Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Despite its length and intellectual complexity, Melville’s Clarel has one overriding theme. The poem focuses on the major philosophical crisis of the later nineteenth century, the apparent destruction of the credibility of revealed religion in the wake of Darwin’s discoveries. Although the poem is filled with disillusionment and death and permeated with a sense of gloom, it draws no final conclusion regarding the conflict between reason and faith.

The question of faith was always central to Melville’s thought. In Liverpool before departing for the Holy Land in 1856, Melville visited Hawthorne, and his friend wrote a remarkable description of their afternoon: “Melvillebegan to reason of Providence and futurityand informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated’; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persistsin wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.” The multiple characters with whom Clarel travels represent a broad range of beliefs, from the self-satisfied, comfortable faith of Derwent to the cold, scientific analysis of Margoth, but none of his fellow pilgrims can serve as a model for Clarel, and in the end he leaves to continue his spiritual pilgrimage alone. In the epilogue to Clarel, Melville’s narrator calls this conflict the “running battle of the star and...

(The entire section is 642 words.)