Sunday, July 15, 2018

'And Empty Both Within'

“Best of all, they spent a good deal of time in a small snuggery behind the bar of the Yacht Inn, smoking cigars and drinking stout while conversing with the landlord, who then took them up to a room to show them the little windowpane where Jonathan Swift had etched with a diamond a bitter comment on the local clergyman who had left him waiting to sup with them.”

Hershel Parker in the second volume of his Melville biography (2002) is describing a meeting of giants. It’s Nov. 15, 1856, and Melville is in Chester, England, with Hawthorne, who is not a giant. I mean Swift and Melville. The latter had published Moby-Dick five years earlier, and he likely knew Swift’s book about another sort of voyage. Parker tells us: “(Melville must have known a great deal more about Swift than we can prove; we have an offhand reference to the ‘Dean’ but no copy of anything by Swift that had been in Melville’s library.)”

In Pat Rogers’ edition of Swift’s Complete Poems (1983), the etched verse is grouped with three others written around 1726 and collectively titled “On Seeing Verses Written upon Windows in Inns”:

“The church and clergy here, no doubt,
Are very near a-kin;
Both weather-beaten are without,
And empty both within.”

Melville had recently finished writing The Confidence-Man. He too was empty “within,” and had lost his faith in the theological notion of immortality. Three days before reading Swift’s lines on the window, Melville and Hawthorne had walked along the shore of the Irish Sea, and Hawthorne famously wrote in his journal:

“. . . we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills (sheltering ourselves from the high, cool wind) and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had ‘pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated;’ but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists -- and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before -- in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth immortality than most of us.”

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