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Parting Thought on Engravings Cut from Sudermann's German Emblem Books

The rich mixture of the literal, the allegoric, and the mystical in the debate that Melville constructs about the Song of Solomon in Clarel accords with the similar mixture within his thirteen Solomonic cut-outs (CAT 50-62). That richness contrasts radically with the “state-of-the-art” religious interpretation of the Song to which Melville would have had access in America as he wrote Clarel. The third edition of the Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, published in 1866 (its first edition, edited by John Kitto and published in 1845, had been one of Melville’s important early sources for Biblical lore), included a nine-page, double-column commentary on “Solomon’s Song” by Christian D. Ginsburg (“C. D. C.”). This commentary condensed the argument of a very influential book on the Song of Solomon that Ginsburg had published in 1857. Ginsburg was certain that he had discovered the one and only key to the interpretation of the entire book. Stripping away the historical tradition that saw the poem as by or about King Solomon and his beloved, as well as the successive allegorical Christian interpretations that culminated in what Ginsburg dismisses as subjective medieval mysticism (by which he would have meant writings like those of Bernard and Eckhart further elaborated by poets like Sudermann), Ginsburg argued that the entire poem is about the true love, chastity, and obedience shown by the humble shepherdess (whom he sees as the protagonist of the poem) to her humble shepherd lover (whom many readers to do not even find present in the poem) in spite of the king having forced his attentions upon her. In Ginsburg’s words from the Cyclopedia: “The design of this charming poem is to teach us a lesson of practical righteousness by the record of an extraordinary example of virtue in a young maiden in humble life who encountered and conquered temptation from the most exalted person in the land,” instead remaining true to “her humble shepherd, who followed her into the capital” (Ginsburg 3:870).

Ginsburg’s interpretation constituted the newest kind of argument about the Song of Solomon that young Clarel was likely to have been exposed to in America before making the pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Melville imagines in Clarel. This gives added interest to Clarel’s declaration that “Solomon’s Song / is allegoric”—and to his praise of “Saint Bernard” for having “unrolled” the “mystic burden” that had been earlier “hid” but then had been “Confirmed in every after age.” Melville's young divinity student is resisting those authorities in an American “age” who were now turning away from that “mystic burden.” By creating Clarel as a young divinity student in the 1870s, Melville is keeping his eye on the future while also looking back on the Solomonic past. 

Pardes in her essay on Clarel as “Melville’s Song of Solomon” declares that the Song was important to Melville essentially because it had inspired such a multiplicity of interpretations. “With characteristic exegetical originality and ingenuity,” she suggests, Melville “both advances a new literal reading of the Song and refuses to relinquish allegory. Placing the literal and the allegorical side by side, while redefining the two concepts, he insists on the relevance of both to his biblical aesthetics. His very choice to use the Song as a primary aesthetic model seems to stem from an interest in its diverse, or even contradictory, exegetical potentialities (216).” That same interest, I would suggest, caused him to acquire and to savor the small cut-out hand-held engravings depicting the Song of Songs in its literal, allegorical, and mystical dimensions.