Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Lines Written on Reading a Celebrated Infidel Book

The reprinting of this pseudonymous poem (taking "Melville" as a nom de plume) in the Boston Recorder enables me to improve my earlier transcription with the correct reading "stoic sage" in the third line of the first stanza. Whoever wrote it, the speaker's bout with unbelief presents the quintessential Melvillean quandary. The figure of the stoic as a model of cold philosophical comfort adds a favorite device of Melville's to the familiar theme. The stoic figure seems all the more Melvillean when contrasted, as here in these 1838 "Lines," with the consoling promise of heaven. In Melville's religious epic Clarel (1876), the Anglican priest Derwent will invoke "The Stoic" to argue the same point in dialogue with the divinity student Clarel:
What if some camp on crags austere
The Stoic held ere Gospel cheer ?
There may the common herd abide,
Having dreamed of heaven? Nay, and can you?
--Herman Melville, Clarel 3.21 - In Confidence
First published in the Christian Watchman on March 2, 1838, the poetic "Lines" signed "Melville" were reprinted in the Boston Recorder for March 9, 1838. "Melville" also contributed the six-part essay on Missions to the Western Indians that appeared in the Christian Watchman between November 10, 1837 and July 13, 1838.

For the Watchman. 

Well, be it thus;— renounce the page
   Which tells of brighter worlds on high;
Then rest content, as stoic sage,
   In gloomy doubt, to grope and die.
Shut out the light which shines from heaven;
   To boastful creed of reason keep;
Say brutish life to men is given,
   And death is but eternal sleep.

But leave thy neighbor’s spirit free,
   Nor, with rash hand, the hope destroy,—
Blest hope of immortality,
   Which all dilates the heart with joy;
Nor wake the peaceful dreamer thou,
   The bitter dregs of life to taste:
If vain the hopes which bind us now,
   O, let the sweet delusion last! 
If life a false speck can be shown,
   The ocean of eternity
Up from its heaving depth has thrown;
   If hapless man may never see
Aught when this anxious being dies,
   But sink to nothingness again,
As on the earth he shuts his eyes,
   O, let him wish and hope till then!

Go to the mother, as she gives
   Her first-born to the arms of death;—
How sinks her heart, which anguish rives
   Its chords to mark the final breath!
And wilt thou soothe her frenzied thought,
   With words of cold philosophy;
Or say the infant soul is nought,
   As her’s, anon, shall surely be?

Away, away, a voice within
   Gives thy vain sophistry the lie;
It pleads for that which is,—hath been,—
   And, all divine, can never die.
Hope, reason, Scripture,—all proclaim,
   To virtue’s ear, a nobler rest:
‘Tis writ, in characters of flame,
   On ev’ry heart, in ev’ry breast.

The holy light of day; the sun,
   Bright image of the Lord Supreme;
The clouds, the viewless wind; in one,
   All things which vast or lovely seem;
The hoary earth, the deep blue sea,
   Each with ecstatic life replete;
The thin, free air, o'er land and sea,
   Where nature’s subtler wonders meet;—
The sombre majesty of night,
   As o’er the pensive mind it steals;
The calm, bright moon, whose silver light
   In vain the fleecy cloud conceals;
The stars, so eloquent, which seem
   Of silent consciousness possest,
Which active fancy well might deem
   Kind heralds of the heavenly rest. 
Speak to the soul, and wake its glow,
   While the far-vault of heaven on high
Wide echoes to the deep below
   Its soft and sacred minstrelsy.
All mind, the universe, where’er
   A thought has ranged, or science trod,
With voice united, all declare
   A Spirit, and that Spirit’s God.     

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