The Erotic Motif in Melville's Clarel*
by Nina Baym

As a writer of prose romances, Herman Melville elected mostly to work in the intellectual universe of metaphysical and religious speculation, and in the masculine world of seafaring adventure. However, on either chronological side of Moby-Dick (1851) is a very long work that testifies to an interest in erotic themes. But in both of these books the erotic theme, which is introduced along with philosophic concerns, is left incomplete; only the metaphysical matters are carried through to a conclusion. In Mardi (1849) a simultaneous quest for Yillah, the lost love, and Alma, a viable religious principle, becomes ultimately the quest for Alma alone. Increasingly, references to Yillah become intermittent and mechanical. In Pierre (1852) the hero elopes to the city, for a combination of erotic and moral reasons, with a sensuous illegitimate half-sister, leaving behind his domineering mother and angelic fiancee; but in the city the moral problems blot out the erotic.

Many critics have commented on these partially developed erotic situations. Some believe that Melville abandoned the love stories because they did not really interest him. Others, especially those oriented toward modern psychological theory, feel that the love stories were not so much abandoned as suppressed; far from being uninterested in them, Melville was perhaps too interested in them to achieve artistic control over them. Henry Murray's introduction to the Hendricks House edition of Pierre (New York, 1949) develops this approach most eloquently. On the whole, following Melville's lead in the matter, critics have tended to assign much more importance to Melville's metaphysical than his erotic speculations.

The ambitious long poem Clarel (1876) is another work that sets out with a combined erotic and philosophical situation. But, unlike either Pierre or Mardi, Clarel carries the erotic theme all the way through to the conclusion of the poem; and, moreover, it attempts to answer the question of why the erotic and the metaphysical should be interrelated in the first place. Clarel, its protagonist, is a young divinity student who goes to Jerusalem to assuage some vague religious unease. In the Holy City he meets and falls in love with Ruth, a beautiful young Jewish girl. Ruth's father Nathan is an American who had married a Jewish-American girl, Agar, and converted to her religion. Espousing his new faith even more than his new wife, he has emigrated with his reluctant spouse and daughter to Palestine. He is hostile to Clarel, while the homesick Agar likes the youth. Thus when Nathan is murdered by marauding Arabs, Clarel's romantic prospects change for the better.

Clarel's reaction to the improvement in his fortunes demonstrates a deep ambivalence which, so long as the affair had been potential only, was not brought into play. Hearing of the killing, he immediately decides to depart the next morning on a pilgrimage which has been organized by some of his friends. His pretext is that because the women are shut away from him in ritual mourning, he cannot bear the solitude of Jerusalem. On the pilgrimage, the poem's foreground is occupied by discourses among the pilgrims on such topics as science, faith, and politics. It would appear that the romantic situation has been jettisoned. And the very few interpreters of Clarel--for it is a poem of over 18,000 bumpy, clangorous lines-are unanimous in viewing the love story as a clumsy frame, all the more clumsy because it occupies the entire first quarter (one out of four books) of the poem. [1]

But because in Clarel the evasive nature of the protagonist's behavior is recognized, the abandonment of love becomes part of the plot itself. The events of the pilgrimage and the incredible quantity of talk in the poem are elaborated against, and referred back to, the motivating event: Clarel's flight from Ruth. Thus the intellectual and erotic dimensions of the situation are integrated. As Clarel is going back to the inn to pack on the night of Nathan's murder, he passes by a fountain whose carving represents an Armenian funeral procession. The corpse is a young girl. Immediately thereafter a real Armenian funeral procession actually crosses his path. The coincidence troubles him. He instantly makes an association with Ruth--"see him there / As if admonishment in air / He heard" (I.xliii.43-45). His unacknowledged guilt and fear about leaving Ruth in her grief, as well as the more obscure feelings that are prompting his flight, weld this image to his mental picture of Ruth so that visions of the "bier Armenian" recur to haunt him regularly on the pilgrimage (II.xvii.40-52, xxix.164-69; III.xxiv.101-10; IV.xvi.100-21). -...the undercurrent of anxiety operates to make him a very poor participant in the group's activities (II.iii.-95-100). He is shown sometimes using the talk as a diversion from his underlying preoccupations (IV.xvi.122-23) and sometimes frankly bored to death with it and perplexed at himself for continuing on so unprofitable a journey (III.v.183-86, 195-99; vii. 82-88). Moreover, when events and discourses do have particular meaning for him, they relate directly to his own quandary: "All distant through that afternoon / The student kept, nor might attune / His heart to any steadfast thought / But Ruth--still Ruth, yet strange involved With every mystery unresolved / In time and fate" (

The "mystery" may be articulated as a conflict in Clarel's mind between the idea of a religious life and the idea of love for women. His conflict, however, has two distinct but interrelated aspects--the traditional conflict between sacred and profane love, and a less traditional opposition, derived from the first, between heterosexual and homosexual love. Love for women is identified with the physical, and gratification of the physical side of the self is taken to be incompatible with a spiritual development of the personality and, consequently, with a pure love for God. Though he is strongly drawn to women, Clarel feels that sexual love is inherently impure and that his erotic feelings must therefore necessarily separate him from God. Not only will he be unable to devote himself fully to God; the Deity will not love or save an impure self, so that God's love is made conditional upon man's ability to free himself from carnal affections.

It follows from this that woman, who arouses the physical in man, must be essentially impure and a snare, even if she is personally innocent. "Are the sphered breasts full of mysteries / Which not the maiden's self may know? / . . . Can nature such a doom dispense As, after ardor's tender glow, / To make the rapture more than pall With evil secrets in the sense / And guile whose bud is innocence/ Sweet blossom of the flower of gall?" (IV.xxix.92-101).

Ultimately, the more one is attracted to woman the more one recoils from her, for precisely in the degree that one is attracted one feels her power to deflect man from his spiritual goals and, perhaps, his salvation. In this context the homoerotic relationship is presented as a kind of saving alternative to the dangers of heterosexual love. For Clarel naively imagines at first that relationships between men must necessarily be nonphysical; he is drawn toward homosexuality as toward a "pure" earthly love. Later in the poem he learns to acknowledge a physical dimension to homosexual love, but since the traditional view makes fleshly evil reside in the woman (the sphered breasts), he is tempted to believe that physical love between men would somehow escape the curse God has put on the flesh.

The progress of the pilgrimage helps Clarel to see more clearly the ideas and assumptions that had prompted his blind flight into the desert. Moreover, it shows him that it is not the quest for God that produces a horror of woman so much as a horror of woman that produces the quest for God. [2] Celibacy and homosexuality alike, he comes to believe, are based on a revulsion from female physicality. But this revulsion, though clearly native to many men, is not universal. It is Christian. This perception leads him to reevaluate all the religious and intellectual arguments he has been hearing, not in terms of their absolute truth, but in terms of the states of mind that have given rise to their formulation. Thus illuminated, he undergoes a profound about-face and hurries forward to Ruth and Jerusalem. But he is too late. Outside the city walls he encounters a funeral cortege accompanying the coffins of Ruth and her mother, who have died of grief. The image in his mind has materialized, and the reader is left free to imagine that what has killed these women is grief not so much over the dead father as over the deserting lover. Clarel must look upon himself as destroyer of his own salvation. Melville seems to be dramatizing a profound and bitter psychological insight here--that the kinds of doubts Clarel has felt were permanently disabling, or perhaps rather the signs of a prior disablement. The doubting nature is incapable of that innocent faith which is the prerequisite for fulfillment. If Clarel's doubts separate him on the one hand from God, so do they separate him on the other from woman. To go a long step further, Melville has dramatized here the destructive effect of Judeo-Christian misogyny on heterosexuality.

The action of Clarel, then, is Clarel's meeting with, rejection of, and final--futile--return to Ruth. The pilgrimage itself dramatizes this movement. Its route is circular, so that midway in the journey Jerusalem changes from the city left behind to the city ahead. The progress of the journey develops as a set of symmetrical descents and ascents. Jerusalem, the starting-point, is a walled mountain city. Leaving it, the travelers descend (Book II, "The Wilderness") to the plain of Sodom, in a landscape increasingly unpleasant, and finally encamp by the Dead Sea. The image of descent to a corrupt depth--and death--is omnipresent here. Then (Book III, "Mar Saba") the pilgrims reascend to the mountain monastery which, midway through the pilgrimage, is an analogue to Jerusalem and represents, in its walled heights, an attempt to rise above the filth of the plain. The next stage (Book IV, "Bethlehem"), however, brings the travelers back down to the plain--and the analogue to the Dead Sea is, remarkably, the manger-cave where Christ was born. That which symbolizes filth and corruption from one approach reverses its meaning and value from another. Book III supplies the events that change Clarel's perspective, although the questions that perplex him and various possible solutions to them provide a continuum in all three books of the pilgrimage.

As the travelers journey towards Sodom in Book II, the baleful landscape affects their spirits and they become increasingly tense and anxious. The barren country seems marked and scarred; though blank, it expresses anger. "For Judah here--/ Let Erebus her rival own: / 'Tis horror absolute--severe,/ Dead, livid, honeycombed, dumb, fell-- / A caked depopulated hell; / Yet so created, judged by sense, / And visaged in significance /Of settled anger terrible" (II.xi.68-75). How alarming an aspect for the Holy Land to wear--the land seems holy because it has been blasted by divine wrath (11. 85-94). The empty ugliness of the country, as well as the image of an angry God implicit in it, make the travelers profoundly uncomfortable [3] and none more so than a prosperous, pleasure-loving Greek banker and young Glaucon, soon to be his son-in-law. These two joyous souls, in fact, take advantage of a caravan going the other way to turn back at this very early stage in the journey.

Glaucon is characterized with almost allegorical simplicity as the bridegroom, but his bride is no allegory. His approaching marriage fills his heart and mind. Like a few other characters in the poem who resemble him and play much the same function, he expresses himself in sensuous limpid lyrics which stand in notable contrast to the solemn, ponderous line in which most of Clarel is composed. The pilgrims see the turning-back of Glaucon and the banker as evidence of shallowness and even cowardice, for they all take great pride in their tragic approach to life. Like Melville in the 1850s, the pilgrims as a group equate profundity with gloom. The departing Glaucon sings a lyric that addresses itself precisely to their obsession with the somber.

"Tarry never there
Where the air
Lends a lone Hadean spell-
Where the ruin and the wreck
Vine and ivy never deck,
And wizard wan and sibyl dwell:
There, oh, beware!

"Rather seek the grove--
Thither rove,
Where the leaf that falls to ground
In a violet upsprings,
And the orade that sings
Is the bird above the mound:
There, tarry there!"


The song contrasts a despairing view of final death with a serene view where death is accepted as part of a cycle of decay and renewal. Glaucon is made representative not of triviality but of a different order of wisdom. And he strongly suggests that man's view of life is dependent on his actions. If he seeks desolation, he will find it. Because Glaucon is so strongly associated with his coming marriage, his vision is integral with the life that accepts pleasure, physical fulfillment, and the love of woman.

In complete contrast to this is the climax of Book II, which comes in Canto xxxvi, when the remaining pilgrims confront the Dead Sea, made symbolic of all the loathsome possibilities of human nature and identified, in an extraordinary speech by Mortmain, with the womb. On the doctrinal level of the poem Mortmain represents an extreme of cynicism and despair. We are told, however, that his attitudes derive from the double facts of his illegitimacy and (worse still) an unnatural, unloving mother (Il.iv.14-19). In mad moods he cries out to "Fair Circe--goddess of the sty!" or "mock worse than wrong: / The Siren's kiss-- the Fury's throng!" (11. 143-45). The choice of this character to deliver the remarkable apostrophe to the Dead Sea underscores Melville's "modern" perception of the relationship between psychological attitudes de-riving from early experience and formally articulated "mature" world views; it also offers an explanation for why, or how, man's great sins have been attributed to the hateful and hated mother.

Be these the beads on the wives'-wine,
Tofana--brew?-O fair Medea--
O soft man-eater, furry-fine:
Oh, be thou Jael, be thou Leah--
Unfathomably shallow!--No!
Nearer the core than man can go
Or Science get--nearer the slime
Of nature's rudiments and lime
In chyle before the bone. Thee, thee,
In thee the filmy cell is spun--
The mould thou art of what men be:
Events are all in thee begun--
By thee, through thee!--undo, undo,
Prithee, undo, and still renew
The fall forever!'


Man's tie, through the female, to flesh, to the natural order, to the ignominy of birth and the disaster of death, is his metaphysical burden, his Original Sin. Yet the revulsion from the idea of birth is not merely intellectual. Mortmain's horror is more instinctive. The flesh itself shrinks from its intuition of the begetting, enveloping female. This sense of the awfulness of woman is the base, the lowest layer (just as the Dead Sea is the lowest point in the landscape) of western man's nature, from which all the rest rises. One must stress the word western in the sentence above, for a contrast with Glaucon is evident. He associates his lady with the violet, with spring, with the oriole, while Mortmain associates his lady (his Jael, his Leah) with slime.

The contrast is made again immediately after the Dead Sea episode when Melville introduces another young man quite similar to Glaucon, also going in the opposite direction. This is a young Cypriote returning from Mar Saba, where he has fulfilled his mother's wishes by taking three wine flagons to the monks. Now he is fulfilling a vow of his own--he is going to surprise and delight his mother by dipping her shroud in the waters of Jordan. The whole combination--mother, death, the terrible waters--strikes the pilgrims as ghastly, and they are appalled by the young man's easy handling of the whole complex. They deal with him condescendingly, as they did with Glaucon. Their condescension is at least in part designed to bolster their own self-esteem and assert the superiority of their view to this other. "Under Christian sway," one of them expounds, "Greeks still retain their primal bent, / Nor let grave doctrine intercept / That gay Hellene lightheartedness / Which in the pagan years did twine / The funeral urn with fair caress / Of vintage holiday divine" (III.iv.108-14). The acceptance of death is defined, to be dismissed, as a Pagan attitude. The superior adherent to "grave doctrine" (a pun is very likely intended) is a Christian. This is why, although in many of the discussions among the pilgrims Mortmain takes an extreme position, he speaks for all of them on this issue. [4]

Here then is the psychological substratum beneath the rejection of woman. The desire to escape leads directly to celibacy. It leads somewhat less directly to homosexuality, a motif that is introduced early in Book II. Clarel has found himself from the beginning strongly attracted to one of the pilgrims, a handsome older man named Vine. [5] He has been concerned to reconcile these feelings with his love for Ruth. In Canto xxvii of Book II there ensues a mute interchange between the two, in which Vine is imagined to reject Clarel's shy advances. "But for thy fonder dream of love / In man toward man--the soul's caress--/ The negatives of flesh should prove / Analogies of non-cordialness / In spirit" (11. 126-30). Vine would appear to be telling Clarel that there cannot be a nonphysical love. Insofar as Clarel's attraction to another man derives from his belief that a homosexual love would be chaste (the soul's caress) he is simply being foolish. The most pagan of the pilgrims, Vine might be advocating physical love which, since he asserts that male flesh responds negatively to other male flesh, would have to be heterosexual; but since Vine is also the most ascetic of the pilgrims, the import of his message might be that the man who finds flesh negative must go beyond it to total celibacy. [6]

Celibacy, in any event, is a more important focus in the poem than homosexuality and is the central topic of Book III. Mar Saba, the monastery which gives the book its name, is the symbol of celibacy. In context it is developed as a symbol of the recoil from the horrible vision of the female presented in Book II. Even within the sanctity of this walled and locked mountain fortress, however, that vision cannot be totally expunged from consciousness. At the height of the first evening's revels, when the pilgrims and other guests have regaled themselves with the monastery's wine, with song, with camaraderie, one of the guests--not a pilgrim but a man from Lesbos, another Greek--sings a hymn to Cybele (xiii.1-14). Clarel is shocked by "this mocker light" in the "heart of Saba's mystery" (II. 49-50). Yet perhaps the presence of Cybele is the heart of Saba's mystery. So further events of the book suggest.

During a long bright afternoon on the day following the revels, the pilgrims all go their separate ways around the grounds. Atop a high ledge there is a tropical palm known as St. Saba's palm. It is variously interpreted, like the doubloon in Moby-Dick, by different members of the party. [7] Clarel climbs up to it and encounters there the most ascetic, pure, and beautiful of all the monks. "So pure he showed--/ Of stature tall, in aspect bright--/ He looked an almoner of God, / Dispenser of the bread of light" (xxx.43-46). To him Clarel unburdens himself. The celibate life, though "good," is "unenhanced: / No life domestic do ye own / Within these walls: woman I miss" (II. 86-88). In response the monk hands him a volume open to a misogynist rhyme of the sort associated with early church fathers. This text (the bread of light?) does not persuade Clarel, but it does open his eyes to the source of the celibate persuasion. "Lustral hymns and prayers were here: / Renouncings, yearnings, charges dread / Against our human nature dear: / Worship and wail, which, if misled, / Not less might fervor high instill / In hearts which, striving in their fear / Of day, to bridle, curb or kill; / In the pure desert of the will / Chastised, live the vowed life austere" (II. 116 -24). The celibate life, admirable as its purity and austerity are, originates in a fear of day.

Looking up from the book, Clarel sees on the ledge below three of the pilgrims: Mortmain, of the Dead Sea speech; Rolfe, who is climbing toward the palm as a symbol of his memories of Polynesia, a lush earthly Paradise full of beautiful girls; and Vine. As his glance rests on Vine, Clarel recalls again the pull of the homosexual. No question but that the physical beauty of the monk he has been conversing with has moved him, and he seems able now to see that he has been moved too by Vine's beauty. He now accepts the idea of a physical dimension to homosexual love and wonders whether such a love, bypassing or surpassing the ambivalences of the heterosexual, might not be man's greatest joy. "Possessing Ruth, nor less his heart / Aye hungering still, in deeper part / Unsatisfied. Can be a bond / (Thought he) as David sings in strain / That dirges beauteous Jonathan, / Passing the love of woman fond? / And may experience but dull / The longing for it?" (11. 148-55). On this perplexed note Melville ends the canto.

But in Canto xxxi, entitled "The Recoil," Clarel rebounds to a firmer heterosexuality and grapples again with the problem of misogyny. The flesh-hating misogynist equates woman with body. So long as woman is thought of as nothing more than this, even the man who accepts flesh may well feel "in deeper part unsatisfied." To be fully satisfied in heterosexual love man must both accept the body and recognize the spirituality of woman. "But who was SHE (if Luke attest) / Whom generations hail for blest--/ Immaculate though human one; / ... She, She, the Mater of the Rood--/ Sprang she from Ruth's young sisterhood?" By identifying Mary and Ruth in this way (11. 1-8) Clarel does just this. Ruth's spirituality is asserted and so is Mary's humanness. The division between the physical and the immaculate, or the flesh and the spirit, is obliterated; the corruption of the flesh is denied. For one of Clarel's training, this is an immense, radical leap of belief. Though he is straining towards this view, to reach it he has to reject not only the misogynist teachings of the early church fathers but the words of Jesus himself. The long meditation that follows shows Clarel approaching this blasphemous rejection.

Express the Founder's words declare,
Marrying none is in the heaven;
Yet love in heaven itself to spare--
Love feminine! Can Eve be riven
From sex, and disengaged retain
Its charm? Think this--then may ye feign
The perfumed rose shall keep its bloom,
Cut off from sustenance of loam.
But if Eve's charm be not supernal,
Enduring not divine transplanting--
Love kindled thence, is that eternal?
Here, here's the hollow--here the haunting!
Ah, love, ah wherefore thus unsure?
Linked art thou--locked, with Self impure?

(II. 35-48)

Clarel reflects too that the angels are all masculine, so that there is no room for the feminine at all in Heaven. Thus another strand in the complex dilemma is the traditional idea (which is particularly strongly developed in later American literature) that purity is the highest development of masculinity, or that the man who really loves women is himself feminine in some way. So Clarel sees divine love as masculine and earthly love as feminine by nature. The fear of woman is partly a fear of one's own effeminacy, so that homosexuality is seen as a defense against feminization rather than an expression of it. In sum, Clarel finds himself faced with an enormous, complicated, entwined mass of feeling and doctrine which must be overcome if he is to be able freely to love Ruth as in the depths of his heart he longs to. The access to such loving, Melville has been implying throughout the poem, is not through meditation and debate, but through action--through the exercise of love. This is why it was wrong of Clarel to act on his impulse to flee from Ruth, to linger indecisively on the pilgrimage despite his misgivings; and this is why he is already doomed, though he only half senses it, to lose her.

When the pilgrims descend in Book IV to Bethlehem, Clarel's view of the plain is, by virtue of what he has undergone at Mar Saba, almost precisely the opposite of what it was earlier. He had let Mortmain speak for him. On the mountain he learned that the root of the ascetic vision is fear. The experience of Bethlehem is to confront the place of birth without that fear. Now Clarel sees that beneath and only partly concealed by the elaborate superstructures of Christianity--literally symbolized in the numerous shrines and temples which have been built above the manger--is an expression of worship for the mother. Whether the monks who guide the tourists through the manger (which turns out to be a cave) realize it or not--and there is good evidence that they do not--they are really in Mary's service rather than Jehovah's.

As all began from these small bounds
So, by all avenues and gates,
All here returns, hereto redounds:
In this one Cave all terminates:
In honor of the Manger sole
Saints, kings, knights, prelates reared the whole.

(xiii. 155-60)

This speech compared with Mortmain's indicates a full reversal. Man's inescapable bondage to birth, death, and woman in Book II now becomes his salvation from the sterile conundrums of his Jehovah-centered faith: "What may man know? / (Here pondered Clarel) let him rule/ Pull down, build up, creed, system, school, / And reason's endless battle wage, / Make and remake his verbiage--/ But solve the world! Scarce that he'll do: / Too wild it is, too wonderful" (IV.iii-109-15).

Yet Clarel's reversal is not thoroughly secure. Returning from the manger, he is troubled by a residual fear of damnation. If he gives himself over to woman, he is an apostate. If he shows that he no longer cares about being saved, he will almost certainly be damned. To love women it seems, one must go all the way to atheism (xxii.64-69). And so, when he arrives at his room (Canto xxvi), he finds that he is to share it with a young Frenchman from Lyons, a "prodigal" who makes a trio with Glaucon and the Cypriote. The prodigal, or Lyonese as he is also called, is by far the most outspoken of the three young pagans, and he alone actually engages (impatiently, to be sure) in debate with Clarel. He rejects bluntly Clarel's argument that the Song of Songs is a religious hymn expressed metaphorically and shocks the young divinity student by insisting that it is a love song pure and simple. "They cant that in his frolic fire / Some bed-rid fakir would aspire / In foggy symbols. Me, oh me!--/ What stuff of Levite and Divine! Come, look at straight things more in line, / Blue eyes or black, which like you best? / Your Bella Donna, how's she dressed?" (11. 203-09). [8] Then abruptly, and with no external logic, he bursts into his own song of songs, in praise of Jewish women. Himself in love with a Jewish woman, Clarel is deeply affected.

That night he has a telling dream. He sees himself between a Shushan (the ancient capital of Persia) and a desert. The Lyonese rules over one, and a pale pure monk--a young Tuscan who had guided the party through the manger--over the other. This monk had been the subject of a debate about masculinity between two of the pilgrims, wherein Acarnal manliness" was contrasted to "Christliness" as ideals of manhood (xiv.85-110). Clarel, then, is thinking of the earthly versus the spiritual kingdoms, and of the sort of masculine development possible within each. As this part of the dream fades, Clarel "felt the strain / Of clasping arms which would detain / His heart from each ascetic range" (xxvi.310-17). This is the poem's only tactile moment, and its force is therefore quite strong.

Waking, Clarel finds himself alone. He feels internally agitated. His inner freeze is breaking up. "Vital he knew organic change, / Or felt, at least, that change was working--/ A subtle innovator lurking" (11. 320-22). He goes up onto the roof to catch the morning breeze and hears the prodigal's departing lyric, a hymn to Mother Nature: "Rules, who rules? / Fools the wise, makes wise the fools--/ Every ruling overrules? / ... Tell, tell it me: / Signora Nature, who but she?" (II. 33138). Later in the morning Clarel learns that the Lyonese who sang to Jewish beauty was himself Jewish. For complex reasons, this information is the catalyst that effects his final conversion--or a conversion as final as possible for one so inwardly uncertain as he. Suddenly he feels "the vein / Of new emotion, inly held, / That so the long contention quelled--/ . . . Was it abrupt resolve? a strain / Wiser than wisdom's self might teach" (xxix-51-56).

He is prepared now to "boldly reach / And pluck the nodding fruit to him, / Fruit of the tree of life. / ... Alertly now and eager hie / To dame and daughter, where they trod / The Dolorosa--quick depart / With them and seek a happier sky" (II. 57-76). Although his mind is still not entirely clear of doubt, his will has broken free of his mind: "At large here life proclaims the law: / Unto embraces myriads draw / Through sacred impulse. Take thy wife; / Venture, and prove the soul of life, / And let fate drive" (II. 104-08). Why the prodigal's Jewishness should be essential to this conversion is not entirely clear. Jewishness is made to stand for a number of different things in the poem. [9] The Jewish woman as represented by Ruth and Agar is just the symbol for woman herself; the Jewish male as represented both by Nathan and by Margoth, an atheist-scientist, is a sort of monomaniac, stern founder of the religion under whose shadow all the pilgrims are wandering. Perhaps it is because the Prodigal as a Jew is within Clarel's tradition (unlike Glaucon and the Cypriote who are pagans) that he can serve as a model of liberation for Clarel.

However, Clarel's conversion comes too late. Or perhaps the sort of bliss he now feels ready to receive does not ever come to the converted. The fallen may rise, but they cannot regain their lost innocence; a civilized man cannot truly become primitive; a Christian cannot become a true lover of woman. The death of Ruth and the deadly knowledge it brings of Paradise forever lost destroy Clarel emotionally and intellectually. He is last seen in the Holy Land where he lingers like one of the stones of the landscape. Easter to him is mockery. "Christ is arisen; / But Ruth, may Ruth so burst the prison?" (xxxiii.65-66).

The reader may have discerned, beneath the intricacies of this development, a familiar romantic myth of the nineteenth century: that of the patriarchal wasteland perishing for lack of a female principle. [10] The baleful desert is regularly associated with the blasting wrath of Jehovah while around the women there cluster (as Bezanson has observed) images of fertility. [11] Yet, if Clarel is built on this rather simpleminded myth, which equates the male with repressive intellect and the female with mindless nature, Melville has certainly gone far beyond or above it in the representation of erotic turmoil and the precision with which he has located the points of conflict and tension in his character's inner struggle. In the poem Melville has dramatized the way in which his understanding of Christianity makes it impossible for Clarel to accept his own sexuality, and incapacitates him for relationships with the opposite sex. He has shown, conversely, how the protagonist's heterosexual drives make him incapable of living up to his Christian ideals. The result, for a youthful and uncertain psyche, is psychological breakdown. Although Clarel is not a great poem, and is unbeautiful in the reading, it is a unique literary work for Melville and its time in the acuity and openness with which it treats this important subject.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


1 The one indispensable critical work on Clarel is Walter Bezanson's edition of the poem in the Hendricks House series (New York, 1960). I follow his text and line numberings in my quotations. The edition has full and invaluable notes and an extended, sensitive, critical interpretation. The poem receives only cursory treatment in most of the general studies of Melville and is omitted in several of them. There are not a half dozen published articles on the work, though of late there have been a few dissertations.

Here are some representative comments on the love plot: "the love theme is too intermittent to sustain any large architectural purpose" (Bezanson, p. li); "this narrative skeleton seems quite unpromising, and, indeed, it proves almost irrelevant (like the narrative in Mardi) to the poem's real content--the philosophical and religious debates carried on by various of the poem's numerous characters" (James E. Miller, Jr., A Reader's Guide to Herman Melville [New York: Noonday Press, 1962], p. 198); "running somewhat scantily through the discursive texture of the poem, there is the love story of Clarel and Ruth" (Richard Chase, Herman Melville: A Critical Study [New York: Macmillan, 1949], p. 245); also within the poems' action is a weak romantic plot" (Stanley Brodwin, "Herman Melville's Clarel: An Existential Gospel," PMLA, 86 [1971], 376). See also Richard Harter Fogle, "Melville's Clarel: Doubt and Belief," TSE, 10 (1960), 101-16. Curiously, no critic has considered that a love story might serve as the springboard for a thematic concern with love.

2 Similarly, the twin stories "The Paradise of Bachelors" and "The Tartarus of Maids"show that modes of action which are good in themselves derive from powerful negative impulses such as revulsion, fear, and dread. The bachelors defend themselves against women in a free-wheeling convivial camaraderie of good-fellows; their style is different, but like the austere ascetics of Clarel, these are celibate men.

3 Compare Melville in his journal, reacting to the pyramids. "I shudder at idea of ancient Egyptians. It was in these pyramids that was conceived the idea of Jehovah. Terrible mixture of the cunning and awful. Moses learned in all the lore of the Egyptians. The idea of Jehovah born here." And later, on Palestine: "Is the desolation of the land the result of the fatal embrace of the Deity? Hapless are the favorites of heaven" (Herman Melville, Journal of a Visit to Europe and the Levant, Oct. 11, 1856-May 6, 1857, ed. Howard C. Horsford [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1955], pp. 118, 154).

4 0bserve that Melville demonstrates that the love of woman, and the whole hedonist complex, depends on accepting the love and physicality of one's mother. The young Cypriote sings of his mother as a knight would sing to his lady. In contrast, Mortmain's blighted world view springs from mother-hate. Ruth and her mother Agar are very close in Melville's presentation, so that they virtually become different aspects of a single female presence, and Clarel is meant to love them both.

5 Vine is universally assumed to be a portrait of Hawthorne. Bezanson in particular has followed up this assumption by a homosexual interpretation of the sexual themes of the poem, failing to see how the homosexual is worked into a wider erotic context. See especially Bezanson, p. 640.

6 Actually Vine says nothing at all. The whole discourse is imputed to him by Clarel, so that his real function--like many silent people in real life--is to bring out Clarel's thoughts. Vine's reserve is his main personal quality. His main intellectual quality is his distaste for and distrust of talk. "In the main," Melville writes of him, "how ill he brooks / That weary length of arguing-- / Like tale interminable told / In Hades by some gossip old / To while the never-ending night" (Ill.v.195-99). To a degree Vine, like the pagans, shows up the pilgrims' concerns as silly and their actions as futile; even more he undercuts the exaggerated importance which all the pilgrims attach to talking, and reminds us that the "real" issues are going unarticulated.

7 An extended analysis of this passage and the significance of the palm is found in Merlin Bowen, The Long Encounter: Self and Experience in the Writings of Herman Melville (Chicago: Chicago Univ. Press, 1960), pp. 266-74. Bowen's analysis is restricted to questions of doubt and salvation, and he pays no attention to the passages concerning love or women.

8 Glaucon, the Cypriote, and the Prodigal are all young. Their point of view is sometimes attributed, patronizingly, to their lack of experience by the older pilgrims. If the contrast between joy and gravity is identified with a contrast between youth and age, then clearly Clarel is in the wrong camp.

9 Dorothee Finkelstein, in Melville's Orienda (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press , 1961), briefly discusses Melville's attitudes toward the Jews (pp. 269-73). She sees him as wholly negative, but she omits Ruth, Agar, and the Lyonese from her discussion. This book has an interesting analysis of the poem's Bacchic imagery (pp. 242-56).

10 Critics have noted the wasteland motif in Clarel but have interpreted it in twentieth- rather than nineteenth-century terms. That is, they have followed T. S. Eliot's elaboration of the symbol wherein the land is waste because of a dying, male god: what the land needs, then, is a vital male principle. For example, se Bezanson, p. lxxvii, and Newton Arvin, Herman Melville (New York: Viking 1950), pp. 272-73.

11 Bezanson, p. lxxix

*reprinted from Texas Studies in Literature and Language 16 (1974): 315-28.