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Solomonic Engravings Cut from German Emblem Books

Among the various cut-out Biblical engravings preserved in Melville’s little envelope from Snedecor’s are fourteen images relating in diverse ways to the Song of Solomon in the Old Testament (also known as the Song of Songs). Fragments from a German-language commentary are printed on the reverse side of most of these engravings. At first I did not know whether these images had been extracted from a single printed source or multiple ones. Historian Jonathan Sheehan has helped me trace them to two sources. He discovered the source for ten of the images (CAT 50-59) in Daniel Sudermann’s Hohe geistreiche Lehren und Erklärungen: uber . . . desz Hohen Lieds Salomonis (Exalted Spirited Teachings and Lessons about . . . the Song of Solomon), a quasi-pietistic emblem book devoted to the Song of Solomon published in Frankfurt in 1622 with engravings by Jacob van der Heyden. The four companion images (CAT 60-63) turn out to be from another Sudermann emblem book published in Strasbourg in 1620 with engravings by van der Heyden and Hans Erhard Wagner. The four images from this book were  engraved by Wagner, three of them relating specifically to the Song of Solomon. All fourteen engravings are considerable interest in relation to Melville’s imaginative life.

Melville was fascinated with King Solomon throughout his literary career. Ishmael’s reference to the “unfathomably wondrous Solomon” in the “Try-Works” chapter is well-known (NN MD 424). Less well known is the fanciful image of King Solomon as “a sort of amateur supercargo” of “some Tyre or Sidon gold-ship” that pops up in Pierre (NN P 133).  Entirely different in tone is Melville’s meditation in Pierre on just “five words” from the Song of Solomon: “the love deep as death” (NN P 307-8). Melville approaches King Solomon from an entirely different direction in “Rammon,” the prose sketch he wrote, but did not publish, as an introduction to his poem “The Enviable Isles.” Melville imagines Rammon, “not mentioned in the canonic Scripture,” as “the unrobust child of Solomon’s old age.” Solomon in this sketch is “a very lax Hebrew” who “did not altogether repell foreign ideas.” His son Rammon is deeply responsive to “reports of Buddha and the Buddhistic belief.” He therefore diverges from his own Hebrew culture in the way he imagines “an unescapable life indefinitely continuous after death” (NN BBO 227-28).  

Melville’s emblem-book engravings of the Song of Songs convert the Hebrew world of King Solomon to a Christian, not a Buddhistic, afterlife. As physical objects, these small engravings cut from an illustrated Biblical commentary relate closely to those “certain pictures in the great Dutch Bible in a library at Oxon” that Melville alludes to in “Under the Rose.” These German pictures have the same interpretive goal as those fictive Dutch ones: “setting forth the enigmas of the Song of the Wise Man, to wit King Solomon” (NN BBO 236). The chief “enigmas” of the Song of Solomon for a Christian interpreter involve the vexed question of whether the Song should be interpreted literally, allegorically, or mystically. Melville addressed that question in the “Prodigal” canto of Clarel in 1876—as had Sudermann in his emblem books of the early 1620s.

A literal reading of the Song of Solomon presents unique challenges for Christian interpreters because this sacred Old Testament text “tells no sacred history, makes no theological or moral points, and does not mention God” (Matter 49). Instead, this holy text consists of erotically charged poetry celebrating the love of a man and a woman, ostensibly King Solomon and the Shulamite. Melville celebrates the purely erotic dimension of the Song in Clarel when the Prodigal (shortly after his sensuous tribute to the “grapes of Eshcol”) voices his appreciation of “Solomon’s harp” with these words: “Thy white neck is like ivory; / I feed among thy lilies dear: / Stay me with flagons, comfort me / With apples; thee would I enclose! / Thy twin breasts are as two young roes’” (NN C 4.26.171-78). As the editors of the NN edition of Clarel note, this sensuous medley is deftly woven from verses 7.4, 2.16, 2.5, and 7.3 of the Song of Solomon (NN C 835). Van der Heyden’s 1622 engravings work in much the same way, individual images that draw upon multiple passages from throughout the Song.

The absence of explicit religious or theological content in this Old Testament text has created challenges for Biblical exegesis from the beginning of the Christian era. As early as 240-244 A.D. Origen of Alexandria interpreted its sequence of seemingly secular love songs as an allegory of the relation between God and Israel or between Christ and the Church. Origen begins his Commentarium on the Song of Solomon with this declaration: “This little book is an epithalamium, that is a nuptial song, which it seems to be that Solomon wrote in a dramatic form, and sang after the fashion of a bride to her bridegroom, who is the word of God, burning with celestial love. Indeed, he loves her deeply, whether she is the soul, made in his own image, or the Church” (English translation provided by Matter 28). Sudermann likewise interprets Solomon’s “nuptial song” as Christian allegory. Luther had opened the way for allegorical interpretations by Lutheran poets when he included the Song of Solomon in his 1534 German-language translation of the Bible. When Melville’s Clarel, a young American divinity student, is faced with the Prodigal’s erotic interpretation of the Song, he immediately declares that “Solomon’s Song / Is allegoric” (NN C 4.26.182-3). 

As Clarel and the Prodigal debate the assertion, a “mystic” dimension is quickly added to the “allegoric” when Clarel declares that “Saint Bernard, ‘twas he of old / The Song’s hid import first unrolled— / Confirmed in every after age: / The chapter-headings on the page / Of modern Bibles (in that Song) / Attest his rendering, and prolong: / A mystic burden” (NN C 4.26.187-93). Clarel’s “Saint Bernard” is Bernard of Clairvaux, who in the twelfth century had added a “mystic burden” to the earlier allegorical interpretation of the Song of Solomon in his Brevis Commentatio in Cantica Canticorum (as well as in eight-six separate sermons). For Bernard the “hid import” of the Song was its call to the individual soul, and the monastic soul in particular, to ascend the strenuous path to glory by worshipping Christ alone (Matter 123-33). Sudermann’s illustrated emblem books at times come close to the condition of the mystic who experiences a direct and rapturous kind of union with the godhead, but even when his words and images seem most individually inflamed, they remain anchored in the tradition of the church and the text of the scripture through a battery of Biblical citations and notations he attaches to each step of his own discourse.  

Daniel Sudermann (1550-c. 1631) is presented as “a representative of mystical spiritualism” in the Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon. Born a Catholic, he converted to Calvinism and taught at the Strasbourg Bruderhof from 1585. Between 1594 and 1610 he was occupied “increasingly with the gathering and copying of mystic texts.” In “the last two decades of his life he was mainly concerned with his own literary activity.” He published many books and directories in addition to his meditations on the Song of Songs, one of them being Harmonia or Concordantz (1613), in which he provides “comprehensive, objective, and impartial information about the Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed denominations” in the hope of “ensuring religious tolerance in favor of common Christian truths” (Gandlau). This goal can be related to Melville’s even more expansive attempt to established a foundation for the “intersympathy of creeds” among Christian, Jewish, and Islamic cultures in Clarel (NN C 1.5.207).

Jacob van der Heyden (1573-1645) was a painter, publisher, and engraver whose father had settled in Strasbourg “because of religious turmoil.” Jacob established his own publishing house in Strasbourg, “which was then a centre of graphic production.” He also “worked as an engraver for other publishers,” including Eberhard Kieser in Frankfurt am Main (who published van der Heyden’s engravings for Sudermann’s Song of Solomon book in 1622). Van der Heyden’s “outstanding artistry was much valued by his contemporaries” and he helped to make Strasbourg “a centre of Protestant broadsheet production” in response to “the period’s political unrest and wars of religion” (Gurock 502). Hans Erhard Wagner, in addition to collaborating with van der Heyden in engraving images for the book by Sudermann that van der Heyden published in Strasbourg in 1620, was the sole engraver in at least one illustrated book of poems by Sudermann.

The two sets of Solomonic engravings in Melville’s collection speak to all three dimensions of the interpretive “enigmas” presented by the poem: the literal, the allegoric, and the mystic. All three dimensions are explored on the surface of the images themselves. Further interpretive enigmas are raised by the poetic fragments in German on the verso of many of these images. One wonders if Melville knew that the poetic fragments were by Sudermann—or that the engravings were by van der Heyden or Wagner—or that all these images derived from two emblem books published in Germany in the early 1620s. Certainly Melville was accustomed to operating in uncertainty with regard to certain interpretive issues presented by the Biblical writings attributed to Solomon. In 1851 he wrote his friend Evert Duyckinck that “it seems to me now that Solomon was the truest man who ever spoke, and yet that he a little managed the truth with a view to popular conservatism, or else there have been many corruptions and interpolations of the text” (NN CO 193). He begins the manuscript of his own unpublished Solomonic text “Rammon” by claiming for “the romancer and poet . . . a certain license, elastic in proportion to the remoteness of the period embraced and consequent incompleteness and incertitude of our knowledge as to events, personages, and dates” (NN BBO 227).

For the first extensive examination of the Song of Songs itself as a catalyst for Melville’s religious thought and aesthetic expression in Clarel, see Ilana Pardes, below. For the first discussion of the Song of Solomon prints that Melville acquired from Sudermann’s emblem books, see Wallace 2013a, 47-52.

  • Sources cited in above headnote
  • Gandlau, Thomas. “Sudermann, Daniel.” In Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirkenlexikon 9 (1996): col. 166-69.
  • Gurock, Elizabeth. “Heyden, Jacob van der.” Grove, 14: 502-3.
  • Matter, E. Ann. The Voice of My Beloved: The Song of Songs in Western Medieval Christianity. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990.
  • Pardes, Ilana. “Melville’s Song of Songs: Clarel as Aesthetic Pilgrimage.” In Melville and Aesthetics, ed. Samuel Otter and Geoffrey Sanborn. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 213-33.