Sunday, January 27, 2013

Childe Harold's "live thunder" and Ahab in "The Candles"

Major influences coalesce in "The Candles" chapter of Moby-Dick, where Ahab dares defy the power behind the flaming corposants and terrifies his crew.  Ahab's Promethean defiance of Heaven is "Aschylean" (Newton Arvin); and Satanic as well, since the imagery (Ahab's harpoon as "fiery dart") and rebellious speech recall Milton's eternally unyielding Satan in Paradise Lost (Henry Pommer, Clare Spark, Robin Sandra Grey).

And Faustian (Charles Olson, John Joseph Staud), and Shakespearian (Macbeth and Lear), and Byronic.

Scholarly discussions of the Byronic element in "The Candles" chapter have focused on Byron's dramatic poems especially Manfred and Cain (Wyn Kelley; Robert Milder).

Henry A. Murray cited the huge influence of Childe Harold on Melville's early works, but I do not find much in print anywhere on Childe Harold and Ahab.  I would be glad to know of any mention of Canto 3 in connection with the characterization of Ahab in "The Candles."  In the three consecutive stanzas quoted below, what interesting correspondences "leap" to mind!  The scene is Lake Geneva or LĂ©man in Switzerland and France, located between the Alps and Jura ranges where the romantic speaker experiences a thrilling mountain thunderstorm (depicted in stanza 92).

From Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto 3:
XCI.
Not vainly did the early Persian make
His altar the high places and the peak
Of earth-o'ergazing mountains, and thus take
A fit and unwall'd temple, there to seek
The Spirit, in whose honour shrines are weak,
Uprear'd of human hands. Come, and compare
Columns and idol-dwellings, Goth or Greek,
With Nature's realms of worship, earth and air,
Nor fix on fond abodes to circumscribe thy pray'r!
XCII.
The sky is changed !—and such a change! Oh night,
And storm, and darkness, ye are wondrous strong,
Yet lovely in your strength, as is the light
Of a dark eye in woman! Far along,
From peak to peak, the rattling crags among
Leaps the live thunder! Not from one lone cloud,
But every mountain now hath found a tongue,
And Jura answers, through her misty shroud,
Back to the joyous Alps, who call to her aloud!
XCIII.
And this is in the night:—Most glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber! let me be
A sharer in thy fierce and far delight,—
A portion of the tempest and of thee!
How the lit lake shines, a phosphoric sea,
And the big rain comes dancing to the earth!
And now again 'tis black,—and now, the glee
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain-mirth,
As if they did rejoice o'er a young earthquake's birth.
Before the storm, in stanza 91, Childe Harold alludes to mountain-top worship by "the early Persian"; Ahab begins his famously defiant speech by introducing himself as a formerly obedient "Persian" worshiper.
 “Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire, whom on these seas I as Persian once did worship....(Moby-Dick, Chapter 119: The Candles)
 Ahab comes in with the thunder, naming himself "Old Thunder" (Elijah too, back in Nantucket had called him that):
At that moment in one of the intervals of profound darkness, following the flashes, a voice was heard at his side; and almost at the same instant a volley of thunder peals rolled overhead.
“Who’s there?”
“Old Thunder!” said Ahab, groping his way along the bulwarks to his pivot-hole; but suddenly finding his path made plain to him by elbowed lances of fire.
(Moby-Dick, Chapter 119: The Candles)
The leaping of Childe Harold's "live thunder" seems transferred to lightning, to the corposants in their leaping responsive flames, and to Ahab/Old Thunder himself who leaps out of the lightning and up with the flames:
Light though thou be, thou leapest out of darkness; but I am darkness leaping out of light, leaping out of thee!
...
Leap! leap up, and lick the sky! I leap with thee; I burn with thee; would fain be welded with thee; defyingly I worship thee!”  (Moby-Dick, Chapter 119: The Candles)
Finally, the mood in stanza 93 turns happy, joyful--the echoing thunder sounds to the speaker as if the mountains were celebrating "a young earthquake's birth."  Perhaps Byron's juvenile earthquake (itself inspired by lines from Shelley's "Mont Blanc") suggested Ahab's reference to "my earthquake life."  Has that figure (Ahab's "earthquake life") ever been satisfactorily explained in Melville criticism?
"I own thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life will dispute unconditional, unintegral mastery in me."  (Moby-Dick, Chapter 119: The Candles)
Commentary by Sir Walter Scott:
"... the "live thunder leaping among the rattling crags" — the voice of mountains, as if shouting to each other — the plashing of the big rain — the gleaming of the wide lake, lighted like a phosphoric sea, — present a picture of sublime terror, yet of enjoyment, often attempted, but never so well, certainly never better, brought out in poetry."

Monday, January 21, 2013

Melville allegedly leaving Massachusetts after passage of 1852 "Maine Law"



Less than two months before the publication of Pierre, a Boston editorial semi-seriously linked Melville with G. P. R. James, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and other Berkshire authors.  Regrettably, according to the Evening Transcript, the high-living literary celebrities of Berkshire will have to leave the state, after passage by the Massachusetts legislature of a prohibitory "Maine Law."

The controversial liquor law was overturned a year later, thanks to Melville's father-in-law Chief Justice Shaw and the Massachusetts Supreme Court. 

It's good to recall the real influence of the temperance movement, not only in Melville's youth but into the 1850's as an important element of the background to Moby-Dick (1851) and Pierre (1852).  Prohibition was on the way in, at least temporarily, when Melville wrote Hawthorne in May 1851:

"I won't believe in a Temperance Heaven."

From the Boston Evening Transcript, Tuesday, June 15, 1852:

THE TEETOTAL REVOLUTION. [Quoting an item under that heading in the New York Herald:]  It is well known that a number of independent literary men have selected Stockbridge, and that picturesque neighborhood in Massachusetts, for their permanent residences, instead of paying the high rents of New York.  But now all this class of persons there, and throughout Massachusetts, are emigrating rapidly, in consequence of the teetotal tyranny of the legislation of that State.  Mr. James, the novelist, is about selling his property in Stockbridge, and removing from Massachusetts to New York, entirely on account of the arbitrary law recently passed—a law which is characterized as worse than any European despotism."
[To which, the Evening Transcript comments:]  The case of Mr. G. P. R. James is a lamentable one.  To think that the author of “Philip Augustus” and eighty other popular novels should, in the decline of life, be cut off from his glass of sherry, is enough to excite the sympathetic indignation of every romance reader in the country.  How can we tell how far we may have been indebted to that same sherry for the genial fancies, which lure us on in the pages of this most prolific writer?
... But if we may believe the intimation in the Herald, the other literary gentlemen, who cluster about the hills of Berkshire, like bees around Hybla, will follow Mr. James’s example, and abandon a region, where the Maine law is to be enforced.  Holmes will take up his lyre, and his microscope, and seek a more inspiring vicinity.  Melville will leave spinning his pleasant yarns about “Moby Dick,” and other wonders of the “deep, deep sea,” and strike a bee line for New York, where sumptuary laws are unknown.  Hawthorne will leave the unfinished sheets of some “golden legend,” and look out for some nook among the hills, where “mountain dew” is not proscribed.  The Sedgwicks will follow.  In short there will be a grand exodus of all the literary people, with books and portfolios under their arms—all driven off by this execrable liquor law—this foe to all good fellowship and genial inspiration.
We doubt if our legislators have ever duly considered the effects of this law in a literary point of view.  If our authors are obliged to seek their Helicon elsewhere than in Massachusetts, what will become of the glory of the Bay State?  We shall not only be “unwept,unhonored and unsung,” but we shall have their ill report while living which, in the words of Shakespeare, is worse than a bad epitaph.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

remember your Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost: Satan Alarmed  (1794)
Jean Pierre Simon after Richard Westall
 Image Credit: Art of the Print
Happily for us, opinionators Ted Widmer and Cynthia Wachtell have renewed interest Melville's Civil War poems, with timely sesquicentennial looks at "The Conflict of Convictions" and "Misgivings" from Battle-Pieces (1866) and "Inscription for the Dead at Fredericksburgh," revised in manuscript from the earlier variant submitted to and published (along with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address) in the star-spangled charity anthology Autograph Leaves (1864).

What's missing in the pieces by Widmer and Wachtell is a frame of reference big enough to accommodate the scale of Melville's artistic reach as a poet. Hershel Parker's Melville:  The Making of the Poet gives the background essential for understanding the scope of Melville's grand artistic ambitions. But the quickest fix I can think of is to read the superb Leviathan essay by Robin Grey, "Annotations on Civil War:  Melville's Battle Pieces and Milton's War in Heaven" Leviathan 4 (March and October 2002): 51-70. That whole wonderful Special Issue is devoted to Melville and Milton.  But Grey's Leviathan article shows the pervasive influence of Milton on Battle-Pieces:
Hell's reception of the rebel angels is the beginning not only of Paradise Lost (Milton's epic begins in Hell) but also may be the starting point for Melville's Battle-Pieces, if we credit Melville's claim in his preface, that "this volume originated in an impulse imparted by the fall of Richmond."  ("Annotations on Civil War," 66)
Cynthia Wachtell's discussion of the "Fall of Richmond" in her book War No More shows why we need a Milton revival among Melville readers and critics. Had Wachtell remembered Paradise Lost, or read Robin Grey in Leviathan, she would not have puzzled over the strangely "original" reference to Satan in "The Fall of Richmond":
Melville even went so far as to suggest that the North’s victory would bring about the triumph of heaven over hell.  Using one of the most original—and surely one of the oddest—invectives to be penned during the entire war, Melville referred to the southern enemy as “the helmed dilated Lucifer.”  (War No More)
Back in 1950, Henry Pommer more precisely identified Melville's source for "dilated Lucifer" as the portait of Gabriel's antagonist Satan  in the fourth book of Paradise Lost:
 
On the other side, Satan, alarmed,
Collecting all his might, dilated stood,
Like Teneriff or Atlas, unremoved:
His stature reached the sky, and on his crest
Sat Horror plumed.... (985-989)

Speaking of Miltonic reach, an essay from Addison's Spectator proclaims of this memorable scene:
The conference between Gabriel and Satan abounds with sentiments proper for the occasion, and suitable to the persons of the two speakers. Satan clothing himself with terror when he prepares for the combat is truly sublime, and at least equal to Homer's description of Discord, celebrated by Longinus, or to that of Fame in Virgil, who are both represented with their feet standing upon the earth, and their heads reaching above the clouds(British Essayists)
Yes Satan alarmed and "dilated" was a famous image, engraved by Jean Pierre Simon, painted by Richard Westall for Boydell's sumptuously illustrated edition Poetical Works of John Milton.

Explicating a line from "The Conflict of Convictions" Ted Widmer reads "he" in political terms as President Buchanan, but "he" in Melville's poem is in fact printed "He" with the upper-case "H" conventionally designating Deity. Melville gives it a wicked ambiguous twist, for sure, but the printed word in every version I have ever seen is "He" not "he."

So, not the White House but "heaven" is old and cold.
The weather was not good inside Melville’s poems; a blustery wind served as a perfect metaphor for the angry speeches on all sides, rending the Union: “I know a wind in purpose strong — it spins against the way it drives.” (Ted Widmer)
Here again the same problem, too small a frame of reference. Widmer the ex-speechwriter wants nothing to do with cosmic forces or high flown allusions to Milton. God must mean the sitting U. S. President, wind must mean partisan political rhetoric. But in Melville's poem the wind that spins against the way it drives is plainly not of human manufacture. As metaphor this wild yet willful, contrarily purposive wind represents uncontrollable, unpredictable determinations of bigger powers, say Nature or Necessity or Fate. Robert Penn Warren got it, explaining this "brilliant metaphor" of the wind as "one of the ideas, and ironies, which dominate Battle-Pieces—the idea that there may 'be a strong necessity' which underlies history."

A later passage from "Conflict" (lines 74-79), again in Warren's words:
develops, of course, the irony in the metaphor of the wind in line 64.  The war is being fought for freedom, but even in the victory "unanointed" power may come to work against the very assumptions of the old republic, first, by 'Dominion' over foreign lands...
(Selected Poems of Herman Melville, p 353)
The Iron Dome emerges for Warren as Melville's "image of the new 'power state,' created in the process of defending the Old Union, but in actuality working to destroy the very principles on which the old Union had been established."


But back to Milton. Early in his explanatory note to "The Conflict of Convictions," Warren feels obliged to cite Melville's "reference to the 'latter fall'" as "one of the several which set the poem in relation to Paradise Lost." Further discussion of the poem requires setting the stage with  a nod to Milton.

In the Albany of Melville's youth, by the way, War in Heaven was considered a matter for schoolgirls, literally. In July 1836, when Melville's sisters received awards at the Albany Female Academy, third prize for best student composition (after even worthier essays on the "Constitution of Man" and "Traits of Indian Character") went to the anonymously-submitted essay on the "Genius of John Milton":
"The writer seems fully to have appreciated the plan and imbibed the spirit of the great poet. She is thrilled with wonder and awe at the martial array and dread artillery of Heaven—at the dire conflict and fearful discomfiture of Satan and his legions." 
(Albany Evening Journal, July 22, 1836)
And in Connecticut Lyman Beecher dramatically communicated the heroism of Satan when reading aloud from Paradise Lost to his daughter:
"Genius and heroism would move him even to tears. I recollect hearing him read aloud Milton's account of Satan's marshaling his forces of fallen angels after his expulsion from heaven. The description of Satan's courage and fortitude was read with such evident sympathy as quite enlisted me in his favor...." (Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe)
 OK, time to go. There's this book I have to get now...