Melville’s Metaphysics of Love

It is probably true that Herman Melville is an acquired taste even now, and certainly his contemporaries never acquired that taste. I think Moby Dick and the later novels (not to mention the poetry)  largely met with indifference (and why many newspaper critics betrayed annoyance never adequately explained by their reviews) for the same reason that Dr. Johnson had no truck with the so-called metaphysical poets: he employed elaborate metaphors and imagery that seemed to clash with the sentiments he was expressing (according to a a strict a priori aesthetic). It was the disproportion of the images that gave rise to their name. But Melville, even more so than the seventeenth century English writers, deserved the title of “metaphysical poet,” because he, unlike they, actually employed the imagery and metaphors to delve into a carefully constructed, and fundamentally terrifying, metaphysics of the universe. If you need convincing on that point, I suggest you re-read the following chapters from Moby Duck: “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Ch. 42, the precise point that American letters entered into World Literature), “The Sphinx” (Ch. 70), “The Jeraboam’s Story” (Ch 71), “The Fountain” (Ch. 85). I’ll stop at those examples, because if you read them, chances are you will take up the entire novel again.

If the reading public at the time was hesitant to follow Melville down the whale’s throat to the navel of the universe, they decidedly bolted from his next novel Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1852). I will not try to rehabilitate that novel here, except to note that Melville’s metaphysical imagery can be quite breathtaking. I set forth a passage below which is an encomium to love. The first two chapters of the book have been spent extolling the beauty and virtues of the two young lovers: Pierre Glendinning and Lucy Tartan, two well-to-do teenagers at the beginning of the summer in the Berkshires on the plains before Mount Greylock. On the morning of this passage, the two lovers take a carriage to picnic on the hillside in the forest. During this ride wafts in a lyrical passage that overwhelms all that is “actually” happening. This passage is entirely life-affirming, and thoroughly Melvillean, but needless to say, it would not be Melville if it was not soon followed up by equally majestic images at least hinting of the opposite. We will keep to the positive here. This is from section iv of the Second Book (pages 41-42  of the first edition):

 That morning was the choicest drop that Time had in his vase. Ineffable distillations of a soft delight were wafted from the fields and hills. Fatal morning that, to all lovers unbetrothed; “Come to your confessional,” it cried. “Behold our airy loves,” the birds chirped from the trees; far out at sea, no more the sailors tied their bowline-knots; their hands had lost their cunning; will they, nill they, Love tied love-knots on every spangled spar.

Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth, the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof! The first worlds made were winter worlds; the second made, were vernal worlds; the third, and last, and perfectest, was this summer world of ours. In the cold and nether spheres, preachers preach of earth, as we of Paradise above. Oh, there, my friends, they say, they have a season, in their language known as summer. Then their fields spin themselves green carpets; snow and ice are not in all the land; then a million strange, bright, fragrant things powder that sward with perfumes; and high, majestic beings, dumb and grand, stand up with outstretched arms, and hold their green canopies over merry angels—men and women—who love and wed, and sleep and dream, beneath the approving glances of their visible god and goddess, glad-hearted sun, and pensive moon!

Oh, praised be the beauty of this earth; the beauty, and the bloom, and the mirthfulness thereof. We lived before, and shall live again; and as we hope for a fairer world than this to come; so we came from one less fine. From each successive world, the demon Principle is more and more dislodged; he is the accursed clog from chaos, and thither, by every new translation, we drive him further and further back again. Hosannahs to this world! so beautiful itself, and the vestibule to more. Out of some past Egypt, we have come to this new Canaan; and from this new Canaan, we press on to some Circassia. Though still the villains, Want and Woe, followed us out of Egypt, and now beg in Canaan’s streets: yet Circassia’s gates shall not admit them; they, with their sire, the demon Principle, must back to chaos, whence they came.

Love was first begot by Mirth and Peace, in Eden, when the world was young. The man oppressed with cares, he can not love; the man of gloom finds not the god. So, as youth, for the most part, has no cares, and knows no gloom, therefore, ever since time did begin, youth belongs to love. Love may end in grief and age, and pain and need, and all other modes of human mournfulness; but love begins in joy. Love’s first sigh is never breathed, till after love hath laughed. Love laughs first, and then sighs after. Love has not hands, but cymbals; Love’s mouth is chambered like a bugle, and the instinctive breathings of his life breathe jubilee notes of joy!

That morning, two bay horses drew two Laughs along the road that led to the hills from Saddle Meadows.

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  1. We’ve had a long, cool, wonderfully vernal spring in Cincinnati this year . . . and “a million strange, bright, fragrant things powder that sward with perfumes,” and perhaps, for all we know, “high, majestic beings, dumb and grand, stand up with outstretched arms, and hold their green canopies over merry angels—men and women—who love and wed, and sleep and dream, beneath the approving glances of their visible god and goddess, glad-hearted sun, and pensive moon!”
    A rhapsodic poem to young love. I must go back to Melville one day . . . now that low vision creatures like myself can get all the old books by audio on certain websites.

  2. Good to see you back pounding on the keyboard (or touch screen or whatever you use). You’ve been away too long.

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