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.