Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

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Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land:

Publishing History

First American edition published in two volumes on June 3, 1876 by G. P. Putnam & Company, New York, at the expense of Melville's uncle Peter Gansevoort. There was no contemporary British edition.

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Yes, long as children feel affright
In darkness, men shall fear a God;
And long as daisies yield delight
Shall see His footprints in the sod.
Is't ignorance? This ignorant state
Science doth but elucidate --
Deepen, enlarge. But though 'twere made
Demonstrable that God is not --
What then? It would not change this lot:
The ghost would haunt, nor could be laid.

Yea, ape and angel, strife and old debate --
The harps of heaven and the dreary gongs of hell;
Science the feud can only aggravate --
No umpire she betwixt the chimes and knell:
The running battle of the star and clod
Shall run for ever -- if there be no God.

But through such strange illusions have they passed
Who in life's pilgrimage have baffled striven --
Even death may prove unreal at the last,
And stoics be astounded into heaven.

Then keep thy heart, though yet but ill-resigned --
Clarel, thy heart, the issues there but mind;
That like the crocus budding through the snow --
That like a swimmer rising from the deep --
That like a burning secret which doth go
Even from the bosom that would hoard and keep;
Emerge thou mayst from the last whelming sea,
And prove that death but routs life into victory.

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Contemporary Criticism and Reviews

Clarel, we must frankly confess, is something of a puzzle, both in design and execution....
... There is ... no plot in the work; but neither do the theological doubts, questions, and disputations indulged in by the characters, and those whom they meet, have any logical course or lead to any distinct conclusions. The reader soon becomes hopelessly bewildered, and fatigues himself vainly in the effort to give personality to speakers who constantly evade it, and connection to scenes which perversely hold themselves separate from each other. The verse, frequently flowing for a few lines with a smooth, agreeable current, seems to foam and chafe against unmanageable words like a brook in a stony glen: there are fragments of fresh, musical lyrics ... there are passages so rough, distorted, and commonplace withal, that the reader impatiently shuts the book. It is, in this respect, a medley such as we have rarely perused, -- a mixture of skill and awkwardness, thought and aimless fancy, plan shattered by whim and melody broken by discords. It is difficult to see how any one capable of writing such excellent brief passages should also write such astonishingly poor ones -- or the reverse....
The ordinary reader will find himself in the position of one who climbs over a loose mound of sliding stones and gravel, in the search for the crystals which here and there sparkle from the mass. Some may suspect a graver enigma hidden in the characters of the story, and study them with that patience which the author evidently presupposes; but all will agree that a little attention to the first principles of poetic art would have made their task much more agreeable. An author has the right, simply as an individual, to disregard those principles, and must therefore be equally ready to accept the consequences. There is a vein of earnestness in Mr. Melville's poem, singularly at variance with the carelessness of the execution; but this only increases the impression of confusion which it makes. --Edmund Clarence Stedman, in New York Tribune, June 16 1876

The reader who undertakes to read a poem of 600 pages in length, thirty-five lines to the page, is more than apt to receive the reward given by Jupiter to the man whom he caused to seek a grain of wheat in a bushel of chaff -- to wit, the chaff. Good lines there must be, but they and their effect will alike be lost in the overwhelming tide of mediocrity....
... There is ... no plot to sustain the interest of the reader, but there is a constant opportunity, fatal to such a facile writer as Mr. Melville, for digression, discussion, and above all, description. Given these characters and that scene, there is no earthly reason why the author should have turned the faucet and cut off his story at 21,000 lines instead of continuing to 221,000. Not being in his confidence we cannot of course say why he wrote the book, and what he intended it to mean, whether it has any cause or object. In the absence of this information, the reader is harassed by constant doubt whether the fact that he hasn't apprehended its motive and moral is due to his own obtuseness, or -- distracting thought! -- to the entire absence of either. The style is just as provoking. After a lot of jog-trot versifying -- Mr. Melville rhymes "hand" and "sustained," and "day" and "Epiphany" in the first ten lines -- and just as he is prepared to abandon the book as a hopeless case, he stumbles on a passage of striking original thought, or possessing the true lyrical ring and straightway is lured over another thousand lines or so, the process being repeated till the book ends just where it began....
The philosophizing of the book is its least agreeable part, nor can the analyzations of character -- or what appear to be intended therefor -- receive much higher praise. Its best passages, as a rule, are the descriptive ones, which, notwithstanding frequent turgidness and affectation, are frequently bold, clear, and judicious. On the whole, however, it is hardly a book to be commended, for a work of art it is not in any sense or measure, and if it is an attempt to grapple with any particular problem of the universe, the indecision as to its object and processes is sufficient to appal or worry the average reader. --Richard Henry Stoddard, in New York World, June 26 1876

We are by no means in a captious, or a dissenting, or even a fastidious mood, but we cannot praise Mr. Melville's poem or pilgrimage, or poem-pilgrimage. It is sadly uninteresting. It is not even given to the gods to be dull; and Mr. Melville is not one of the gods. --New York Galaxy, August 1876

The scenes of the pilgrimage, the varying thoughts and emotions called up by them, are carefully described, and the result is a book of very great interest, and poetry of no mean order. The form is subordinate to the matter, and a rugged inattention to niceties of rhyme and meter here and there seems rather deliberate than careless. In this, in the musical verse where the writer chooses to be musical, in the subtle blending of old and new thought, in the unexpected turns of argument, and in the hidden connexion between things outwardly separate, Mr. Melville reminds us of A. H. Clough. He probably represents one phase of American thought as truly as Clough did one side of the Oxford of his day.... We advise our readers to study this interesting poem, which deserves more attention than we fear it is likely to gain in an age which craves for smooth, short, lyric song, and is impatient for the most part of what is philosophic or didactic. --London Academy, August 19 1876

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