(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Melville wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land during the twenty years following his journey to Europe and the Middle East in 1856-1857. Just as Elizabeth Melville hoped that her husband’s extended tour would ease his debilitating depression, Clarel, the protagonist of the narrative poem, searches for spiritual renewal, attempting to regain the faith that he has lost during his years of study.

The poem is divided into four parts, and each part culminates in death. In part 1, Clarel is repulsed by the barrenness of Jerusalem and overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness. His need for a companion is answered when he meets Ruth, falls in love with her, and impulsively asks for her hand in marriage. Their courtship is interrupted by the death of Ruth’s father, and Clarel decides to pass the time of mourning by joining an odd assortment of pilgrims who are traveling toward the Dead Sea.

In part 2, Clarel and the other pilgrims journey through the wilderness. His companions represent a range of opinions, and much of the poem recounts their discussion of theological matters. Set amid the formidable and barren landscape of the Siddom Gorge, part 2 builds toward the group’s encampment on the shores of the Dead Sea. There the aged mystic Nehemiah, who has been traveling with them, dies after having a visionary dream and walking into the water.

In part 3, the pilgrims travel to Mar Saba, the ancient monastery and...

(The entire section is 445 words.)