Thursday, April 4, 2013

Under the Rose, Footnote to Caleb Crain on "Melville's Secrets"

In the October 2012 Leviathan Caleb Crain bravely explores essential passages by Melville on love, sex, and death. In a way Crain's article complements the more sharply focused study by Beverly Voloshin which demonstrates the influence of Plato's Banquet on key passages from Melville's letters to Hawthorne, the "Mosses" essay, and Clarel. On the theme of secrets, Crain manages in a short space to bring together and provocatively elucidate some of the most challenging texts in (besides Melville's Hawthorne correspondence and "Mosses" essay) Moby-Dick, Pierre, and Clarel.

Crain's "Excursus" on "A Squeeze of the Hand" in Moby-Dick is fine and to my mind only the beginning of a response to the really great question of Melville's source (personal experience? imagination? yet unidentified writings by others?) for the description of sperm squeezing. Some day I might venture more also about the meaning of the squeezing--conveyed in the illustrated moral that Ishmael derives from the story, the lesson delivered in Ishmael's picture of angels with jars of spermaceti in paradise.

Speaking of angels with jars, there's another one in "Under the Rose," the prose and poem combo in manuscript at Houghton Library, rarely and only posthumously published. Thankfully you can find that "jolly angel" in the Modern Library edition of Melville's Tales, Poems, and Other Writings, edited by John Bryant. Considering the title, the suggestiveness of sub rosa, the angel and jar, the explicit reference to Death's open secret, I thought the poem at least would make a fitting footnote to Crain's essay:
Specks, tiny specks, in this translucent amber:
Your leave, bride-roses, may one pry and see?
How odd! a dainty little skeleton-chamber;
And—odder yet—sealed walls but windows be!
Death’s open secret.—Well, we are:
And here the jolly angel with the jar!
“Under the Rose”  (Call Me Herman)
What it means is another thing, obviously. I need to think some more about that angel.

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