Finding an Audience for Clarel in Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism

By Norberg, Peter | Leviathan, March 2004 | Go to article overview

Finding an Audience for Clarel in Matthew Arnold's Essays in Criticism


Norberg, Peter, Leviathan


Melville read extensively in Matthew Arnold's writings before, during, and even after the composition of Clarel (1876). Walter Bezanson provides a detailed analysis of Melville's reading of Poems (in 1862) and New Poems (in 1871), arguing that Melville "took Arnold to be his most serious poetic contemporary." (1) Shirley Dettlaff observes that Arnold's criticism was an equally significant source for Clarel. (2) Melville continued to purchase and annotate Arnold: an 1881 edition of Literature and Dogma and 1883 editions of Culture and Anarchy and Mixed Essays. (3) But despite the work of Bezanson and Dettlaff, the exact nature and extent of Arnold's influence on Clarel remains uncertain. Dettlaff suggests that "rather than being influenced by Arnold, Melville was inspired by Arnold's updating of the then old German dichotomy between Hellenic and Hebraic worldviews to present his own modification of it in Clarel" ("Hebraism," 198). She sees Melville as striving to achieve a synthesis of the competing Hebraic and Hellenic impulses in human nature that is markedly different from that proposed by Arnold. "Unlike Matthew Arnold's synthesis," which she characterizes as "a movement away from the extremes toward the middle," Dettlaff claims that "Melville's more heroic ideal requires an experience and balancing of the opposite extremes" (203). She further distances Melville from Arnold by associating Arnold's "Hellenic latitudinarianism" with "Derwent's rather mindless, superficial attempt to achieve a middle way" (203). Melville read Arnold's criticism carefully, but for Dettlaff it provided him with source material, not creative insight into the function of poetry.

Bezanson finds a similar ambivalence in Melville's response to Arnold's poetry. He suggests that Melville's choice of meter for Clarel may have been influenced by Arnold's "Resignation. To Fausta," or possibly, by a passage in "Empedocles on Etna,"--Callicles' song on the Centaur and Achilles--which Bezanson states "exactly duplicates the prosodic form of Clarel in its irregularly rhyming tetrameters." (4) He also argues that "Stanzas from the Grande Chartreuse" "anticipate Clarel in general theme, kinds of events, typical vocabulary, technical devices, and rhythmic pattern" ("Reading," 390). Nonetheless, Bezanson concludes that Melville "did not ask or allow Arnold to reshape his personal philosophy" (391). Through a close reading of Melville's scorings and annotations to a number of poems, including "Obermann," "Heine's Grave," and "Obermann Once More," he asserts that Melville "respond[ed] to an ascetic ideal rather than a 'positive vision'" in his reading of Arnold's poetry (388). (5) For Bezanson, as for Dettlaff, Melville came to Arnold with a fully developed philosophy of art and read primarily with an eye to matters of thematic arrangement and poetic technique.

However, we do not need to consider Melville's philosophy "reshaped" in order to believe that his reading of Arnold's poetry and criticism significantly influenced his conception of Clarel. Hershel Parker writes that, when he purchased his copy of Poems in 1862, Melville found in Arnold "a contemporary whom he could respect (on the whole) as a soul mate," and in 1869, while reading his copy of Essays in Criticism, he continued to find Arnold "his most provocative contemporary." (6) Moreover, the recent discovery that Melville acquired, in 1871, a copy of Thomas Arnold's Travelling Journals, with Extracts from the Life and Letters adds support to Dettlaff's claim that Melville was steeped in Arnold during "the gestation period for Clarel" ("Counter Natures," 197). (7) His scorings and annotations in this volume shed further light on what Melville took away from his reading of Arnold, and what he left behind.

Thomas Arnold was Matthew Arnold's father, the well-known classicist and headmaster of Rugby made famous in Thomas Hughes's Tom Brown's Schooldays. (8) Most likely Melville saw the double review of The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold, D. …

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