Herman Melville

Harrison Hayford, Alma A. MacDougall, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle (eds), The Writings of Herman Melville: The Northwestern-Newberry Edition, Vol. 12: Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

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25. Derwent and the Lesbian

  • 1If where, in blocks unbeautified,
  • 2But lath and plaster may divide
  • 3The cot of dole from bed of bride;
  • 4Here, then, a page's slender shell
  • 5Is thick enough to set between
  • 6The graver moral, lighter mien—
  • 7The student and the cap-and-bell.
  • 8'Tis nature.
  • Pastime to achieve,
  • 9After he reverent did leave
  • 10The dozer in the gallery,
  • 11Derwent, good man of pleasantry,
  • 12He sauntered by the stables old,
  • 13And there the ass spied through a door,
  • 14Lodged in a darksome stall or hold,
  • 15The head communing with the floor.
  • 16      Taking some barley, near at hand,
  • 17He entered, but was brought to stand,
  • 18Hearing a voice: "Don't bother her;
  • 19She cares not, she, for provender;
  • 20Respect her nunnery, her cell:
  • 21She's pondering, see, the asses' hell."
  • 22He turned; it was the Lesbian wag,
  • 23Who offered straight to be his guide
  • 24Even anywhere, be it vault or crag.
  • 25      "Well, thanks; but first to feed your nun,
  • 26She fasts overmuch.—There, it is done.
  • 27Come show me, do, that famous tide
  • 28Evoked up from the waste, they tell,
  • 29The canonized abbot's miracle,
  • Editor’s Note30St. Saba's fount: where foams it, pray?"
  • 31"Near where the damned ones den." "What say?"
  • pg 358Editor’s Note32"Down, plummets down. But come along;"
  • 33And leading, whiled the way with song:
  • 34    "Saintly lily, credit me,
  • 35Sweet is the thigh of the honey-bee!
  • 36    Ruddy ever and oleose,
  • 37Ho for the balm of the red, red rose!"
  • 38      Stair after stair, and stair again,
  • 39And ladder after ladder free,
  • 40Lower and steeper, till the strain
  • 41Of cord irked Derwent: "Verily,
  • 42E'en as but now you lightly said,
  • Editor’s Note43'Tis to Avernus we are bending;
  • 44And how much further this descending?"
  • 45      At last they dropped down on the bed
  • 46Of Kedron, sought a cavern dead
  • Editor’s Note47And there the fount.
  • "'Tis cool to sip,
  • 48I'm told; my cup, here 'tis; wilt dip?"
  • 49And proffered it: "With me, with me,
  • 50Alas, this natural dilution
  • 51Of water never did agree;
  • 52Mine is a touchy constitution;
  • 53'Tis a respectable fluid though.
  • 54Ah, you don't care. Well, come out, do.
  • 55The thing to mark here's not the well,
  • 56But Saba in her crescent swell,
  • Editor’s Note57Terrace on terrace piled. And see,
  • 58Up there by yon small balcony
  • Editor’s Note59Our famous palm stands sentinel.
  • 60Are you a good believer?" "Why?"
  • 61"Because that blessed tree (not I,
  • 62But all our monks avouch it so)
  • 63Was set a thousand years ago
  • 64By dibble in St. Saba's hand."
  • Editor’s Note65"Indeed? Heaven crown him for it. Palm!
  • 66Thou benediction in the land,
  • 67A new millennium may'st thou stand:
  • pg 35968So fair, no fate would do thee harm."
  • 69      Much he admired the impressive view;
  • 70Then facing round and gazing up
  • 71Where soared the crags: "Yon grottoes few
  • 72Which make the most ambitious group
  • Editor’s Note73Of all the laura row on row,
  • 74Can one attain?" "Forward!" And so
  • 75Up by a cloven rift they plied—
  • 76Saffron and black—branded beside,
  • 77Like to some felon's wall of cell
  • 78Smoked with his name. Up they impel
  • 79Till Derwent, overwearied, cried:
  • 80"Dear Virgil mine, you are so strong,
  • 81But I, thy Dante, am nigh dead."
  • 82"Who daunts ye, friend? don't catch the thread."
  • 83"The ascending path was ever long."
  • 84"Ah yes; well, cheer it with a song:
  • 85"My love but she has little feet
  • 86    And slippers of the rose,
  • 87From under—Oh, the lavender sweet—
  • 88Just peeping out, demurely neat;
  • 89    But she, she never knows—
  • 90    No, no, she never knows!
  • 91"A dimpled hand is hers, and e'en
  • 92    As dainty as her toes;
  • 93In mine confiding it she'll lean
  • 94Till heaven knows what my tinglings mean;
  • 95    But she, she never knows—
  • 96    Oh no, she never knows!
  • 97"No, never!—Hist!"
  • "Nay, revelers, stay.
  • Editor’s Note98Lachryma Christi makes ye glad!
  • 99Where joys he now shall next go mad?
  • 100His snare the spider weaves in sun:
  • 101But ye, your lease has yet to run;
  • 102Go, go: from ye no countersign."
  • pg 360103      Such incoherence! where lurks he,
  • 104The ghoul, the riddler? in what mine?
  • 105It came from an impending crag
  • 106Or cleft therein, or cavity.
  • 107The man of bins a bit did drag;
  • 108But quick to Derwent, "Never lag:
  • 109A crazy friar; but prithee, haste:
  • 110I know him,—Cyril; there, we've passed."
  • 111      "Well, that is queer—the queerest thing,"
  • Critical Apparatus112Said Derwent, breathing nervously.
  • 113      "He's ever ready with his sting,
  • 114Though dozing in his grotto dull."
  • 115      "Demented—pity! let him be."
  • 116"Ay, if he like that kind of hull,
  • 117Let the poor wasp den in the skull."
  • 118      "What's that?" here Derwent; "that shrill cry?"
  • 119And glanced aloft; "for mercy, look!"
  • Editor’s Note120A great bird crossed high up in sky
  • 121Over the gulf; and, under him,
  • 122Its downward flight a black thing took,
  • 123And, eddying by the path's sheer rim,
  • 124Still spun below: "'Tis Mortmain's cap,
  • 125The skull-cap!" "Skull is't? say ye skull
  • 126From heaven flung into Kedron's lap?
  • 127The gods were ever bountiful!
  • 128No—there: I see. Small as a wren—
  • 129That death's head of all mortal men—
  • 130Look where he's perched on topmost crag,
  • 131Bareheaded brooding. Oh, the hag,
  • 132That from the very brow could pluck
  • 133The cap of a philosopher
  • 134So near the sky, then, with a mock,
  • 135Disdain and drop it." "Queer, 'tis queer
  • 136Indeed!" "One did the same to me,
  • 137Yes, much the same—pecked at my hat,
  • 138I mountain-riding, dozingly,
  • 139Upon a dromedary drear.
  • Editor’s Note140The devil's in these eagles-gier.
  • 141She ones they are, be sure of that,
  • pg 361142That be so saucy.—Ahoy there, thou!"
  • 143Shooting the voice in sudden freak
  • 144Athwart the chasm, where wended slow
  • 145The timoneer, that pilgrim Greek,
  • 146The graybeard in the mariner trim,
  • 147The same that told the story o'er
  • 148Of crazy compass and the Moor.
  • 149But he, indeed, not hearing him,
  • 150Pursued his way.
  • "That salted one,
  • 151That pickled old sea-Solomon,
  • 152Tempests have deafened him, I think.
  • 153He has a tale can make ye wink;
  • 154And pat it comes in too. But dwell!
  • 155Here, sit we down here while I tell."

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
3.25.30    St. Saba's fount] Among the miracles attributed to St. Saba (also "Sabas" or "Sabbas," 439–532), the anchorite who founded the monastery, was the creation of a fountain "in a narrow cave in the bottom of the glen below the convent walls" (Murray, I, 205). See also the discussion at 3.25.59.
Editor’s Note
3.25.32    Down, plummets down] The descent of Derwent and the Lesbian has a parallel in the 1856–57 journal: "At dusk went down by many stone steps & through mysterious passages to cave & trap doors & hole in wall—ladder—ledge after ledge—winding—to bottom of Brook Kedron—sides of ravine all caves of recluses—Monastery a congregation of stone eyries, enclosed with wall" (p. 84).
Editor’s Note
3.25.43    to Avernus] Here, a mock descent into hell, with a later reference to Virgil (line 80), who served Dante (line 81) as guide in The Inferno (Hell in the Cary translation Melville owned—see the discussion at 1.36.29). In 1857 Melville took a tour through an Augustan tunnel linking Lake Avernus with another lake: "Curious they should have fabled hell here.… Descent to infernal regions, guide said … Infernal enough.—What in God's name were such places made for, & why?" (Journals, p. 104; see also p. 461).
 Peter Toft, The Holy Palm, Mar Saba, Palestine. Courtesy of the Berkshire Athenæum.


Peter Toft, The Holy Palm, Mar Saba, Palestine. Courtesy of the Berkshire Athenæum.

 Thomas Allom, The Monastery at Santa Saba. Courtesy of the Berkshire Athenæum.


Thomas Allom, The Monastery at Santa Saba. Courtesy of the Berkshire Athenæum.

Editor’s Note
3.25.47–60    " 'Tis … believer?"] Since no speaker is directly assigned to these two speeches, it is difficult to tell that it is the Lesbian who, most likely, offers his cup (lines 47–48) and certainly comments on his own aversion to water (lines 49–60). Although it is possible that Derwent offers the cup and the Lesbian responds, the first-edition reading (which, with a colon at line 49, suggests there is no change of speaker) makes good sense, and in any case no feasible emendation would clearly identify the speaker.
Editor’s Note
3.25.57    Terrace on terrace] From the 1856–57 journal: "numerous terraces, balconies" (p. 84; later underlined in red pencil).
Editor’s Note
3.25.59    Our famous palm] This central symbol of Part 3 in the remaining cantos is mentioned briefly in the 1856–57 journal: "solitary Date Palm mid-way in precipice" (p. 84; later underlined in red pencil). Chateaubriand, p. 259, was greatly struck by its "verdure" in the midst of "such dreary sterility," and Curzon (chap. 14) was told it was "endowed with miraculous properties." The tradition of the monastery was that it had been planted by St. Saba himself (line 64; see the discussion at 3.25.30). The artist Peter Toft, a friend of Melville's later years (see Log, II, 799, 801, 820), painted a large brush and ink watercolor in shades of brown on a beige ground (11 by 15 in.), with his title "The Holy Palm, Mar Saba, Palestine" (reproduced on p. 813). In the same brown ink as his title are his notation in the lower left "Mar Saba / P. Toft / 82", which may be his postdating of the work, and his inscription at the lower right "In memoriam of Herman Melville", which he must have made after Melville's death in September, 1891. Perhaps Toft presented the picture to Mrs. Melville in 1892 with two slips of paper (now in HCL-M) bearing his copy of Vine's soliloquy to the Palm and signed "P. Toft, New York, '92, Denmark". This watercolor and three others by Toft which Melville owned are now in the Berkshire Athenæum, Pittsfield, Mass. Also in this collection is an engraving owned by Melville (reproduced opposite) on which he wrote "Gorge of Cedron." For this and the works by Toft see Wallace (cited in the discussion at 1.6.28), pp. 76–78, 86, and figs. 8 and 11.
Editor’s Note
3.25.65    Indeed] The four lines beginning here are Derwent's only commentary on the Palm. Henry W. Wells, in The American Way of Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), p. 84, commends the final cantos of Part 3 as the "most sustained passage" of "metaphysical and symbolical expression" in the poem, noting that five major characters successively confront the Palm: Derwent (here), Vine (3.26), Mortmain (3.28), Rolfe (3.29), and Clarel (3.30). The device is an interesting parallel to chap. 99 in Moby-Dick, "The Doubloon."
Editor’s Note
3.25.73    the laura] Curzon (chap. 15) explains in his section on Mar Saba: "The word laura, which is often met with in histories of the first five centuries after Christ, signifies, when applied to monastic institutions, a number of separate cells, each inhabited by a single hermit or anchorite, in contradistinction to a convent or monastery, which was called a coenobium, where the monks lived together in one building under the rule of a superior."
Editor’s Note
3.25.98    Lachryma Christi] "Tears of Christ": the famous red or white wine from the slopes of Vesuvius (see the discussion at 1.29.30). Cyril plays with the words.
Critical Apparatus
3.25.112     nervously.  NN     ~,
Editor’s Note
3.25.120    A great bird] Shortly before his death, Ahab's hat was stolen by a "black hawk"—"one of those red-billed savage sea-hawks" (cf. 3.27.9)—who then dropped it "from that vast height into the sea" (Moby-Dick, chap. 130, p. 539).
Editor’s Note
3.25.140    these eagles-gier] The gier eagle which has stolen Mortmain's cap (cf. Agath: 3.27) is probably an Egyptian vulture; the gier eagle is twice mentioned in the Bible, as unclean for eating.
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