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Persian tile with figure of horseman and bird in fanciful landscape

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CAT 69. Persian tile with figure of horseman and bird in fanciful landscape. Qajar period, mid-19th century. Berkshire County Historical Society, gift of David and Audrey Metcalf, 1999.004.

Visually, the splendid Humā with the flowering tail shares the foreground with the Persian prince on the bright white horse. Although the main figures on Melville’s tile are virtually identical with those of the tile at the Metropolitan Museum, the handling of the paint introduces decorative differences in the bird’s tail (no spots in the museum’s version), the prince’s clothing, and in the depiction of the buildings and flowers. One additional difference is that the tile belonging to the Museum has been "broken and repaired," whereas Melville's is fully intact (Carboni and Masura, no. 39).

The flowering landscape in Melville's tile is as fabulous as the hovering Humā, calling up visions of the ancient Persian concept of the pairidaeza, the word from Old Persian that influenced the word pardes that is used to describe the enclosed garden in the Hebrew text of the Song of Solomon, thought to have been “written into the Song around the third century B.C.” (see the discussion under CAT 56). The depiction of paradisial garden in Melville’s Persian tile differs tellingly from the depiction of King Solomon’s garden in CAT 56. Perhaps the closest approximation to this painted garden in Melville’s writing is the metaphorical vision of “Damascus’ plain” in Clarel: “Mid groves and gardens, girdling ones / White fleets of sprinkled villas rolled / In green ocean of her environs” (NN C 1.18.3-6). The posture of the prince on the horse in the Persian tile compares closely with that of horseman and rider on the coin of ancient Taras (CAT 1, fig. 5).

I have room to touch only briefly here on the literary associations that the Persian tile would have had for Melville as a collector of Persian poetry (a subject covered much more extensively in the section on “Persian Tile, Persian Poems, and Vedder’s Art” in Wallace 1997). Melville’s markings in Sa’di’s Gûlistân range through the entire volume of the prose translation that he acquired in 1868, but one of them refers specifically to the Humā (or Homai). In the story about the vizier who, having been dismissed, refused to be reinstated, Melville drew a marginal line alongside the passage in which Sa’di confirms the wisdom of the vizier in withdrawing from public affairs, a decision for which the Humā provides poetic confirmation: “The Homai is honoured above all other birds, because it feeds on bones, and injures not any living creature” (MMO 434, p. 26, lines 7-13). In the Preface to Sa’di’s collection Melville marked a striking presentation of a similar theme with double underlines and quadruple marginal markings: “Whosever stretcheth out his neck claiming consequence, is beset by enemies from all quarters. Sâdy lies prostrate, freed from worldly desires; no man attempteth to combat with one who is down on the ground” (Cowen 8: 173-74; MMO 434, xx, 22-26). The Humā in the Persian tile stretches out its neck to confer consequence on the Persian prince, not to claim it for himself, one difference, perhaps, between the realms of art and public affairs.

Melville’s interest in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám is seen in the 1878 English edition of the text that he acquired as well as in the deluxe 1886 edition that he acquired of Elihu Vedder’s drawings and notes inscribing and interpreting the poem. Melville shared with Vedder much more than an interest in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. In 1866 he published a poem, “Formerly a Slave,” based on a painting Vedder had exhibited a year before. In 1891 Melville dedicated his last volume of poetry, Timoleon, “to my countryman, Elihu Vedder.” The lives of these two American artists resembled each other in personal tragedy (the unaccountable death of a son) and artistic rejection (neither could make a living as an artist in America). Each eventually found imaginative refuge in the art of Ancient Greece and the poetry of eleventh-century Persia. Among Vedder’s illustrations of the Rubáiyát most likely to have appealed to Melville are the arabesque swirl of the cover design, the portentous offering of The Cup of Death, the “clay carcase” of The Suicide, the wordless image of Pardon giving and Pardon Imploring Hands, and the wounded angelic heart of The Sorry Scheme (figures 11-15 in Wallace 1997; see also Berthold, “Pictorial Intertexts for Battle Pieces,” pp. 19, 23n3.). 

A quick glance at Vedder’s drawing of The Sorry Scheme (fig. 1) suggests one strand of the range of associations that the Persian Tile that Melville brought home from the Near East in 1857 might have had for him after acquiring the deluxe edition of Vedder’s Rubáiyát three decades later during the last five years of his life while writing and revising Timoleon, the book of poetry he dedicated to Vedder in the year he died.

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Figure 1. Elihu Vedder. The Sorry Scheme. In Melville’s copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Visually, Vedder’s Sorry Scheme relates most directly to Melville’s Persian Tile in the open beak of the bird of prey that perches directly above Vedder’s transcription of verse 97 at the top of the image. The buzzard in Vedder’s drawing relates to the Humā in Melville’s tile not only biologically but thematically, as Melville would have seen by comparing the passage he had marked in Sa’di’s Gûlestân with Vedder’s “Note” about The Sorry Scheme in Melville’s deluxe edition: “Looking around and seeing such creatures as the buzzard, which only preys on helpless or already wounded creatures, and beholding everywhere life secured by another’s death, Love flies to the heart of Man, where alone in Nature it finds a refuge” (n. p.).

In Vedder’s ekphrastic drawing, “Love flies to the heart of Man” in the wings of the young angel mourning the death of the small bird that appears to be the offspring of the bird perched high above. The expressiveness of the angel’s wings on the left side of Vedder’s Sorry Scheme resembles that of the Humā’s tail on the left side of Melville’s Persian Tile with the difference that the wings of Vedder’s sheltering angel are mourning the premature death of a young bird rather than protecting the future of a human prince. Vedder’s drawing created a visual “refuge” for the premature loss of the artist’s own young son, perhaps opening a similar refuge in Melville’s heart for the early loss of his two sons, Malcolm in the family home in 1867, Stanwix in California in 1886, as Vedder’s Rubáiyát was being published in Boston.

A very different kind of association with Melville’s Persian Tile emerges from Vedder’s careful transcription of verse 97 directly beneath the perched bird near the top of The Sorry Scheme. This verse is one that Melville had marked in his 1878 edition of Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát (Sealts no. 391; Cowen 8:72):

Would but the Desert of the Fountain yield
One glimpse—if dimly, yet indeed, reveal’d
    To which the fainting Traveler might spring,
As springs the trampled herbage of the field!

There could be no more vivid image of the fresh herbage the Persian poet would love to see springing up in the desert surrounding his “fainting Traveler” than the fresh, bright, multi-colored flowers springing up on all sides of the traveling prince beneath the spreading, protective wings of the Humā in Melville’s Persian Tile.

Beyond the meaning Vedder’s drawing of The Sorry Scheme in Melville’s copy of the Rubáiyát might have had for Melville himself in the closing years of his own life is the meaning his copy of that book, now at the Houghton Library at Harvard, has had for others in the years and decades since his death. We address one strand of that meaning in Melville Book Box 1.4. For a study of the Rubáiyát in relation to the poetry of Melville's Timoleon, see Tamarkin (passim).