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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31. The Inscription

  • 1While yet Rolfe's foot in stirrup stood,
  • 2Ere the light vault that wins the seat,
  • 3Derwent was heard: "What's this we meet?
  • 4A Cross? and—if one could but spell—
  • 5Inscription Sinaitic? Well,
  • 6Mortmain is nigh—his crazy freak;
  • 7Whose else? A closer view I'll seek;
  • 8I'll climb."
  • In moving there aside
  • 9The rock's turned brow he had espied;
  • 10In rear this rock hung o'er the waste
  • 11And Nehemiah in sleep embraced
  • 12Below. The forepart gloomed Lot's wave
  • 13So nigh, the tide the base did lave.
  • 14Above, the sea-face smooth was worn
  • 15Through long attrition of that grit
  • 16Which on the waste of winds is borne.
  • 17And on the tablet high of it—
  • 18Traced in dull chalk, such as is found
  • 19Accessible in upper ground—
  • 20Big there between two scrawls, below
  • pg 23821And over—a cross; three stars in row
  • 22Upright, two more for thwarting limb
  • 23Which drooped oblique.
  • At Derwent's cry
  • 24The rest drew near; and every eye
  • 25Marked the device.—Thy passion's whim,
  • 26Wild Swede, mused Vine in silent heart.
  • 27"Looks like the Southern Cross to me,"
  • 28Said Clarel; "so 'tis down in chart."
  • 29"And so," said Rolfe, " 'tis set in sky—
  • 30Though error slight of place prevail
  • 31In midmost star here chalked. At sea,
  • 32Bound for Peru, when south ye sail,
  • 33Startling that novel cluster strange
  • 34Peers up from low; then as ye range
  • 35Cape-ward still further, brightly higher
  • 36And higher the stranger doth aspire,
  • 37'Till off the Horn, when at full hight
  • 38Ye slack your gaze as chilly grows the night.
  • 39But Derwent—see!"
  • The priest having gained
  • 40Convenient lodge the text below,
  • 41They called: "What's that in curve contained
  • 42Above the stars? Read: we would know."
  • 43"Runs thus: By one who wails the loss,
  • 44This altar to the Slanting Cross."
  • 45"Ha! under that?" "Some crow's-foot scrawl."
  • 46"Decipher, quick! we're waiting all."
  • 47"Patience: for ere one try rehearse,
  • 48'Twere well to make it out. 'Tis verse."
  • 49"Verse, say you? Read." " 'Tis mystical:
  • 50   " 'Emblazoned bleak in austral skies—
  • 51       A heaven remote, whose starry swarm
  • 52       Like Science lights but cannot warm—
  • 53       Translated Cross, hast thou withdrawn,
  • 54       Dim paling too at every dawn,
  • 55       With symbols vain once counted wise,
  • 56       And gods declined to heraldries?
  • 57       Estranged, estranged: can friend prove so?
  • pg 23958       Aloft, aloof, a frigid sign:
  • 59       How far removed, thou Tree divine,
  • 60       Whose tender fruit did reach so low—
  • 61       Love apples of New-Paradise!
  • 62       About the wide Australian sea
  • 63       The planted nations yet to be—
  • 64       When, ages hence, they lift their eyes,
  • 65       Tell, what shall they retain of thee?
  • Editor’s Note66       But class thee with Orion's sword?
  • 67       In constellations unadored,
  • 68       Christ and the Giant equal prize?
  • 69       The atheist cycles—must they be?
  • Critical Apparatus70       Fomentors as forefathers we?'
  • 71      "Mad, mad enough," the priest here cried,
  • 72Down slipping by the shelving brinks;
  • 73"But 'tis not Mortmain," and he sighed.
  • 74      "Not Mortmain?" Rolfe exclaimed. "Methinks,"
  • 75The priest, " 'tis hardly in his vein."
  • 76"How? fraught with feeling is the strain?
  • 77His heart's not ballasted with stone—
  • 78He's crank." "Well, well, e'en let us own
  • 79That Mortmain, Mortmain is the man.
  • 80We've then a pledge here at a glance
  • 81Our comrade's met with no mischance.
  • 82Soon he'll rejoin us." "There, amen!"
  • 83"But now to wake Nehemiah in den
  • 84Behind here.—But kind Clarel goes.
  • 85Strange how he naps nor trouble knows
  • 86Under the crag's impending block,
  • 87Nor fears its fall, nor recks of shock."
  • 88      Anon they mount; and much advance
  • 89Upon that chalked significance.
  • 90The student harks, and weighs each word,
  • 91Intent, he being newly stirred.
  • 92      But tarries Margoth? Yes, behind
  • 93He lingers. He placards his mind:
  • 94Scaling the crag he rudely scores
  • pg 24095With the same chalk (how here abused!)
  • 96Left by the other, after used,
  • Editor’s Note97A sledge or hammer huge as Thor's;
  • 98A legend lending—this, to wit:
  • 99"I, Science, I whose gain's thy loss,
  • 100I slanted thee, thou Slanting Cross."
  • 101      But sun and rain, and wind, with grit
  • 102Driving, these haste to cancel it.

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
2.31.66    Orion's sword] After his death the "Giant" (line 68) and hunter of Greek mythology was placed in the sky with girdle, sword, lion's skin, and club.
Critical Apparatus
2.31.70     we?'‸  NN     ~?' "
Editor’s Note
2.31.97    hammer huge as Thor's] The Norse god of thunder was armed with a magic hammer (emblematic of the thunderbolt) that returned to him when thrown.
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