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The Gardens of Gethsemane

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CAT 21. R. Brandard after William H. Bartlett. The Garden of Gethsemane. In Bartlett’s Walks about the City and Environs of Jerusalem, 2nd ed. London: George Virtue, 1860s. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

The garden of Gethsemane occupies a crucial place in the “Jerusalem” book of Clarel, being the site of canto 30, “The Site of the Passion.” Vine had been formally introduced in the previous canto, “The Recluse.” As soon as he and Clarel leave the garden, they encounter Rolfe, who will be the subject of canto 31. This setting is appropriate to Rolfe’s role in the poem as “the restless explorer of the Passion” (NN C 577). “The Site of the Passion” at once joins and separates Vine and Rolfe as major figures in the poem.

Brandard’s engraving of The Garden of Gethsemane depicts the olive trees from Bartlett’s 1842 visit to the “garden” with a grotesqueness similar to that which Melville was to note during his visit in 1857: “The olive tree much resembles in its grotesque contortions the apple tree—only it is much more gnarled & less lively in its green . . . It is a haunted melancholy looking tree (sober & penitent), quite in keeping with Jerusalem & its associations” (NN J 89). In Clarel Melville contracts that grotesqueness into trees whose roots are “gnarled into wens and knobs and knees” (1.30.23). He also evokes a sober melancholy similar to that in the print when “the vine / And olive in the darkling hours / Inweave the green sepulchers of bowers” (NN C 1.30.5-7).  

Corresponding to the lone figure in meditation under the central olive tree in Bartlett’s illustration is Nehemiah in Melville’s canto 30, “white-haired under olive bowed / Immersed in Scripture” (NN C 1.30.33-5, 53-4). Bartlett’s accompanying text acknowledges that “there may be nothing which establishes this as the exact site of the Garden of Gethsemane, more than any other place in the immediate neighborhood,” yet to one who “has once sat beneath the shadow of these trees, there is scarcely any scene which is more deeply traced in his memory, clothed in its peculiar, indescribable mournfulness” (Bartlett, 2nd London ed., 99). He conveys this feeling as successfully in his illustration as does Melville in his answering canto, perhaps with this print pinned before him, for it too has pinpricks in all four corners.