Thursday, November 24, 2011


At 18,000 lines Melville's Clarel is, as the Wikipedia entry for the poem indicates, the longest lineated work in American literature and longer also than the Aeneid, Iliad and Paradise Lost. Stephen Ratcliffe's triptychs / trilogies no doubt exceed the scale of Clarel, but I sense Ratcliffe's trilogies aren't built toward this sense of the line, or what a line is in terms of quantifiability. The gesture of counting and measuring is crucial, or maybe just the most honest thing we can do: I mean, critical commentary that relies on quantifying data hides out in the open, reducing literary analysis to a system of weights and measures oriented toward rewarding pure unceasing production over more deliberate undertakings on a smaller scale. Size matters and, though we tend to prefer writers that are both hard and good workers, a hard worker is preferable to a good worker any day. 

Toward the end of Clarel there's a debate between Rolfe and Ungar, two of the pilgrims traveling with Clarel through the Holy Land. While Rolfe, who has been with Clarel most of the way, is a Protestant skeptic, Ungar is situated as a committed Catholic, Civil War vet and descendent of Anglo colonists and Native Americans. Here's the closing part of the debate, beginning with Rolfe:

"But leave this: the New World's the theme.
Here, to oppose your dark extreme,
(Since an old friend is good at need)
To an old thought I'll fly. Pray, heed:
Those waste-weirs which the New World yields
To inland freshets — the free vents
Supplied to turbid elements;
The vast reserves — the untried fields;
These long shall keep off and delay
The class-war, rich-and-poor-man fray
Of history. From that alone
Can serious trouble spring. Even that
Itself, this good result may own —
The first firm founding of the state."
          Here ending, with a watchful air,
Inquisitive, Rolfe waited him.
And Ungar:
                      "True heart do ye bear
In this discussion? or but trim
To draw my monomania out,
For monomania, past doubt,
Some of ye deem it. Yet I'll on.
Yours seems a reasonable tone;
But in the New World things make haste;
Not only men, the state lives fast --
Fast breeds the pregnant eggs and shells,
The slumberous combustibles
Sure to explode. 'Twill come, 'twill come!
One demagogue can trouble much:
How of a hundred thousand such?
And universal suffrage lent
To back them with brute element
Overwhelming? What shall bind these seas
Of rival sharp communities
Unchristianized? Yea, but 'twill come!"
          "What come?"
                                    "Your Thirty Years (of) War."
           "Should fortune's favorable star
Avert it?"
                        "Fortune? nay, 'tis doom."
"Then what comes after? spasms but tend
Ever, at last, to quiet."
Whatever happen in the end,
Be sure 'twill yield to no one and all
New confirmation of the fall
Of Adam. Sequel may ensue,
Indeed, whose germs one now may view:
Myriads playing pygmy parts —
Debased into equality:
In glut of all material arts
A civic barbarism may be:
Man disennobled — brutalized
By popular science — Atheized
Into a smatterer -----"
                                               "Oh, oh!"
              "Yet knowing all self need to know
In self's base little fallacy;
Dead level of rank commonplace:
An Anglo-Saxon China, see,
May on your vast plains shame the race
In the Dark Ages of Democracy."

                                In stilled estate,
On him, half-brother and co-mate —
In silence, and with vision dim
Rolfe, Vine, and Clarel gazed on him;
They gazed, nor one of them found heart
To upbraid the crotchet of his smart,
Bethinking them whence sole it came
Though birthright he renounced in hope,
Their sanguine country's wonted claim.
Nor dull they were in honest tone
To some misgivings of their own:
They felt how far beyond the scope
Of elder Europe's saddest thought
Might be the New World's sudden brought
In youth to share old age's pains —
To feel the arrest of hope's advance,
And squandered last inheritance;
And cry — "To Terminus build fanes!
Columbus ended earth's romance:
No New World to mankind remains!"