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:
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!
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!
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."


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