Clarel: a poem and pilgrimage in the Holy Land

After writing The Confidence-Man, Melville was worn out physically and mentally, and his family was concerned. His father-in-law financed a vacation for him—a trip to the Holy Land. According to Walter Bezanson’s historical and critical note to the Northwestern-Newberry edition of Clarel (which truly is essential, though if you read it you may feel completely unoriginal as he’s already thought of everything you have), this was a very standard trip for the day. Melville was a straight-up tourist, following the same route as Mark Twain and a bunch of eminent Victorians and such.

Clarel, which is, after all, “a poem and pilgrimage in the Holy Land,” follows the same geographic route Melville did, after beginning in Jerusalem, where “[a] student sits, and broods alone.” Bezanson explains:

Among the numerous variations on this excusion the most popular was the one Melville chose…a roughly rectangular route which led from Jerusalem northeast to Jericho (6 hours); from Jericho east to the Jordan (2 hours); from the Jordan south to the edge of the Dead Sea (1 hour); from the Siddim Plain southwest up the long ridge to the monastery of Mar Saba (4.5 hours); from Mar Saba west to Bethlehem (3 hours); and from Bethlehem north back to Jerusalem (2 hours).

Got that? Fortunately, there’s a map. This is the sort of thing that can be fatal about Clarel, though: it’s not that it matters so much that the route is roughly rectangular, or what have you, but the superficial reader is so likely to ignore entirely where Clarel’s party is actually going, beyond the fact that they’re tramping around the desert.

“Clarel’s party” is a somewhat misleading term; it isn’t really his, he’s just in it. The party is at the very heart of the poem, but another thing the superficial reader could easily screw up—like in Mardi or The Confidence-Man—is who is talking about what. Because here again we have conversations. Discussion after discussion, again nearly all philosophical, and very many dialogues. While this is something I’ve liked in all Melville’s novels, it’s not my favorite in an epic poem. I’m fine with the artificiality, but I prefer poems driven more by description or action.

So, a pilgrimage, and conversations, but what is Clarel about? Faith and doubt. Science and religion. Darwin and Luther. Optimism and pessimism. Domestic warmth and celibate seclusion. The depths of personality. Interpersonal relations. God. The state. War. You won’t be surprised to hear I could go on.

This week is Clarel week, my contribution to the Unstructured Clarel Readalong. (There’s still plenty of time to join!) It will leave out far too much, as do all my Melville weeks. And besides, I am out of my depth. I leave you with a fragment, a message perhaps for any potential reader of this poem:

Join that band
That wash them with the desert sand
For lack of water. In the dust
Of wisdom sit thee down, and rust.

7 comments to Clarel: a poem and pilgrimage in the Holy Land

  • The Northwestern-Newberry edition is so helpful. The maps and prints alone, and the notes on Holy Land geography.

    I’m having the same trouble with the conversations \ debates, just like with Mardi. The Rolfe = Melville identification, which may do more harm than good, helps with this problem. Rolfe is the know-it-all who won’t shut up. Mortmain says weird stuff. Nehemiah sounds like a prophet. Clarel and Vine don’t say much. This is not very sophisticated, but it works, mostly.

    Do you find that the poem improves once the pilgrimage starts? Or is it just that I needed that long to get some sense of how to read the thing?

  • Well, Rolfe=Melville, but Melville also=Mortmain, at least to some extent. Those identifications just end up making me think more about Vine, Hawthorne, the whole business with why they may or may not have become estranged, etc. Interesting but largely a distraction (except also not, since I’m doing this whole project).

    Anyway. I did find things picked up a lot in “The Wilderness,” but then I also thought it might have taken me a while to get into it. I had kind of ups and downs of pacing the whole way through.

  • True, care is in order. (Imaginary) Vine = (imaginary) Hawthorne. Strangely, Derwent is a lot like the hero of The Perpetual Curate.

    My favorite parts, frankly, are the wild interjections by the narrator. Like 2.35, “Prelusive,” the fragment about the Piranesi print.

    Interiors measurelessly strange,
    Where the distrustful thought may range

    and so on – “gibe of goblin fantasy”. Now this, this = Melville! I would wish there were more of this sort of thing, but too much more and the poem would make no sense.

    The pacing, by any normal measure, is pretty bad. Pretty strange, at least.

  • Todd

    Dear Nicole: I enjoy your discussion of “Clarel,” by Herman Melville.

    Soon I myself will take up the challenge of reading the epic poem — all 18,000 lines of it, I hope. For now, I’m occupied with Hershel Parker’s monumental two-volume biography of the titan of American letters and American life.

    In the meantime, with your consideration, could you get me started on the right foot by telling me how to pronounce the name of the protagonist, “Clarel”? I’m inclined to place the stress on the first syllable, as an accent on the second syllable gives, to my ears anyhow, a feminine resonance to the name.

    I know this seems elementary, Nicole. But heck: I’ve got to start somewhere.

    One further thing: might you recommend an edition of the poem, one that is readily available and well annotated? Is the Northwestern-Newberry edition affordable? I prefer a hardback volume, but I don’t want to pay an arm and a leg.

    Thank you for any assistance that you can render regarding “Clarel,” which I suspect is a neglected masterpiece — perfect for metaphysical wondering and wandering.

    Sincerely yours,


  • Hi Todd,

    Thanks—and good luck! Your instincts are right in your pronunciation of “Clarel,” however, as you’ll see when you read the poem, sometimes the meter forces you to mispronounce it. Melville intended the first syllable to be accented in normal speech, but there are some lines of the poem where accenting the second syllable is what scans.

    I’m not aware of a truly annotated version of the poem. There are two Northwestern-Newberry editions (as there are of just about all Melville’s work), what I call the “green books” and the ones with pictures on the covers. The green book is the scholarly edition (ISBN 9780810109070), pretty expensive, and with long essays and lots of background info (much from Prof Parker); the other one is about half the price (ISBN 9780810125407) and I’m not sure exactly what’s in it. The latter is about 300 pages shorter.

    I do think you will find your suspicions of a “neglected masterpiece” warranted, and I hope you’ll let me know if that’s the case. Or not! I can take it.

  • Todd

    Dear Nicole:

    Thank you for your prompt and helpful response to my inquiry. You certainly know your stuff.

    Since I can be a little daft at times, however, let me make sure that I have it straight: “Clarel,” the title and title character of Melville’s epic poem, rhymes with “Carroll” (as in Carroll O’Connor, the American actor) or “Carol,” the feminine form.

    I ask this simple (or simplistic) question because “Clarel” is such an unusual name. I don’t believe that outside of Melville’s 500-page poem I have heard it anywhere in the world or in literature. Is Melville’s “Clarel” unique? Why “Clarel”? Why not “Clarence”? What’s the significance of this name?

    If you don’t want to give anything away, I completely understand. Perhaps the fun of the name, as much as the poem, is discovering the secret of “Clarel” on my own. That might be right.

    As I mentioned earlier, I’m perusing Professor Parker’s two-volume biography of the great man. I’m now at the publication of “Mardi,” at which point Melville is realizing the direction of his art and the quest that his restless soul must take.

    The Big Idea that Melville pursues through the cosmos got me thinking high thoughts, of course, but also a mundane question: How many people across this great country, I wondered, are wrestling with “Clarel” or would even consider such a struggle? For me, and for you and readers of your discussion, I presume, the lure of “Clarel” and Melville is irresistible. I can’t imagine life without such daring contemplation of fundamental reality. As Melville himself wrote in a letter, I admire people who “dive.”

    For this reason alone, Nicole, we readers and thinkers can rejoice that you’re out there doing your thing at “bibliographing.”

    Thank you again.



  • Yes, rhymes with Carol(l). My understanding, and I don’t remember now where I read this but I’m sure I read it somewhere and didn’t think of it myself, is that it should invoke “clarity” and light. I’d also say, though, that a “weird” name certainly fits with the poem as a whole.

    As to how many others are out there reading “Clarel,” well…I’m not exactly optimistic that the number is very high. But even weird and wonderful epic poems aren’t for everyone. Speaking of Mardi, have you read that one? Talk about weird and wonderful!