The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Herman Melville wrote Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land during the twenty years that followed his journey to Europe and the Middle East in 1856-1857. Although he had earlier achieved fame through his novels of adventure, he was weakened physically and mentally, a condition exacerbated by his now unsuccessful efforts to provide for his family through his writing. Melville accepted the trip as a gift from his father-in-law, Judge Lemuel Shaw. Judge Shaw and Melville’s wife, Elizabeth, hoped the extended tour would ease the author’s debilitating depression. The trip, which covered fifteen thousand miles and touched on three continents and nine countries, began with a visit to his old friend Nathaniel Hawthorne in Liverpool. From Liverpool, Melville sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar into the Mediterranean Sea, visiting Constantinople and the pyramids before coming to port in Jaffa. From Jaffa he traveled inland to Jerusalem. Like many tourists of the time, Melville arranged to make a three-day trip eastward from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea, passing through Jericho, down the Jordan River to the Dead Sea, and returning to Jerusalem through the ancient monastery of Mar Saba and the village of Bethlehem. This experience provided the basis for the two-volume narrative poem about the spiritual pilgrimage of a young divinity student named Clarel that Melville published in 1876 with a bequest from his uncle Peter Gansevoort.

Melville struggled through the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. Having abandoned fiction, he tried his hand unsuccessfully at the lecture circuit, wrote poetry about the Civil War that was published as Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), failed in attempts to procure a consulship, and was troubled by bouts of rheumatism and sciatica. Financially drained, he sold his country home in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1863. In 1866, he was appointed to a four-dollar-a-day job as a customs inspector in New York City. This position placed Melville in the center of one of the most corrupt bureaucracies of postwar America, but it provided him with a steady income and the freedom to write without the pressure of pleasing a public that had long forgotten him. Clarel, the narrative of a young theologian’s attempt to regain the faith he lost during his years of study, is Melville’s personal effort to come to terms with the philosophical uncertainties that troubled him throughout his life.

The poem is divided into four parts, each part culminating in death. Beginning in Jerusalem, the four parts take Clarel and a changing band of companions and guides on a symbolic, circular journey in an ambiguous search for meaning across a debilitated and infertile wasteland.

In part 1, Clarel is repulsed by the barrenness of Jerusalem and overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness. Instead of the traditional vision of a sacred and glorious city, Clarel is confronted by “Dismantled, torn,/ Disastrous houses, ripe for fall,” dwellings that look like “plundered tombs.” A bleak and confusing maze of walls and enclosures, Jerusalem seems a city forsaken by God and hostile toward humanity....

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Clarel is a massive work, comprising more than eighteen thousand lines of iambic tetrameter in which lines rhyme at irregular intervals. Melville’s decision to use short octosyllabic lines and his decision to create a rhyme at the end of each short line, a particularly difficult task in English, decrease the readability of the poem and help to explain why many critics have dismissed Clarel as bad poetry; however, others have argued that the limitations of the form Melville selected are the result of a conscious effort on the author’s part to force his reader to experience an uneasiness similar to the spiritual disorientation that confronts the protagonist. In a sense, the reader feels as trapped between the narrow walls of the iambic tetrameter lines as Clarel feels between the conflicting pressures of faith and cynicism.

The poem is divided into four parts of roughly equivalent length. The poem’s 150 cantos average about 120 lines each. The cantos are thematically or narratively gathered in groups of two to five and are irregularly divided into sections that indicate a minor change in subject or merely relieve visual monotony. Within each of the four parts, the groups of cantos form a pattern of nine to ten movements. Some slight relief from the confines of the poem’s rigid structure is provided by more than forty short lyric pieces—hymns, songs, invocations, and chants—that are interspersed throughout the narrative.


(The entire section is 557 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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