“Innocent be the heart and true—Howe’er it feed on bitter bread…”

If anyone else had ever read Clarel, I would ask you to guess which of the many characters, major and secondary, I liked best. I think you would get it right, but since Clarel is, if not unreadable, certainly unread, I will tell you that it is Mortmain, the Swede who never “relaxes in his state of rigorous gloom.”

He is lovely and dark and a major focus of the middle part of the poem. A former revolutionary, he has come to the Holy Land after becoming disenchanted. I say Mortmain was my favorite, but the psychological depth of Clarel leaves me feeling I barely know him. I do know that he becomes just one of the vehicles Melville uses to comment on politics and war, however, subjects he seems to have become more and more concerned with as he matured as writer. These ideas make their first real appearance in Mardi, but grew, especially with the approach, horror, and aftermath of the American Civil War.

One thing I haven’t mentioned about Clarel, by the way, is that it was Melville’s Centennial poem. As in Israel Potter, but much more dark and serious, there is a lot of material about the success or failure of the American project.

Mortmain is partly Melville’s dark, misanthropic side:

“Man’s vicious: snaffle him with kings;
Or, if kings cease to curb, devise
Severer bit. This garden brings
Such lesson. Heed it, and be wise
In thoughts not new.” (2.3)

“This garden” is Gethsemane.

But like in The Confidence-Man, misanthropy and distrust are not always so wrong. Mortmain is certainly harsh in the next canto, and cynical, but wrong?

“Wouldst meddle with the state? Well, mount
Thy guns; how many men dost count?
Besides, there’s more that here belongs:
Be many questionable wrongs:
By yet more questionable war,
Prophet of peace, these wouldst thou bar?
The world’s not new, nor new thy plea.
Tho’ even shouldst thou triumph, see,
Prose overtakes the victor’s songs:
Victorious right may need redress:
No failure like a harsh success.” (2.4)

And in his own way, he is a humanist as well. He is against war. And it’s the very harshness of success he decries. He is obsessed with the “unutterable” depths of sin and the evil of the world. But so, so cynical, not something Melville likes.

Now that I’ve written this post committing myself to Mortmain forever, all I can think is how much I liked so many others—Vine, who was modeled on Hawthorne, Agath, Rolfe, Margoth… Not Clarel though, so much. He seems almost ephemeral compared to the rest, more like a sponge sometimes than a man of his own. That’s not fair; he manages to have his own arguments and discussions. But he’s on this pilgrimage among men to become a man, and his companions unquestionably have more forceful, fully-formed personalities. In many ways Clarel plays the part of the reader who would, like me, choose among them.

3 comments to “Innocent be the heart and true—Howe’er it feed on bitter bread…”

  • Love that “snaffle him with kings” line! Also, “Mortmain” is such a perfect name for the character you describe.

  • OK, I’ve posted my defense of my favorites: Derwent, Vine, and, um, the donkey. And by “defense” I mean “abdication,” since I don’t like to argue and want to avoid trouble – “Alas, too deep you dive!”

    Clarel himself is something of a disappointment, a “blank” with a narrative function. Although his sexual psychology turns out to be surprisingly interesting, doesn’t it? I was worried about the end, when I knew we would lose all of the other (better) characters, but it was really impressive.

  • Emily—I know, that’s such a good one, and a good name, too.

    AR—Yeah, I must admit I was a bit “disappointed” in Clarel, or at least surprised that he was so blank. Agreed on the end as well.