Saturday, July 19, 2014

A chequered Elysium: 1846 London Era review of Melville's Marquesas Islands

Marquesas islands Queen
Le Magasin Pittoresque 11 (Paris, 1843)
The only review from the London Era listed in Herman Melville: The Contemporary Reviews is on May 17, 1857, of The Confidence-Man.

From The Era, Sunday, April 19, 1846:


America is largely returning her literary obligations to us. Many of our best schoolbooks, as, for instance," Anthon's various editions of the Classics," "Parker's works on English Grammar," and "Woodbridge's Geography," are from the United States literary manufactory. And she is enriching our literature with works of higher mark. "Prescott's Historical Writings," "Dana's Two Years before the Mast," not to mention "Channing's Essays and Discourses," "Bowdich's Translation of Laplace," and many theological, legal, and medical works of acknowledged worth, may be fairly set off against anything we have of late years given her. Here is another case in point. Although "The Marquesas Islands" is not all that sundry enraptured critics have made it out to be, it may bear comparison with any work of fiction our own press has recently produced; for a work of fiction it indisputably is. How any of our contemporaries could persuade themselves that they were reading fact is astonishing. Yet, so it has been; and it is no slight testimony to the merits of the work that it should have deceived critics who are looked up to with considerable respect by the literary world. A young American foremast Jack, tired of six months' whaling, and charmed both with the beauty of the scenery, and, partly, if the truth must be spoken, with the fascinations of the Marquesian ladies, resolvers to desert his ship. He finds a messmate who entertains the same intention. They take advantage of a "liberty day," plunge into the interior, and, after infinite fatigue, and running hair-breadth 'scapes in mounting sundry precipices and descending sundry others, find themselves in a lonely valley, the South Sea Paradise. The largest of the Marquesas Islands, that on which our runaway seamen embarked in this adventure, is inhabited by three tribes, who occupy the three natural divisions of the island. One of these tribes bears the repute of being exceedingly sanguinary, and devoted to cannibalism. This very tribe it was our adventurers' desire and object to avoid; but, "as fate or the gods decreed," it was precisely among this very tribe that they fell. Instead of being at once spitchcocked or barbacued, as the recondite practices of the South Sea cuisine may determine, they are taken into favor, made much of, and so pertinaciously stuffed and fed, that, like Sindbad, in a similar situation, they made up their minds that as soon as sufficiently crammed they were to be knocked on the head, and duly served up, with or without sauce piquante. The feeding however, was, at least as far as the principal adventurer, the writer of the tale, was concerned, purely philanthropic. His messmate Toby, so was he hight, went off one day on the cry of ships appro[a]ching the island being raised, but Toby came not back. Whether be escaped on board and forgot his brother adventurer, or whether he served for a meal, the writer leaves us in ignorance; indeed, professes to be hopelessly ignorant himself. But, forthwith, the field being left to himself, he began to lead a life that a Sybarite might envy. He could not exactly say or sing, since neither Burgundy, nor Champagne, nor, indeed, humble Port is grown in the Marquesas, or as yet imported thither,
"My goblets blushed from every vine," 
but he might have said or sung
"And lovely forms caressed me." 
One lovely form in particular, whom he christens Fayaway. With this "dark-eyed girl of Paradise" he wanders day by day, and moonlight night by night, amidst spice-breathing groves, or, another Ulysses, bathes with her and her attendant nymphs in the cool translucent waters of a chrystal lake, which is the gem, the ocellus of this happy valley. Be it said,however, that they seem ever to have been under the superintendence of a respectable middle-aged gentleman, named Kory-Kory, who enacts the duenna, or there is no saying what we might have been called upon next to read and relate. The situation is, at the least, quite as critical as that of Captain Parry and his young Esquimaux favorite, only that the latter, with her fifteen pounds of blubber for dinner per diem, was not so poetical a being as Fayaway, who does not, so far as we remember, eat at all. Of course the Elysium is chequered. Thoughts of home and of society will intrude; the fate of Toby presents as distressing a problem as the pons asinorum; our hero becomes persecuted to submit to the tat[t]oo and to naturalisation; and, at last, a discovery, more horrible than that of the waxen figure in the "Mysteries of Udolpho," proves to him that, on certain occasions, his Arcadian friends do indulge in a little human flesh. At length he escapes. The how, we will not anticipate, but leave Mr. Herman Melville (is this a real, or a travelling name?) to describe for himself, whenever the reader shall choose to send for the book from the library. As the reader will have already concluded, the work is of the "Peter Wilkins" and " George Psalmanazar" class. It wants the simplicity of Defoe's fictions, and, to our mind, at least, does certainly not "lie like truth." There are too obvious a strain and tension in the narrative; too constantly reminding you of the inventive to be mistaken for the descriptive. Besides, though the incidents are not too numerous for recollection, yet no art of memory with which we are acquainted, could enable a gentleman without tablets and "kylevine pen," to bear in mind the details and illustrative minutiae with which they are given. Then, too, there are tolerably long-winded conversations, or results of conversations, and this, too, on subjects of no little nicety, requiring such a knowledge either of the Marquesan language on Mr. Melville's part, or of English on that of the Marquesans, which it is not professed that either party had, and which it is manifest neither could have attained it a four months' intercourse. Other discrepancies and inconsistencies might be pointed oat; but, viewing the work as a plav of the imagination, these are redeemed by the glow and warmth of the whole, and by many charming pictures and pleasing touches of fancy. The object of the work, too, is an additional recommendation. It is to remind one that if civilisation creates much, it also destroys much; that savage life, as it is called, is not all vice, any more than Christian nations are all virtue; that missionary zeal, with the best intentions, may be preached too far; that in our intercourse with the South Sea Islands we have fully as much to repent of, as to pride ourselves upon; and to induce us to reflect, whether our future intercourse may not be carried on more profitably to our convertites, though less profitably, in the poor worldly sense, to the convertors. In a word, Mr. Melville's more recent experience of the South Sea missions, for experience he indisputably has had, has led him to similar conclusions to those expressed some twelve years back by the late Mr. Earle in his unpretending but veracious Nine Months Residence in New Zealand.

--found at The British Newspaper Archive

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