Thursday, October 2, 2014


In chamber low and scored by time,
Masonry old, late washed with lime –
Much like a tomb new-cut in stone;
Elbow on knee, and brow sustained
All motionless on sidelong hand,
A student sits, and broods alone.
The small deep casement sheds a ray
Which tells that in the Holy Town
It is the passing of the day –
The Vigil of Epiphany.
Beside him in the narrow cell
His luggage lies unpacked; thereon
The dust lies, and on him as well –
The dust of travel.  But anon
His face he lifts – in feature fine,
Yet pale, and all but feminine
But for the eye and serious brow –
Then rises, paces to and fro,
And pauses, saying, “Other cheer
Than that anticipated here,
By me the learner, now I find.
Theology, art thou so blind?
What means this naturalistic knell
In lieu of Shiloh’s oracle
Which here  should murmur? Snatched from grace,
And waylaid in the holy place!
Not thus it was but yesterday
Off Jaffa on the clear blue sea;
Nor thus, my heart, it was with thee
Landing amid the shouts and spray;
Nor thus when mounted, full equipped,
Out through the vaulted gate we slipped
Beyond the walls where gardens bright
With bloom and blossom cheered the sight.

Opening lines of Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Did you know that Herman Melville, acclaimed author of America’s arguably greatest though ignored-in-its-time novel Moby Dick, also wrote the longest epic poem in American history?  Clocking in at nearly 18,000 lines, Clarel is longer than Homer’s Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.  And it, too, was sadly overlooked when it was first published nearly seven-score years ago.

Reading these excerpts online, my interest was instantly piqued.  But, alas, my library contains no version  of the poem, and a quick online search yielded $43 – for one of two volumes – as the basement price for a used copy, a little too pricey to justify initial investigations of pique.  But I did find it online, and while I disdain reading books through a computer screen, I may give this a go on the iPad.

The poem was written after Melville himself made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, propelled by his own doubts and uncertainties concerning the ultimate matters of life and death.  As a fellow seeker myself, Melville’s writing here is something I will eventually explore, sooner or later.  If I can’t get to the Holy Land in person, then at least I can do it vicariously.

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