Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Footnote on pelican-beach

'Tis barren as a pelican-beach.* 

* barren as a pelican-beach. The simile in the third line of In the Prison Pen compares the locale of a Southern prison to a remote hellscape or wasteland, figuring its forlorn captives as a penal colony of sorrowful-looking and probably starving pelicans. Evoking the biblical "pelican in the wilderness," as the afflicted, physically emaciated supplicant calls himself in Psalm 102.6, the imagery here draws also from a cluster of pelican associations in other writings by Melville, especially Pierre; Or, The Ambiguities (1852) and "The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles" (1854). Typically Melville regards the appearance of pelicans as lugubrious = mournfully sad. To his eye their angular forms and frequently empty pouches make them look eternally lean and hungry. In Pierre Melville's narrator likens poor, miserably undernourished philosophers and social reformers (lined up on the curb outside a diner) to "lean rows of broken-hearted pelicans on a beach; their pockets loose, hanging down and flabby, like the pelican’s pouches when fish are hard to be caught." Pelicans in "The Encantadas" are depicted as sad, "penitential," oddly immobile and ghostly endurers of Job-like suffering in the Gal├ípagos Islands:
But look, what are yon wobegone regiments drawn up on the next shelf above? what rank and file of large strange fowl? what sea Friars of Orders Gray? Pelicans. Their elongated bills, and heavy leathern pouches suspended thereto, give them the most lugubrious expression. A pensive race, they stand for hours together without motion. Their dull, ashy plumage imparts an aspect as if they had been powdered over with cinders. A penitential bird indeed, fitly haunting the shores of the clinkered Encantadas, whereon tormented Job himself might have well sat down and scraped himself with potsherds. -- The Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles - Sketch Third, Rock Rodondo in Putnam's Monthly for March 1854; reprinted in The Piazza Tales (1856) at page 309.
Thus represented in military and monastic metaphors as "wobegone regiments" of pitifully sad and abandoned creatures arranged in "rank and file," Melville's battle-worn and scourged penitents of pelicans seem the very emblem of suffering in captivity. Suggestive analogues can be found in published works by other writers, notably The Pelican Island (1827) by James Montgomery and Thomas Beale's The Natural History of the Sperm Whale (1839), both quoted (for different reasons, not directly connected with pelicans) in the Extracts section of Moby-Dick

Closer to home, geographically, lurks a possible local allusion. The depiction of Virginia's Belle Isle Prison in the James river across from Richmond as "a low, sandy, barren waste, exposed in summer to a burning sun, without the shadow of a single tree" in the 1864 report by the U. S. Sanitary Commission, Narrative of Privations and Sufferings of United States Officers and Soldiers while Prisoners of War in the Hands of the Rebel Authorities, may have reminded Melville of "Barren Island," mostly "a sand-bank known as Pelican beach." So described in multiple editions of Appleton's Dictionary of New York and Its Vicinity


Whatever else it may suggest, Melville's pelican imagery as adapted to "In the Prison Pen (1864)" figuratively represents the maltreated prisoner in his place of confinement. Through allusion to the "pelican of the wilderness" in Psalm 102, Melville's pelican-beach simile links the emaciated body of the psalmist to the emaciated bodies of Union soldiers released from Belle Isle and other Southern prisons, pictured in words and engraved images as "living skeletons" in the 1864 Narrative of Privations and Sufferings.


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