It is no easy matter to pronounce which of Mr. Melville's books is the best. All of them (and he has published a goodly number, for so young an author) have had their own share of success, and their own peculiar merits, always saving and excepting Pierre -- wild, inflated, repulsive that it is.
For us there is something very charming about Mardi, all the time fully aware of its sad defects in taste and style. Of course, we give Mr. Melville every credit for his deliberate plagiarisms of old Sir Thomas Browne's gorgeous and metaphorical manner. Affectation upon affectation is scattered recklessly through its pages. Wild similes, cloudy philosophy, all things turned topsy-turvy, until we seem to feel all earth melting away from beneath our feet, and nothing but Mardi remaining....
... From forms, and forms alone does Melville take his text. He looks out of himself, and takes a rich outline view of what he sees. He is essentially exoterical in feeling. Matter is his god. His dreams are material. His philosophy is sensual. Beautiful women, shadowy lakes, nodding, plumy trees, and succulent banquets, make Melville's scenery, unless his theme utterly preclude all such. His language is rich and heavy, with a plating of imagery. He has a barbaric love of ornament, and does not mind much how it is put on. Swept away by this sensual longing, he frequently writes at random. One can see that he uses certain words only because they roll off the pen lusciously and roundly, just as a child, who is entirely the sport of sense, grasps at the largest apple. In Mardi is this peculiarly obvious. A long experience of the South sea islanders has no doubt induced this. The languages of these groups are singularly mellifluous and resonant, vowels enter largely into the composition of every word, and dissyllabled words are rare. Mr. Melville has been attracted by this. Whenever he can use a word of four syllables where a monosyllable would answer just as well, he chooses the former. A certain fulness of style is very attractive. Sir Thomas Browne, from whom Mr. Melville copies much that is good, is a great friend of magnificent diction. And his tract on urn burial is as lofty and poetical as if Memnon's statue chanted it, when the setting sun fell aslant across the Pyramids. But we find no nonsense in Sir Thomas. In every thing he says there is a deep meaning, although sometimes an erroneous one. We cannot always say as much for Mr. Melville. In his latest work he transcended even the jargon of Paracelsus and his followers. The Rosetta stone gave up its secret, but we believe that to the end of time Pierre will remain an ambiguity.
Mardi, we believe, is intended to embody all the philosophy of which Mr. Melville is capable, and we have no hesitation in saying that the philosophical parts are the worst. We do not for a moment pretend to say that we understand the system laid down by the author. Whether there be a system in it at all, is at least somewhat problematical, but when Mr. Melville does condescend to be intelligible, what he has to say for himself in the way of philosophy, is so exceedingly stale and trite, that it would be more in place in a school-boy's copy-book, than in a romance otherwise distinguished for splendor of imagery, and richness of diction. The descriptive painting in this wild book is gorgeous and fantastic in the extreme. It is a tapestry of dreams, worked with silken threads, dyed in the ocean of an Eastern sunset. Nothing however strange startles us as we float onwards through this misty panorama. King Media looms out from the canvas, an antique gentleman full of drowsy courtesy. Babbalanja philosophizes over his calabash, or relates the shadowy adventures of shadows in the land of shades. From out the woods, canopied with flowers, that let the daylight in only through courtesy, comes Donjalolo, the Southern Sardanapalus. Women droop over his pale enervate figure, and strive to light its exhausted fires with their burning eyes. He looks up lazily, and opens his small, red mouth to catch a drop of honey that is trembling in the core of some over-hanging flower. Fatigued with this exertion, he sinks back with a sigh into the soft arms interlaced behind. Then comes Hautia, Queen of spells that lie in lilies, and mistress of the music of feet. Around her float flushing nymphs, who love through endless dances, and die in the ecstasy of mingled motion. While far behind, throned in mist, and with one foot dabbling in the great ocean of the Future, stands the lost Yillah; problem of beauty to which there is no solution save through death.
All these characters flit before us in Mardi, and bring with them no consciousness of their unreality and deception. As shadows they come to us, but they are sensual shades. Their joys thrill through us. When they banquet in drowsy splendor -- when they wander upon beaches of pearls and rubies -- when they wreath their brows with blossoms more fragrant and luscious than the buds that grow in Paradise, our senses twine with theirs, and we forget every thing, save the vision of their gorgeous pleasures. It is this sensual power that holds the secret of Mr. Melville's first successes. No matter how unreal the scenery, if the pleasure be but truly painted, the world will cry "bravo!" We draw pictures of Gods and Goddesses, and hang them on our walls, but we take good care to let their divinity be but nominal. Diana, Juno, Venus, are they known, but they loom out from the canvas, substantial, unadulterated women. Seldom does there live an Ixion who loves to embrace clouds. Call it a cloud if you will, and if it have the appearance of flesh and blood, the adorer will be satisfied. But we doubt if there is to be found any man enthusiast enough to clasp a vapor to his heart, be it schirri-shaped or cumulous, and baptized with the sweetest name ever breathed from the Attic tongue. Mr. Melville therefore deals in vapors, but he twines around them so cunningly all human attributes, and pranks them out so lusciously with all the witcheries of sense, that we forget their shadowy nomenclatures, and worship the substantial incarnation.
It must not be imagined from this, that Mr. Melville is incapable of dealing with the events of more matter-of-fact life. He is averse to it, no doubt, and if we may judge by Pierre, is becoming more averse to it as he grows older. But he sometimes takes the vulgar monster by the shoulders and wields it finely....
Typee, the first and most successful of Mr. Melville's books, commands attention for the clearness of its narrative, the novelty of its scenery, and the simplicity of its style, in which latter feature it is a wondrous contrast to Mardi, Moby Dick, and Pierre....
White Jacket is a pure sea-book, but very clever. It is a clear, quiet picture of life on board of a man-of-war. It has less of Mr. Melville's faults than almost any of his works, and is distinguished for clear, wholesome satire, and a manly style. There is a scene describing the amputation of a sailor's leg by a brutal, cold-blooded surgeon, Patella, that Smollett might have painted. We would gladly quote it, but that it rather exceeds the limits usually afforded in an article so short as ours....
In Redburn, we find an account of the death of a sailor, by spontaneous combustion. Well described, poetically described, fraught with none of the revolting scenery which it is so easy to gather round such an end. In the last number of Bleak House, Mr. Dickens has attempted the same thing. He has also performed what he attempted. But, if ever man deserved public prosecution for his writing, he does, for this single passage. A hospital student could not read it without sickening. A ghoul, who had lived all his days upon the festering corruption of the graveyard, could have written nothing more hideously revolting than the death of Krook. It is as loathsome to read it as to enter one of the charnels in London city. We do not believe that a woman of sensitive nerves could take it up without fainting over the details. For ourselves, we fling the book away, with an anathema on the author that we should be sorry for him to hear.
Mr. Melville does not improve with time. His later books are a decided falling off, and his last scarcely deserves naming; this however we scarce believe to be an indication of exhaustion. Keats says beautifully in his preface to "Endymion," that "The imagination of a boy is healthy, and the mature imagination of a man is healthy, but there is a space of life between, in which the soul is in a ferment, the character undecided, the way of life uncertain, the ambition thick-sighted."
Just at present we believe the author of Pierre to be in this state of ferment. Typee, his first book, was healthy; Omoo nearly so; after that came Mardi, with its excusable wildness; then came Moby Dick, and Pierre with its inexcusable insanity. We trust that these rhapsodies will end the interregnum of nonsense to which Keats refers, as forming a portion of every man's life; and that Mr. Melville will write less at random and more at leisure, than of late. Of his last book we would fain not speak, did we not feel that he is just now at that stage of author-life when a little wholesome advice may save him a hundred future follies. When we first read Pierre, we felt a strong inclination to believe the whole thing to be a well-got-up hoax. We remembered having read a novel in six volumes once of the same order, called The Abbess, in which the stilted style of writing is exposed very funnily; and, as a specimen of unparalleled bombast, we believed it to be unequalled until we met with Pierre. In Mardi there is a strong vein of vague, morphinized poetry, running through the whole book. We do not know what it means from the beginning to the end, but we do not want to know, and accept it as a rhapsody. Babbalanja philosophizing drowsily, or the luxurious sybaritical King Media, lazily listening to the hum of waters, are all shrouded dimly in opiate-fumes, and dream-clouds, and we love them only as sensual shadows. Whatever they say or do; whether they sail in a golden boat, or eat silver fruits, or make pies of emeralds and rubies, or any thing else equally ridiculous, we feel perfectly satisfied that it is all right, because there is no claim made upon our practical belief. But if Mr. Melville had placed Babbalanja and Media and Yoomy in the Fifth Avenue, instead of a longitude and latitude less inland; if we met them in theatres instead of palm groves, and heard Babbalanja lecturing before the Historical Society instead of his dreamy islanders, we should feel naturally rather indignant at such a tax upon our credulity. We would feel inclined to say with the Orientals, that Mr. Melville had been laughing at our beards, and Pacha-like condemn on the instant to a literary bastinado. Now Pierre has all the madness of Mardi, without its vague, dreamy, poetic charm. All Mr. Melville's many affectations of style and thought are here crowded together in a mad mosaic. Talk of Rabelais's word-nonsense! there was always something queer, and odd, and funny, gleaming through his unintelligibility. But Pierre transcends all the nonsense-writing that the world ever beheld.
Thought staggers through each page like one poisoned. Language is drunken and reeling. Style is antipodical, and marches on its head. Then the moral is bad. Conceal it how you will, a revolting picture presents itself. A wretched, cowardly boy for a hero who from some feeling of mad romance, together with a mass of inexplicable reasons which, probably, the author alone fathoms, chooses to live in poverty with his illegitimate sister, whom he passes off to the world as his wife, instead of being respectably married to a legitimate cousin. Everybody is vicious in some way or other. The mother is vicious with pride. Isabel has a cancer of morbid, vicious, minerva-press-romance, eating into her heart. Lucy Tartan is viciously humble, and licks the dust beneath Pierre's feet viciously. Delly Ulver is humanly vicious, and in the rest of the book, whatever of vice is wanting in the remaining characters, is made up by superabundant viciosities of style.
Let Mr. Melville stay his step in time. He totters on the edge of a precipice, over which all his hard-earned fame may tumble with such another weight as Pierre attached to it. He has peculiar talents, which may be turned to rare advantage. Let him diet himself for a year or two on Addison, and avoid Sir Thomas Browne, and there is little doubt but that he will make a notch on the American Pine.
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