Clarel may be beautiful, in part, in its way, but the ground it covers is not. Melville started his career practically as a travel writer, recounting stories of some of the most beautiful places on earth. Here, in the Holy Land, he describes a desolate, alien wasteland. Clarel might have been a pilgrim to Mars.
From the first canto of the second part, “The Wilderness”:
Not from brave Chaucer’s Tabard Inn
They pictured wend; scarce shall they win
Fair Kent, and Canterbury ken;
Nor franklin, squire, nor morris-dance
Of wit and story good as then:
Another age, and other men,
And life an unfulfilled romance.
It’s a fair warning. Instead, this is what they are on their way to:
Their mount of vision, voiceless, bare,
It is that ridge, the desert’s own,
Which by its dead Medusa stare,
Petrific o’er the valley thrown,
Congeals Arabia into stone.
With dull metallic glint, the sea
Slumbers beneath the silent lee
Of sulphurous hills. These stretch away
Toward wilds of Kadesh Barnea,
And Zin the waste. (3.1)
This passage includes many motifs that will be repeated throughout the poem in descriptions of the Holy Land. There is the blankness motif, in “bare,” which pops up here and there, though I’m not quite sure to what effect, in all cases, in Clarel. “Petrific” is wonderful for its weirdness and the stoniness motif is all over the place. The sea is also everywhere; the narrator of Clarel relies heavily on seafaring metaphors throughout and there is always an overarching sense that this desert was once underwater. “Sulphurous” is menacing, as the constant acrid fumes of the Dead Sea.
Let’s press on:
They climb. In Indian file they gain
A sheeted blank white lifted plain—
A moor of chalk, or slimy clay,
With gluey track and streaky trail
Of some small slug or torpid snail. (3.8)
Blankness, check. Chalk covers both rock (it is one) and signs of the ocean (it is one). “Gluey,” “slug” and “torpid” are characteristically grotesque, like “congeals” above.
One more, shall we?
Abandoned quarry mid the hills
Remote, as well one’s dream fulfills
Of what Jerusalem should be,
As that vague heap, whose neutral tones
Blend in with Nature’s, helplessly:
Stony metropolis of stones. (4.2)
That last line doesn’t ring terribly well to my ears, but I suppose it’s not meant to. By this point all this description had me thinking of only one thing: the Encantadas. And then Melville went and practically said it outright, in the person of Agath, a Greek sailor. I could say so much about Agath, not least about his tattoo of the crucifix. But for now I’ll just give you his story about an island he and his mates once camped at:
“In waters where no charts avail,
Where only fin and spout ye see,
The lonely spout of hermit-whale,
God set that isle which haunteth me.
There clouds hang low, but yield no rain—
Forever hang, since wind is none
Or light; nor ship-boy’s eye may gain
The smoke-wrapped peak, the inland one
Volcanic; this, within its shroud
Streaked black and red, burns unrevealed;
It burns by night—by day the cloud
Shows leaden all, and dull and sealed.
The beach is cinders. With the tide
Salt creek and ashy inlet bring
More loneness from the outer ring
Of ocean.” (4.3)
Yes, I think I will say it again; Clarel can be quite beautiful. At least when you’re used to it.
Amateur Reader, fellow pilgrim through Clarel, noted last week that Melville’s poetry is “often less poetic than his prose!” No joke! Walter Bezanson’s historical and critical note to the poem similarly explains, “Once we face up to the idea that Melville’s poetry is not an extension of the lyric vein of his famous novels but is a wholly new mode of contracted discourse we will be more ready to judge the poetry.”
He’s right. Now, this makes me a bit of an appreciationist when it comes to Clarel, because I genuinely, viscerally love the aesthetics of Melville’s more lyrical work. As anyone who’s ever read Moby-Dick knows, there is a quotable sentence on every page—something truly beautiful. Not that I know anything about aesthetics, per se. But it is to my taste, or whatever.
Most of Clarel is emphatically not to my taste in that way. But! That’s not quite right. On re-reading many passages, I felt for them more. The style and structure of the poem is something you have to really spend time with and almost make peace with. Bezanson mentions the weirdness and constrictingness of its meter, iambic tetrameter, and it is weird, and can be jarring to read. Sometimes things seemed to flow along, other times I felt I was stumbling physically on the words. The rhyme scheme is completely irregular, which almost unavoidably puts you on edge.
Melville also relies—or, probably, chose to use quite specifically—on any number of “poem words,” let’s call them. Things like “anon,” “e’en,” other clipped word forms, extra “ah”s and missing articles, to fit the meter. It gives the whole poem an artificial cast, which, of course, it already had from the simple fact of its being a 500-page epic poem instead of a novel.
But sometimes the poem is beautiful like other Melville is beautiful. Or is it? Perhaps I have only been sucked into its aesthetic world; I can be impressionable. But here:
The speaker sat between mute Vine
And Clarel. From the mystic sea
Laocoon’s serpent, sleek and fine,
In loop on loop seemed here to twine
His clammy coils about the three.
Then unto them the wannish man
Draws nigh; but absently they scan;
A phantom seems he, and from zone
Where naught is real tho’ the winds aye moan. (1.37)
For one thing, the rhyme scheme in this bit seems less stressful; I don’t know if it’s a Thing or truly a pattern, but it sounds well: ABAABCCDD. “Wannish” sounds a Melville word, and there’s something about that last line that makes me want to say it aloud (probably the same thing makes me like stuff like this).
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.
While I will be addressing one of Melville’s poems in a big way next week, that still leaves a lot undiscussed, not least of which is Battle-Pieces, and Aspects of the War. Amateur Reader wrote about it earlier in the week (along with other Melville poetry). I still have not finished the collection, and may not, so you should head over there and find out about it instead.
What I have read has been a mixed bag. Some poems I am simply bored by. Others are strange, but sometimes in a good, arresting way. Like “Donelson,” which is weirdly avant-garde and includes news bulletins about the progress of the battle it describes.
But “Misgivings,” the first poem in the collection, is more along the lines of what seems to appeal to me in poetry. The first half of the poem:
When ocean-clouds over inland hills
Sweep storming in late autumn brown,
And horror the sodden valley fills,
And the spire falls crashing in the town,
I muse upon my country’s ills—
The tempest bursting from the waste of Time
On the world’s fairest hope linked with man’s foulest crime.
I’m completely in love with the imagery of the first four lines. The spire crashing down like a mast in a storm, but in town, not at sea, where such storms are supposed to happen. And this is happening right now! And look at the awful thoughts it’s causing.
My problem is, I have no idea if this is any good. ABABACC—I don’t know what that is, if anything. I don’t know that the last line might not be a bit too much. I don’t think I particularly like “the waste of Time,” or know quite what it really means in context. But I guess this is what I have to do with poetry for a while, feel it out a bit.
Moby-Dick is well known for its many doubles, but they’re elsewhere as well; twinning things seems to have been almost unavoidable for Melville. The major twin in The Confidence-Man is confidence and distrust. Everything comes down to confidence or distrust. Whether passengers give to a beggar is a sign of whether they have confidence or distrust in their fellow-man. Whether they buy medicine from the herb-doctor is a sign of whether they have trust in the goodness of nature—and of course, trust in the herb-doctor. Whether stocks rise or fall is a matter of confidence.
It is the confidence-man who always brings this up, explaining what confidence has to do with whatever scene is at hand. Or rather, explaining why the problem with whatever is going on is that someone, somewhere, doesn’t have enough confidence. It can get somewhat convoluted. “Confidence” does a lot of work and makes the book a bit of pun of ideas.
For example, a cripple tells the pathetic story of how he was wrongly jailed and never recovered from the experience. The herb-doctor at first denies the possiblity that the story is true, but then, even granting it is, argues that in fact the man’s problem is a lack of confidence. Since human government is “subordinate to the divine,” it takes on some “characteristics of the divine”:
That is, while in general efficacious to happiness, the world’s law may yet, in some cases, have, to the eye of reason, an unequal operation, just as, in the same imperfect view, some inequalities may appear in the operations of heaven’s law; nevertheless, to one who has a right confidence, final benignity is, in every instance, as sure with the one law as the other.
But doesn’t it seem foolish to have such confidence? Foolish to have confidence in the herb-doctor’s remedies, or the legitimacy of the philanthropist’s charity? It does seem so. When the confidence-man tells an old man he is trying to convince about an investment, “I live not for myself; but the world will not have confidence in me, and yet confidence in me were great gain,” it hardly inspires confidence. It also seems a clear reference to a religious figure—or, to another, erm, irreligious figure.
But we must be confident! Those without confidence are gloomy, destroy the good, and only want to sulk. No one wants to share his champagne or cigars with the distrustful, for he is a bore. According to the confidence-man and his various avatars, those who lack confidence have two—twinned—faults as a result:
“You rather jumble together misanthropy and infidelity.”
“I do not jumble them; they are coördinates. For misanthropy, springing from the same root with disbelief of religion, is twin with that. It springs from the same root, I saw; for, set aside materialism, and what is an atheist, but one who does not, or will not, see in the universe a ruling principle of love; and what a mistanthrope, but one who does not, or will not, see in man a ruling principle of kindness? Don’t you see? In either case the vice consists in a want of confidence.”
The confidence-man has a particular dislike for misanthropy, and in the following discourse on his philanthropy (literally) again brings to mind the possibility of the twinned religious referents:
“Is the sight of humanity so very disagreeable to you then? Ah, I may be foolish, but for my part, in all its aspects, I love it. Served up à la Pole, or à la Moor, à la Ladrone, or à la Yankee, that good dish, man, still delights me; or rather is man a wine I never weary of comparing and sipping; wherefore am I a pledged cosmopolitan, a sort of London-Dock-Vault connoisseur, going about from Teheran to Natchitoches, a taster of races; in all his vintages, smacking my lips over this racy creature, man, continually. But as there are teetotal palates which have a distaste even for Amontillado, so I suppose there may be teetotal souls which relish not even the very best brands of humanity.”
Pitch, whom I mentioned yesterday, is one such teetotaler—the object of this speech, in fact. But what then is right? Misanthropy is an “obvious” negative, just as charity is an “obvious” positive. But of course there are understandable instances of distrust—justified absences of confidence. Of course the confidence-man wants people to have confidence; that’s how he gets away with his confidence tricks. But isn’t it more loving toward your fellow-man to have confidence in him? The sands shift. But this isn’t a problem for me or for Melville—or for the cosmopolitan himself, who says:
“I seldom care to be consistent. In a philosphical view, consistency is a certain level at all times, maintained in all the thoughts of one’s mind. But, since nature is nearly all hill and dale, how can one keep naturally advancing in knowledge without submitting to the natural inequalities in the progress?”
Interpolated in The Confidence-Man are three chapters where the narrator steps back from the riverboat to expound on theories of writing fiction. These are, of course, for the Melville fanatic, an irresistible glimpse into his thoughts about writing, and a much better one than we get in Pierre, which is too full of bile and unseriousness.
These chapters largely concern character, in the context of a demand for realism. This was a major complaint against Melville in his day. Reviewers insisted on thinking of him as the writer of Typee and Omoo no matter how many times he tried to show them that he was really the writer of Mardi and Moby-Dick, and in these chapters he rejects many of the criticisms made against him.
He also comments on the reputation of another writer, covertly of course. The evidence seems relatively sound that chapter 44, which discusses the real number of “original characters” in fiction, as opposed to simply “odd characters,” is referring to Dickens and his popularity for creating just such “originals.” Melville judges the mass creation of original characters frankly impossible, and refuses to put any even of his own creations on the footing of those he does name: Hamlet, Don Quixote, and Milton’s Satan. Others “are novel, or singular, or striking, or captivating, or all four at once,” but not original.
This could also have been a criticism of the future reviewers, and probably many regular readers, of The Confidence-Man, or at least a warning not to succumb to such feelings. Because there are, in the usual, looser terminology, a good number of “originals” in this novel, the confidence-man himself not least among them. My favorite, though, is Pitch:
It was a rather eccentric-looking person who spoke; somewhat ursine in aspect; sporting a shaggy spencer of the cloth called bear’s-skin; a high-peaked cap of raccoon-skin, the long bushy tail switching over behind; rawhide leggings; grim stubble chin; and to end, a double-barreled gun in hand—a Missouri bachelor, a Hoosier gentleman, of Spartan leisure and fortune, and equally Spartan manners and sentiments; and, as the sequal may show, not less acquainted, in a Spartan way of his own, with philosophy and books, than with wood-craft and rifles.
What’s not to love? Even better, he will be a real match for the confidence-man. Freely willing to admit his misanthropy and discourse on the ills even of mother nature herself, the Missouri bachelor is not an easy mark like everyone else on the boat. “[W]ith both hands on his rifle, used for a staff, and gazing in the herb-doctor’s face with no more reverence than if it were a target,”—the herb-doctor being the confidence-man’s current avatar—Pitch puts him in his place. He goes up against the confidence-man’s next avatar, going so far as to say that the devil, “[t]o judge by the event…appears to have understood man better even than the Being who made him,” freaking the devil—or Jesus—or just a supernatural confidence-man—the hell out. A Melvillean himself, the Missouri bachelor holds St. Augustine on Original Sin his textbook.
Alas, he does soften, and he does give in. Even Pitch, named thus for sticking to what he says, is taken in by a confidence-trick, at least for a moment. Fortunately, it only convinces him to be more misanthropic in future, and Pitch won my heart entirely telling the cosmopolitan, the confidence-man’s final incarnation, that this time his parables and analogies will not work, and that “I, who rate truth, though cold water, above untruth, though Tokay, will stick to my earthen jug.”
Many of the non-originals, including Pitch, are supposed to have been taken from life. In him we may have James Fenimore Cooper; elsewhere are (perhaps) Poe, Thoreau, Emerson…&tc. Interesting for context, certainly. I liked Emerson a lot more than Melville seemed to—though who could really say.
Melville’s prose is always a sight to see, and readers used to his “spiky writerly thrill[s]” should find new excitement in The Confidence-Man on this point. I’ll take a sentence almost at random—a random one I marked, at any rate, but not marked for this purpose. A mute holds a slate on which he inscribes phrases exhorting charity, then a barber hangs a sign over his door reading “NO TRUST”:
An inscription which, though in a sense not less intrusive than the contrasted ones of the stranger, did not, as it seemed, provoke any corresponding derision or surprise, much less indignation; and still less, to all appearances, did it gain for the inscriber the repute of being a simpleton.
So much hedging! “[I]n a sense,” “as it seemed,” and “to all appearances” all serve to qualify the narrator’s statement to a point approaching meaninglessness. “[N]ot less intrusive” is typical of another kind of hedging the narrator does throughout, inverting thought after thought with logical if not grammatical double negatives. The final clause takes that practice even further by phrasing matters effectively as “failing to gain ill repute”; notably, the instrument also becomes the subject of that clause, relegating what would normally be both subject and agent of the verb “gain” to indirect object status and general (but not grammatical!) passivity.
In a sense, what the narrator, or Melville, gives with one hand he takes away with the other, by and large, it would seem.
Sentences like this one are, first of all, omnipresent throughout the book, but more important they are a microcosm of the action as well, as far as it goes. The dialogues are similarly hem-and-haw, give-and-take, hedge-and-bend, convince-and-connive, underhand and slippery. The actual language of the book combines with its action to keep the ground continually shifting underneath, and submerge pretty effectively Melville’s intentions. Lots of things can still be excavated, but truly, as soon as you think you are getting somewhere, those sands will shift again.
The Confidence-Man was Melville’s first published novel-length work after Pierre, and like in Pierre we get a new setting. We’re on the water again, but this time on a Mississippi riverboat, headed down from St. Louis to New Orleans. The novel is most briefly and most often described as a series of conversations between passengers on the boat, including a “confidence-man” who changes disguises some seven times. Structurally, there is much more going on than that, but such will suffice for today.
The confidence-man, be he devil, Jesus, or some other supernatural being (or, perhaps, simply a confidence-man?), gets into more or less philosophical discussions with the other passengers on the cruise under the cover of his various confidence schemes. Just as Melville harped on blankness in “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” here he harps on confidence: “confide,” “confidence,” and “confident,” and various other forms of the word, appear well over 200 times in the text (that’s based on a quick and dirty count; I suspect the number is actually much higher). The main thread of discussion is whether the confidence-man’s interlocutors have confidence in their fellow men, or whether they have only distrust.
Put aside for a moment what that might mean—after all, people have been arguing over it for over a hundred years now. It’s the way all these discussions occur that interests me today. A large chunk of the novel is devoted to dialogues, mostly metaphysical. The reader must keep track of a large number of variables. The confidence-man himself changes; not all readers even agree on exactly who among the cast is, underneath it all, the confidence-man. Once his avatar is identified, his interlocutor must be placed among the rest of the passengers that have come and gone throughout the novel. Sometimes those other passengers also speak to each other, without the confidence-man around. And the various avatars of the confidence-man take on slightly different opinions, or at least different ways of expressing those opinions, depending on who they “are” and who they are speaking to.
This complicated dialogic structure immediately reminded me of Mardi, with its long sections of conversation (usually including more than two people, however), on canoes paddling around Mardi and on the various islands the main group lands at. Back when I wrote about Mardi‘s disputes about religion, Amateur Reader commented that he “gave up on really sorting out the disputants” when he read it. Definitely a danger there, and likewise a danger in The Confidence-Man. I must say, my own seriousness did not hold up as well here, though I think that’s partly because The Confidence-Man is simpler and more enjoyable to read—certainly an improvement on Mardi in this and many other respects.
So things are slippery, and I could tell a lot of them slid through my fingers. Not that I minded. This is certainly a new favorite Melville for me and will bear much re-reading. And there’s still plenty of goodness to share with you all this week.
“The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” published in 1855 by Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, is split into two parts just as its title suggests. The Paradise of Bachelors “lies not far from Temple Bar” and is full of “quiet cloisters” where singler lawyers can eat, drink, and be merry. Melville’s treatment of the Paradise is him at his most joyous and silly—at his most convivial, if you will. But now, to the Tartarus of Maids.
For the second part of the story Melville turns to New England. The narrator has “embarked on a large scale in the seedsman’s business,” and decides that he’s expanded enough that it makes sense to buy paper wholesale from a mill to make his seed envelopes. In the dead of winter he takes a trip “not far from Woedolor Mountain,” where “the violent Gulf Stream of air unceasingly driv[es] between…cloven walls of haggard rock,” past Black Notch and Blood River to Devil’s Dungeon. In this frigid, snow-covered place work dozens of young women, pale as the paper they make as factory workers.
Whiteness and blankness are the great features of the Tartarus of Maids. “The whole hollow gleamed with the white,” the factory itself is “whitewashed” and surrounded by other buildings that had a “cheap, blank air.” The setting is “[a] snow-white hamlet amidst the snows.” The narrator, who by the time he reaches the hamlet has white spots on his cheeks from the cold, describes it to himself thus:
“This is the very counterpart of the Paradise of Bachelors, but snowed upon, and frost-painted to a sepulchre.”
The maids are also white and blank, their faces “pale with work.” Lest you think I’m finding anything subtle:
At rows of blank-looking counters sat rows of blank-looking girls, with blank, white folders in their blank hands, all blankly folding blank paper.”
This harping is typical Melville, and as in so many other cases here the motifs reach much further than the story at hand. Besides the whiteness of the jacket and the whiteness of the whale, there is the importance of white blankness in Typee, where Tommo won’t allow his skin to be drawn upon by the tattooist. Here, in New England, girls are bleached white by working in the whiteness of the rag room; those whose task is to monitor the machine that makes ruled paper are “ruled and wrinkled” themselves.
Moby-Dick also has a white face full of wrinkles, which are the only thing Ishmael can try to read in his vast, stark mass of blankness. In the more swirling mysticism of Moby-Dick, Ishmael feels the frightening blank infinity of whiteness; in Typee white countenances are readable where tattooed faces have had their meaning covered up; in White-Jacket whiteness itself is a mark. “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids” makes the issue of unreadable whiteness explicit by bringing it right home to paper.
Here, the narrator is clearly worried by the emptiness of meaning in the factory with its empty, white paper. He thinks of Locke’s comparison of “the human mind at birth to a sheet of blank paper,” and only a few breaths afterward contemplates the fatalism of the “inflexible iron animal” that pumps out more and more blankness with “metallic necessity,” governed by “unbudging fatality.” But the “thin, gauzy vail of pulp” can’t help following, docilely, the “autocratic cunning of the machine.”
“The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles,” presented under the name of one Salvator R. Tarnmoor, is constructed of several “sketches,” each of which is titled, begins with a short poem, and then leads to a vignette or short anecdote about the Galapagos Islands. In the first sketch, the narrator describes the Enchanted Isles as the most desolate place on earth, and one of the most solitary, and all that magnified by the fact that the place is utterly changeless and without season.
He then explains that the islands are uninhabitable, and
refuse to harbor even the outcasts of the beasts. Man and wolf alike disown them. Little but reptile life is here found:—tortoises, lizards, immense spiders, snakes, and that strangest anomaly of outlandish nature, the iguana. No voice, no low, no howl is heard, the chief sound of life here is a hiss.
Funnily enough, then, most of the rest of the sketches go on to discuss the inhabitants of the islands, some human but many animal. To be sure, the tortoise, a reptile, is a major focus. The narrator gives us just the tiniest version here of Moby-Dick‘s whale-worship. Reading and interpreting the tortoises is irresistible: “Lasting sorrow and penal hopelessness are in no animal form so suppliantly expressed as in theirs; while the thought of their wonderful longevity does not fail to enhance the impression.” He even sees tortoises crawling despondently through drawing-rooms back home, never able to shake the feeling they give him that he has “indeed slept upon evilly enchanted ground.” Shiver.
The second sketch is all about tortoises, and the third is about Rock Rodondo, an outcropping that is home to thousands of sea-birds at its top and thousands of fish at its base. Again is the typical philosophizing on animals. Penguins are “without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man. …On land it stumps; afloat it sculls; in the air it flops.”
Other sketches deal in other human and animal inhabitants, including several involving runaways or castaways and dogs. The eighth sketch, “Norfolk Isle and the Chola Widow,” is the most affecting. The widow’s story prompts the narrator to comment on his own technique, something that occurs here and there throughout Melville’s short fiction—as it does, indeed, throughout all his work, as though he can’t help here and there trying to vindicate himself in the eyes of potential critics. Here, we learn that “[u]nwittingly, I imp this cat-like thing,” that is, Fate, which “will sometimes dally with a human soul, and by a nameless magic make it repulse a sane despair with a hope which is but mad.” In trying to capture this through writing, he “sport[s] with the heart of him who reads; for if he feel not, he reads in vain.”
It was not in vain that I read of the Chola widow, whose story, along with the fourth sketch, contributes much to the enchanted, dolorous, almost vaporous atmosphere of the islands. In that sketch, “A Pisgah View from the Rock,” we get the warning that that view is not available, that the Encantadas are not open, to just anyone:
[T]ake the following prescription. Go three voyages round the world as a main-royal-man of the tallest frigate that floats; then serve a year or two apprenticeship to the guides who conduct strangers up the Peak of Teneriffe; and as many more, respectively, to a rope-dancer, an Indian Juggler, and a chamois. This done, come and be rewarded by the view from our tower. How we get there, we alone know.
Fortunately, Melville went there for me instead, and I can sit and let him sport with my heart, enchanting me.