Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Herman Melville's "The Sepulchre"

Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land is an epic poem written in 1876 by American writer Herman Melville. It is the longest poem in American literature. This narrative poem of four major parts and some l50 cantos depicts a young theology student wandering through the Holy Land, first in Jerusalem, then in the Wilderness, then Mar Saba, and finally Bethlehem. The journey is reminiscent of Melville's own wanderings in the Holy Land in the middle 1850's. Clarel is described by Edwin H. Miller as "Melville's poetic restatement of the subject matter of his prose... an unformed youth in search of security in a world which has no security to offer".

While in Jerusalem, Melville would visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre "almost every day" and observe with disappointment that it was a church under occupation of Muslims who scorned Christians and desecrated the holy place. Melville's description in his journal of the accretion and ruin of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre provides some explanation for his ambivalence about giving himself over to its shrines, grottoes, and chapels as do the pilgrims he observes. The Sepulchre is characterized by an accretion of ornament and decay that both explains Melville's separation from the original material of the site of Christ's resurrection and calls into question the reliability of the church as a marker of the particular ground of Christ's passion. Melville describes the Sepulchre as "richly sculpted;" it reflects a "garish stream of light;" it is "ineloquent" and "bedizened." So overwrought is the tomb that Melville considers it a "show-box," and he concludes, "All is glitter and nothing is gold." It is "A sickening cheat."

In Clarel, Melville's protagonist is similarly disappointed with the Sepulchre, but unlike the assessment that Melvile wrote into his journal, the poem's narrator anticipates the question of whether the poem's protagonist's disappointment and discomfort at the tomb might be merely the result of his encounter with the unfamiliar aesthetic and iconography of Catholic and Eastern church architecture: "... Might it be," the narrator asks,

"That Clarel, who recoil did here,
Shared but that shock of novelty
Which makes some Protestants unglad
First viewing the mysterious cheer
In Peter's fane? (1.5.53-58)

The narrator answers his own question negatively,

"Nay, 'twas no novelty at all ...
Another influence made swerve
And touched him in profounder nerve"

than his Protestant preference for unadorned worship spaces (1.5.64-68). The cause of Clarel's doubt at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not merely a matter of taste; rather, the real stimulus is that he, like Melville, is separated from the original site of the foundation of Christianity.

The Sepulchre

(Part 1, Canto 3)

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 fane,
Seat of the Holy Sepulchre, 15
And naturally named therefrom.

What altars old in cluster rare
And grottoshrines 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 birdlike steals the singer's note
Down from some rail or arch remote:
While, glimmering where kneelers be,
Small lamps, dispersed, with glowworm 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 guestmonk 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 childlike 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 Merchants? 130
Is this Cairo's bazar And concourse?
Nay, thy strictures bar. It is but simple nature, see;
None mean irreverence, though free.

Unvexed by Europe's grieving doubt
Which asks And can the Father be? 135
Those children of the climes devout,
On festival in fane installed,
Happily ignorant, make glee
Like orphans in the playground walled.

Others the duskiness may find 140
Imbued with more than nature's gloom;
These, loitering hard by the Tomb,
Alone, and when the day's declined—
So that the shadow from the stone
Whereon the angel sat is thrown 145
To distance more, and sigh or sound
Echoes from place of Mary's moan,
Or cavern where the cross was found;
Or mouse stir steals upon the ear
From where the soldier reached the spear— 150
Shrink, much like Ludovico erst
Within the haunted chamber. Thou,
Less sensitive, yet haply versed
In everything above, below—
In all but thy deep human heart; 155
Thyself perchance mayst nervous start
At thine own fancy's final range
Who here wouldst mock: with mystic smart
The subtile Eld can slight avenge.
But gibe—gibe on, until there crawl 160
About thee in the scorners' seat,
Reactions; and pride's Smyrna shawl
Plague strike the wearer. Ah, retreat!

But how of some which still deplore
Yet share the doubt? Here evermore 165
'Tis good for such to turn afar
From the Skull's place, even Golgotha,
And view the cedarn dome in sun
Pierced like the marble Pantheon:
No blurring pane, but open sky: 170
In there day peeps, there stars go by,
And, in still hours which these illume,
Heaven's dews drop tears upon the Tomb.

Nor lack there dreams romance can thrill:
In hush when tides and towns are still, 175
Godfrey and Baldwin from their graves
(Made meetly near the rescued Stone)
Rise, and in arms. With beaming glaives
They watch and ward the urn they won.

So fancy deals, a light achiever: 180
Imagination, earnest ever,
Recalls the Friday far away,
Relives the crucifixion day—
The passion and its sequel proves,
Sharing the three pale Marys' frame; 185
Thro' the eclipse with these she moves
Back to the house from which they came
To Golgotha. O empty room, O leaden heaviness of doom—
O cowering hearts, which sore beset
Deem vain the promise now, and yet 190
Invoke him who returns no call;
And fears for more that may befall.
O terror linked with love which cried
"Art gone? is't o'er? and crucified?"

Who might foretell from such dismay 195
Of blank recoilings, all the blest
Lilies and anthems which attest
The floral Easter holiday?