“In placid hours well-pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate:
A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity—reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art.”
Forty years earlier, in Chapter 11 (“Nightgown”) of Moby-Dick, while Ishmael and Queequeg snuggle together for warmth in their room at the Spouter-Inn, the former muses: “…truly to enjoy bodily warmth, some small part of you must be cold, for there is no quality in this world that is not what it is merely by contrast. Nothing exists in itself.” Each quality implies its opposite. They merge in opposition, “meet and mate” in a sort of dialectical dance, rather like Queequeg and Ishmael, cannibal and Christian, keeping warm together. This is human existence and a succinct summation of the artist’s task. Regarding “Jacob’s mystic heart,” see Genesis 32:24-32.
More than half a century before Timoleon, on May 4, 1839, Melville published what scholars have identified as his first work in print, “Fragments from a Writing Desk,” in the Lansingburgh, N.Y., Democratic Press, and Lansingburgh Advertiser. The piece appeared over the initials “L.A.V.” Melville lived in Lansingburgh, now a part of Troy, from 1838 to 1847, and wrote his first two books there – his bestsellers, Typee and Omoo. I lived in the Capital District for almost twenty years, and among its pleasures was proximity to Melville landmarks, including the two-story house at 2 114th Street in Troy and Arrowhead in nearby Pittsfield, Mass., where he wrote most of Moby-Dick.
The Lansingburgh “Fragments” are not precociously promising signs of future genius, but strained and arch, written by a young author already “ever dusting his old lexicons and grammars.” However, they amply display Melville’s trademark bookishness and taste for learned allusions. Among the authors he cites in “Fragments” are Shakespeare, Byron, Milton, Coleridge, Edmund Burke, Thomas Campbell and Richard Brinsley Sheridan. In the first sentence, Melville alludes to one of his favorites, a writer who will number among the tutelary spirits hovering over Moby-Dick:
“…with feet perched aloft on the aspiring back of that straight limbed, stiff-necked, quaint old chair, which, as our facetious W_____ assured me, was the identical seat in which old Burton composed his Anatomy of Melancholy.”
Melville was born 195 years ago on this date, Aug. 1, in 1819, and died at age seventy-two on Sept. 28, 1891. Let’s remember the caution Helen (Pinkerton) Trimpi issues in her preface to Melville’s Confidence Men and American Politics in the 1850s (Connecticut Academy of Arts & Sciences, 1987):
“It seems to me that it is not the duty of a literary scholar to make over a writer of the past into his or her own image or the image of our age, even if we run the risk of ruining his reputation among most of our contemporaries by trying to remain loyal to the literary text.”