Read at the École Biblique, Jerusalem on Friday, June 19, 2009 during the Seventh International Melville Conference, Melville and the Mediterranean:
SAINTS AS SYRENS:
THE OLD FAITH AND MELVILLE’S NEW MYTHOPOEIA
When the saints go marching in Clarel (1876) they exemplify the bravery of unbounded, unsophisticated faith—a heroism of credulity, as it were—and affirm the catholicity of Melville’s aesthetic vision. The Roman Catholic bent is pronounced, as William Ellery Sedgwick found (213-17), and structural, in that the “poem-pilgrimage” happens, as Hilton Obenzinger has reminded us, in liturgical time (76). The favorable treatment of Catholicism is examined by William Potter as part of Melville’s larger fascination with “the intersympathy of creeds.” In a similar vein, Brian Yothers credits the sympathy for Catholicism, which for conservative Protestants in Melville’s day could still mean Sympathy for the Devil, as the impetus for the “broader consideration of religious pluralism” in Clarel. The high regard “for saints and icons” has been recognized by Vincent Kenny (140), and Joseph G. Knapp notices the “special fondness for Catholic saints” in Melville’s correspondence (99).
But no critic elaborates Melville’s affinity for saints as charmers, most obvious in versified views of Saints Louis, Francis, and Cecilia, and warm praise for virgin martyrs. Nehemiah is a “saint” but no siren. Even granting his credentials as a venerable wanderer, his lonely evangelism converts nobody. Catholic saints are the dangerous ones. Their seductive charms for a wayward Protestant like Rolfe (or Melville) are cheerfully confessed when Derwent the Anglican priest compares virgin saints to the sirens of classical mythology. Through Derwent, Melville contemplates a bold project of mythopoeia or “myth-making” in recommending Catholic “legends” as “the poet’s second mine,” a new treasure trove (better than the old Greek myths) awaiting versifiers in the sweet, non-sectarian future.
The French Biblical School makes a fitting place to consider Melville in relation to what he appreciatively called “the Old Faith.” Here we are doubly indebted to Dominicans: first, for the hospitality of this important center of Catholic biblical scholarship; and second, for the example of Henri–Dominique Lacordaire (1802-1861), who in the early 1840’s revived the formerly banned Dominican order in France. Melville’s sympathetic portrait of the Dominican in Clarel as “A champion of true liberty” draws heavily on the life and times of Father Lacordaire, memorialized by one biographer as “the tried champion of popular liberty” (Greenwell 130). As Dennis Berthold has suggested, the Dominican’s confidence in Rome oddly defies new strictures on the political authority of the Pope in recently unified Italy (359-366). And yet, the historical incongruity nicely registers the influence of Lacordaire, who died nearly a decade before the 1870 annexation of Rome. Lacordaire’s earlier activism in the cause of religious freedom, his memorable election in 1848 to the French National Assembly, his eloquence in the pulpit of Notre Dame, and even his rumored “austerities” in the exercise of monastic self-discipline—all widely reported in contemporary sources—gave Melville ample material for his characterization of the “Disinterested, earnest, pure / And liberal” exponent of Roman Catholicism.
What draws the Dominican into the narrative action of Clarel is a song, Ave maris stella, “Hail, thou Star of Ocean.” Rolfe leads off the Vespers hymn to Mary, in observance of a pilgrim rite at the Jordan River. Derwent and Vine join in. Hearing the hymn in three-part harmony, the Dominican strolls over for what Larry David would call a “stop and chat.” The French guest gets a canto (2.25) to make his case as a “staunch Catholic Democrat” for Roman orthodoxy: Catholicism appeals to the heart and offers supremely adaptable and enduring modes of consolation to suffering humans when protestant reform, scientific rationalism, and revolutionary politics fail to comfort.
After the “new St. Dominick” leaves, the long talk “Of Rome” (2.26) between Rolfe and Derwent elicits Derwent’s admiration for Catholic saints―especially “sainted virgin ones.” He pictures the virgin martyrs as temptresses, “syrens” more captivating than fabled sea nymphs like Parthenope whose sweet songs lured mariners to destruction (lines 71-72). But Derwent fears not the siren’s snare of Catholicism. Securely lashed to his liberal theology, the Anglican priest esteems miracle tales for their aesthetic merits, devoid of dogma:
Her [Rome’s] legends—some are sweet as May;Although Derwent never precisely defines “legends,” the context suggests the genre of saints’ lives, conventionally termed legendaries. His enthusiasm for saints’ lives as a literary goldmine is Melville’s. Writing to his brother-in-law on “Saturday in Easter Week” 1877, Melville praised “legends of the Old Faith” as “really wonderful both from their multiplicity and their poetry” (Correspondence 452). To illustrate, he commended the biography of St. Elizabeth of Hungary by the Count of Montalembert, the same “book of the sainted queen” which he had presented in October 1875 to his cousin Kate.
Ungarnered wealth no doubt is there....
When much that sours the sects is gone,
Like Dorian myths the bards shall own—
Yes, prove the poet’s second mine. (Clarel 2.26:86-93)
Derwent’s notion of Catholic legends as the “second mine” of future poetry likely derives from this passage in the introduction, as translated by Mary Anne Sadlier:
With regard to poetry, it would be difficult to deny that [popular religious traditions] contain an inexhaustible mine….a source of poetry infinitely more pure, abundant, and original, than the worn-out mythology of Olympus. (Life of Saint Elizabeth, pages 88-89)Along with the mine metaphor, Melville was impressed by the critique of “worn-out” Greek myths. Absent the scorn, Montalembert’s comment underlies Melville’s idea that for “multiplicity” and “poetry,” legendaries like the Life of St. Elizabeth “far surpasses the stories in the Greek mythologies” (Correspondence 452). Montalembert’s long introduction, an effusive overview of religion, politics, and art in the thirteenth-century, repeatedly extols the poetry in saints’ lives. By “poetry” he means chiefly the imaginative, romantic display of “charming incidents, illustrative of all that is freshest and purest in the human heart” (84). Replete with “ineffable sweetness” (90), tales of saintly bravery and piety reflect “the implicit faith” held by Christians of every class in medieval Europe. Nevertheless, the poetic charm of saints’ lives is also an inherent quality that exists “independent of their theological value” (88).
More debts to the Life of St. Elizabeth appear in the canto “Huts.” Melville’s main source, unidentified before now, for the ritual separation of lepers in the middle ages is chapter 24 on the heroine’s poverty and spiritual development. Elizabeth grew in humility and mercy through her irrepressible devotion to the poor and sick, lepers above all others. As Montalembert explains (296), believers in those days identified the leper with Christ on the authority of Isaiah 53:4: “…we have thought him as it were a leper, and as one struck by God and afflicted.” Melville adapts the verse and its medieval Christian exegesis in saying that Jesus “as a leper was foreshown” (1.25: 27).
From the solemn liturgy for the exile of lepers as described by Montalembert (294-298), Melville appropriated the Mass for the Dead, procession to the leper’s assigned dwelling place, ritual blessing of household utensils, and consecration of the hut with graveyard dirt. He borrowed the priest’s admonition, “Be thou dead to the world, living again to God,” as well as the closing benediction and provision of the leper’s hut with cross and alms-box. Melville’s “chance citation” (1.25: 79) of Sybella, sister to King Baldwin III of Jerusalem, again mimics Montalembert, who cited Sybella as a medieval “heroine of charity” for her saintly ministrations to the lepers of Palestine (297).
In focused takes on saints, Clarel further explores the possibilities for poetry mined from Catholic legends. St. Louis and St. Francis receive the most significant attention. Louis IX (1214-1270) of France, thirteenth-century king and crusader, was legendary for lifelong piety. We might find more to mourn than praise in some deeds of the historical Louis, who oppressed Jews to war on Islam. His two crusades were both disasters in deserts. Ironically, however, the spectacular failures of Louis in Africa heighten his appeal for Melville as a figure of the hapless enthusiast. Rolfe, wanting the confidence to journey through the Judean wasteland, invokes St. Louis as an icon of blind faith in blank places: “King, who betwixt the cross and sword / On ashes died in cowl and cord … St. Louis! rise, / And teach us out of holy eyes / Whence came thy trust.” In ten lines Melville glosses the archetypal virtues of Louis: his humility, symbolized by the monastic garb of “cowl and cord”; his courageous heart, seemingly undaunted by suffering; and his childlike trust, baffling in the face of unrelieved misery (2.13: 1-10).
Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) combines the “simple faith” of Louis with charm and love. Devoted spouse of poverty and now patron saint of animals and ecology, Francis lived on alms and preached to the birds, yet somehow reformed his world. Two cantos in book 4 of Clarel focus on St. Francis. In canto 13, the saint illumines Salvaterra, the Franciscan guide in Bethlehem. The noble-looking novice reminds the pilgrims of the young St. Francis (4.13: 176), but his zeal alarms them. Rolfe is pained by visual evidence of Salvaterra’s ascetic lifestyle. That, or his too-fervent belief in miracles also bothers Derwent, who kindly hopes the lad will learn to relax.
In the next Bethlehem canto, Rolfe approves the role of Franciscans as custodians of Christian shrines, justified he argues by the uniquely Christ-like life of the original begging friar:
Through clouds of myth investing him--Melville’s phrase seraphic glow alludes to the reception of the stigmata as related in Bonaventure’s early Life of St. Francis. As Francis prayed on a mountain side for a physical experience of the crucifixion, his devotions became so heated they produced a “seraphic glow of longing” that transported him skyward (Salter 138). The crucified Jesus appeared to Francis in the likeness of an angel who imprinted on his body the five wounds of Christ’s Passion.
Obscuring, yet attesting him,
He burns with the seraphic glow
And perfume of a holy flower.
Sweetness, simplicity, with power! (Clarel 4.14: 69-73)
“Perfume” like “seraphic glow” marks the saint. But positive proofs of sainthood may overwhelm the mundane subject in divine attributes, “obscuring” the historical person while “attesting” the saint. Myths are all we know, “clouds of myths” to which Melville through Rolfe contributes. In times of spiritual dearth, as Northrop Frye argued, “poets have to hammer out their own archetypes…. hence the whole tradition of recreated mythology” (91). Here, myths that hallow Francis blur his ordinary humanness but confirm his best and most exemplary charms as Melville recreated them: “Sweetness, simplicity, with power!”
Derwent perceives the sweet humility of Francis as a feminine weakness, unbecoming in a “manly” man. Rolfe exalts the supposedly feminine side of Francis as entirely Christ-like. Derwent’s objection to sweet St. Francis betrays a gender bias or double-standard that Rolfe does not share, and forces Rolfe to defend compassion, sensitivity, and yielding love as redeeming Christian virtues. Rolfe rightly fears his case for Christian charity will seem “too orthodox” in its assumption of sinful human nature (4.15: 108). Rather than hear Rolfe preach on innate depravity, Derwent changes the subject. Still, Rolfe’s tribute to the “sweetness” of St. Francis echoes Derwent’s springtime simile, “sweet as May,” even if its inventor meant exclusively to honor women saints.
Of the women Cecilia enjoys the status of a favorite in Melville’s private calendar of saints. In Italy he had seen Raphael’s St. Cecilia, and he read and marked high critical praise for the painting in travel narratives, as Douglas Robillard has shown. And, as Robert K. Wallace reports, Melville owned a print of Cecelia after Domenichino. In Clarel Melville glances twice at Cecilia. Her stamped image, enthroned “'Tween angels with a rosy crown,” graces the cover of Rolfe’s hymnal. Attributes of Cecilia also convey the allure of Vine, whose uncanny “charm of subtle virtue” operates like
…that perfumed spellTimothy Marr reads these fragrant paradise flowers as a sign of Melville's "islamicist imagination," particularly evoking the cultural fascination with peris as beautiful and otherworldly female spirits. Another source for the scent of unseen “Paradise-flowers” is the section on Cecilia in the second volume of Anna Jameson’s Sacred and Legendary Art. As Jameson relates, Cecilia made a secret vow of chastity before marrying a wealthy Roman named Valerian. After converting and receiving baptism, Valerian found the maiden sanctity of his bride divinely approved by the presence of “an angel, who was standing near her, and who held in his hand two crowns of roses gathered in Paradise, immortal in their freshness and perfume, but invisible to the eyes of unbelievers” (585; emphasis mine). Chaucer’s “Second Nun’s Tale,” another possible source, lacks two words used by Melville, perfume and invisible, that are to be found in Jameson’s prose sketch of Cecilia, the first of “Four Great Virgins of the Latin Church” (along with Agnes, Agatha, and Lucia). Holy fragrance links Cecilia and Francis as bona fide saints, and reveals more than we knew of Melville’s reading in hagiography and art history.
Of Paradise-flowers invisible
Which angels round Cecilia bred. (Clarel 1.29: 24-26)
Jameson’s influential study of Christian iconography contains saints’ lives in abundance, with rich treatments of virgin martyrs. But Melville leaves them alone, mostly. “Arm ye, forearm!” warned Derwent, urging Rolfe to beware those virgins, lest their heroism convert him. The allure is real, the response ambiguous. Even Rolfe, the most catholically inclined of the non-Catholic pilgrims, stops short of acceptance. For one thing, outright conversion would terminate his job as philosophical rover, a seeker not a finder. And Rolfe like Melville is enamored of myths and rituals from many cultures and eras, not exclusively Roman Catholic ones. To follow the example of, say Cardinal Newman or Orestes Brownson would be to stop wandering, which truly Melvillean pilgrims never do. Had Melville gone Catholic and systematically devoted himself to writing sonnets on Jameson’s virgin saints he would not be Melville. He would be…
Commander William Gibson, United States Navy (1825-1887). In 1877, just one year after the publication of Clarel (1876), this unsung navy poet quietly turned out nine sonnets collectively titled “The Brides of Christ.” The whole sequence was first published in the Catholic World, and then reprinted with other verses on saints including Francis of Assisi in the 1881 collection, Poems of Many Years and Many Places. Gibson’s major source for sonnets on Dorothea, Cecilia, Agnes, Catherine, Margaret, Barbara, Agatha, Lucia, and Ursula was Jameson’s Sacred and Legendary Art. The cycle offers both the “multiplicity” and “poetry” that delighted Melville in “Legends of the Old Faith.” As Derwent preferred, Gibson keeps the legends “sweet as May,” and remarkably innocent of Church doctrine.
Sweetness, simplicity, with power. Fragrance and fire. These distinguishing features of Rolfe’s feminized aesthetic also distinguish Gibson’s virgin saints. Childlike simplicity defines Agnes and Margaret. The martyred Agnes inherits pastoral “meads of asphodel,” eternally preserving her employment as Christ’s shepherdess: “I lead his lambkins by my lily bell, / Where the pomegranates shade the softest sward.” No virgin saint, says Gibson, is “more meek and mild / Than sweet St. Margaret.” Sweet but strong, too: she’s a “Daisy” who overmastered the dragon Satan. Other “Brides of Christ” blaze, like Francis in Clarel, with fire and fragrance. Dorothea the “little martyr-maid” commissions an angel “with hair like odorous flame” to confound doubters with the fragrant testimony of flowers and fruit from Paradise. Barbara, though “soft as rosy May,” is also the “Christian Bellona,” as terrifying as the Roman goddess of battle. Proving her might, a cannon blast of “instant fire” incinerates her murderous father. Agatha’s power lives on in her veil, a relic strong enough to thwart the destruction of a convent by arresting molten lava in full flow from Mount Etna: “That Red Sea curdled by Saint Agatha!”
Fire and fragrance are again conjoined in “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa,” too daringly erotic perhaps for the Catholic World but appended to “The Brides of Christ” in Gibson’s 1881 volume. Theresa, the foremost of “unworldly yearners” in Clarel (3.1: 14-15), “swim[s] in flowers and flames,” overwhelmed in the sensuality of her longing for Christ as mystical lover. Inspired by the Bernini sculpture in Rome, the sonnet likens the “voluptuous agony” of Theresa’s desire to the yearning “of pagan maidens” for Apollo. Christ as Apollo, and St. Barbara as war goddess creatively associate Classical and Christian ideals, much in the same way that Melville’s Rolfe, as Walter E. Bezanson notes, habitually links Christian traditions with settings and motifs from Greek mythology (NN Clarel 817; 831).
As we have seen, the mythology of Olympus seemed a “worn-out” mine to Montalembert and Derwent after him. Earnestly working that first mine of Greek myths, William Gibson had published some fine longer poems in Harper’s magazine on Persephone, Apollo and the Sibyl, and Empedocles. In Jameson’s sainted virgins, however, he found a “second mine” of poetic inspiration. So Gibson proved Melville right about the literary gold in “Legends of the Old Faith.” When prophesied by Derwent, the new “Era” of verse-making from “the poet’s second mine” was surprisingly imminent. Versified saints’ lives by Commander William Gibson, USN, would triumphantly enact the catholic mythopoeia that Melville projected in Clarel but relinquished to unknown bards and better days.
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_____. “The Brides of Christ.” IV. St. Catherine; V. St. Margaret; VI. St. Barbara. The Catholic World Volume 25 (July 1877): 556-557.
_____. “The Brides of Christ.” VII. St. Agatha; VIII. St. Lucia; IX. St. Ursula. The Catholic World Volume 25 (August 1877): 701-702.
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_____. The Romance of the Holy Land in American Travel Writing, 1790-1876. Aldershot, Hants, England and Burlington, Vermont: Ashgate, 2007.
- Lacordaire, model for Melville's Dominican in Clarel
- Clarel's name