, and that half drowned. 145

The inn abutted on the pool Named Hezekiah's, a sunken court Where silence and seclusion rule, Hemmed round by walls of nature's sort, Base to stone structures seeming one 150 E'en with the steeps they stand upon.

As a three-decker's stern-lights peer Down on the oily wake below, Upon the sleek dark waters here The inn's small lattices bestow 155 A rearward glance. And here and there In flaws the languid evening air Stirs the dull weeds adust, which trail In festoons from the crag, and veil The ancient fissures, overtopped 160 By the tall convent of the Copt, Built like a light-house o'er the main.

Blind arches showed in walls of wane, Sealed windows, portals masoned fast, And terraces where nothing passed 165 By parapets all dumb. No tarn Among the Kaatskills, high above Farm-house and stack, last lichened barn And log-bridge rotting in remove-More lonesome looks than this dead pool 170 In town where living creatures rule.

Not here the spell might he undo; The strangeness haunted him and grew.

But twilight closes. He descends And toward the inner court he wends. 175

Chapter Two Abdon

A lamp in archway hangs from key-A lamp whose sidelong rays are shed On a slim vial set in bed Of door-post all of masonry.

That vial hath the Gentile vexed; 5 Within it holds Talmudic text, Or charm. And there the Black Jew sits, Abdon the host. The lamp-light flits O'er reverend beard of saffron hue Sweeping his robe of Indian blue. 10

Disturbed and troubled in estate, Longing for solacement of mate, Clarel in court there nearer drew, As yet unnoted, for the host In meditation seemed engrossed, 15 Perchance upon some line late scanned In leathern scroll that drooped from hand.

Ere long, without surprise expressed, The lone man marked his lonelier guest, And welcomed him. Discourse was bred; 20 In end a turn it took, and led To grave recital. Here was one (If question of his word be none) Descended from those dubious men, The unreturning tribes, the Ten 25 Whom shout and halloo wide have sought, Lost children in the wood of time.

Yes, he, the Black Jew, stinting naught, Averred that ancient India's clime Harbored the remnant of the Tribes, 30 A people settled with their scribes In far Cochin. There was he born And nurtured, and there yet his kin, Never from true allegiance torn, Kept Moses' law.

Cochin, Cochin 35 (Mused Clarel), I have heard indeed Of those Black Jews, their ancient creed And hoar tradition. Esdras saith The Ten Tribes built in Arsareth-Eastward, still eastward. That may be. 40

But look, the scroll of goat-skin, see Wherein he reads, a wizard book; It is the Indian Pentateuch Whereof they tell. Whate'er the plea (And scholars various notions hold 45 Touching these missing clans of old), This seems a deeper mystery; How Judah, Benjamin, live on-Unmixed into time's swamping sea So far can urge their Amazon. 50

He pondered. But again the host, Narrating part his life-time tossed, Told how, long since, with trade in view, He sailed from India with a Jew And merchant of the Portuguese 55 For Lisbon. More he roved the seas And marts, till in the last event He pitched in Amsterdam his tent.

"There had I lived my life," he said, "Among my kind, for good they were;6o But loss came-loss, and I was led To long for Judah-only her. But see." He rose, and took the light And led within: "There ye espy What prospect's left to such as I- 65 Yonder! "-a dark slab stood upright Against the wall; a rude grave-stone Sculptured, with Hebrew ciphers strown.

"Under Moriah it shall lie-No distant date, for very soon, 70 Ere yet a little, and I die. From Ind to Zion have I come, But less to live, than end at home. One other last remove!" he sighed, And meditated on the stone, 75 Lamp held aloft. That magnified The hush throughout the dim unknown Of night-night in a land how dead!

Thro' Clarel's heart the old man's strain Dusky meandered in a vein 80 One with the revery it bred; His eyes still dwelling on the Jew In added dream-so strange his shade Of swartness like a born Hindoo, And wizened visage which betrayed 85 The Hebrew cast. And subtile yet In ebon frame an amulet Which on his robe the patriarch wore-And scroll, and vial in the door, These too contributed in kind. 90

They parted. Clarel sought his cell Or tomb-like chamber, and-with mind To break or intermit the spell, At least perplex it and impede-Lighted the lamp of olive oil,95 And, brushing from a trunk the soil-'Twas one late purchased at his need-Opened, and strove to busy him With small adjustments. Bootless cheer! While wavering now, in chanceful skim 100 His eyes fell on the word JUDAÆA In paper lining of the tray, For all was trimmed, in cheaper way, With printed matter. Curious then To know this faded denizen, 105 He read, and found a piece complete, Briefly comprised in one poor sheet:

"The World accosts-

"Last one out of Holy Land, What gift bring'st thou? Sychem grapes? 110 Tabor, which the Eden drapes, Yieldeth garlands. I demand Something cheery at thy hand. Come, if Solomon's Song thou singest, Haply Sharon's rose thou bringest." 115

"The Palmer replies:

"Nay, naught thou nam'st thy servant brings, Only Judæa my feet did roam; And mainly there the pilgrim clings About the precincts of Christ's tomb. 120 These palms I bring-from dust not free, Since dust and ashes both were trod by me."

O'er true thy gift (thought Clarel). Well, Scarce might the world accept, 'twould seem. But I, shall I my feet impel 125 Through road like thine and naught redeem? Rather thro' brakes, lone brakes, I wind: As I advance they close behind.-

Thought's burden! on the couch he throws Himself and it-rises, and goes 130 To peer from casement. 'Twas moonlight, With stars, the Olive Hill in sight, Distinct, yet dreamy in reposc, As of Katahdin in hot noon, Lonely, with all his pines in swoon. 135

The nature and evangel clashed, Rather, a double mystery flashed. Olivet, Olivet do I see? The ideal upland, trod by Thee?

Up or reclined, he felt the soul 140 Afflicted by that noiseless calm, Till sleep, the good nurse, deftly stole The bed beside, and for a charm Took the pale hand within her own, Nor left him till the night was gone. 145

Chapter Three The Sepulchre

In Crete they claimed the tomb of Jove In glen over which his eagles soar; But thro' a peopled town ye rove To Christ's low urn, where, nigh the door, Settles the dove. So much the more 5 The contrast stamps the human God Who dwelt among us, made abode With us, and was of woman born; Partook our bread, and thought no scorn To share the humblest, homeliest hearth, 10 Shared all of man except the sin and mirth. Such, among thronging thoughts, may stir In pilgrim pressing thro' the lane That dusty wins the reverend fine, Seat of the Holy Sepulchre, 15 And naturally named therefrom.

What altars old in cluster rare And grotto-shrines engird the Tomb: Caves and a crag; and more is there; And halls monastic join their gloom. 20 To sum in comprehensive bounds The Passion's drama with its grounds, Immense the temple winds and strays Finding each storied precinct out-Absorbs the sites all roundabout- 25 Omnivorous, and a world of maze.

And yet time was when all here stood Separate, and from rood to rood, Chapel to shrine, or tent to tent, Unsheltered still the pilgrim went 30 Where now enroofed the whole coheres-Where now thro' influence of years And spells by many a legend lent, A sort of nature reappears-Sombre or sad, and much in tone 35 Perhaps with that which here was known Of yore, when from this Salem height, Then sylvan in primeval plight, Down came to Shaveh's Dale, with wine And bread, after the four Kings' check, 40 The Druid priest Melchizedek, Abram to bless with rites divine.

What rustlings here from shadowy spaces, Deep vistas where the votary paces, Will, strangely intermitting, creep 45 Like steps in Indian forest deep. How bird-like steals the singer's note Down from some rail or arch remote: While, glimmering where kneelers be, Small lamps, dispersed, with glow-worm light 50 Mellow the vast nave's azure night, And make a haze of mystery: The blur is spread of thousand years, And Calvary's seen as through one's tears.

In cloistral walks the dome detains 55 Hermits, which during public days Seclude them where the shadow stays, But issue when charmed midnight reigns, Unshod, with tapers lit, and roam, According as their hearts appoint, 60 The purlieus of the central Tomb In round of altars; and anoint With fragrant oils each marble shelf, Or, all alone, strange solace find And oratory to their mind 65 Lone locked within the Tomb itself.

Cells note ye as in bower a nest Where some sedate rich devotee Or grave guest-monk from over sea Takes up through Lent his votive rest, 70 Adoring from his saintly perch Golgotha and the guarded Urn, And mysteries everywhere expressed; Until his soul, in rapt sojourn, Add one more chapel to the Church. 75

The friars in turn which tend the Fane, Dress it and keep, a home make there, Nor pass for weeks the gate. Again Each morning they ascend the stair Of Calvary, with cloth and broom, 80 For dust thereon will settle down, And gather, too, upon the Tomb And places of the Passion's moan. Tradition, not device and fraud Here rules-tradition old and broad. 85 Transfixed in sites the drama's shown-Each given spot assigned; 'tis here They scourged Him; soldiers yonder nailed The Victim to the tree; in jeer There stood the Jews; there Mary paled; 90 The vesture was divided here.

A miracle-play of haunted stone-A miracle-play, a phantom one, With power to give pause or subdue. So that whatever comment be- 95 Serious, if to faith unknown-Not possible seems levity Or aught that may approach thereto.

And, sooth, to think what numbers here, Age after age, have worn the stones 100 In suppliance or judgment fear; What mourners-men and women's moans, Ancestors of ourselves indeed; What souls whose penance of remorse Made poignant by the elder creed, 105 Found honest language in the force Of chains entwined that ate the bone; How here a'Becket's slayers clung Taking the contrite anguish on, And, in release from fast and thong, 110 Buried upon Moriah sleep; With more, much more; such ties, so deep, Endear the spot, or false or true As an historic site. The wrong Of carpings never may undo 115 The nerves that clasp about the plea Tingling with kinship through and through-Faith child-like and the tried humanity.

But little here moves hearts of some; Rather repugnance grave, or scorn 120 Or cynicism, to mark the dome Beset in court or yard forlorn By pedlars versed in wonted tricks, Venders of charm or crucifix; Or, on saint-days, to hark the din 125 As during market day at inn, And polyglot of Asian tongues And island ones, in interchange Buzzed out by crowds in costumes strange Of nations divers. Are these throngs 130 Merchants? Is this Cairo's bazar And concourse? Nay, thy strictures bar. It is but simple nature, see; None mean irreverence, though free.


Excerpted from Clarel by HERMAN MELVILLE Copyright © 2008 by Herman Melville. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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