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Parting Thought on the Engravings Cut from Sudermann’s Hohe geistreiche Lehren und Erklärungen

Michael Goldberg has recently pointed out that the “enclosed garden” in Song of Solomon 4:12 is “the only direct biblical reference, albeit a metaphorical one, to a hortus conclusis or enclosed garden.” It is “designated by the Hebrew word pardes,” which itself would appear to derive from “the Old Persian pairidaeza, meaning an enclosed park,” and which is used only three other times in the Old Testament (Goldberg 31). Ariel and Chana Bloch argue that the use of the Persian word pardes in the Song of Solomon, along with the presence of words of Greek origin, suggests that “the Song was written down in post-Exilic times, most likely in the Hellenistic period, around the third century BCE.” This “Song is informed by an entirely new sensibility, unique in the Bible. Given the temper of the times, it is possible that the poet of the Song had some knowledge of the themes of Greek poetry, just as the author of Ecclesiastes seems to have been aware, in a general way, of questions debated by the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers” (Bloch 24-26).  

I cite these recent scholarly speculations on the dating of the Song of Solomon because of the annotations Melville made at the beginning and end of the Wisdom of Solomon in his 1846 edition of the Bible. Above its title he wrote: “About a century before Christ this book was writ by some Alexandrian Jews, who combined Platonism with their Judaism.” At its end, he wrote: “This admirable book seems partly Mosaic & partly Platonic in its tone. Who wrote it I know not.  Some one to whom both Plato & Moses stood for godfather” (Cowen 3: 273, 289). In the canto “Concerning Hebrews” in Clarel, Melville contracts this dynamic into the metaphor of “grafting slips from Plato’s palm / On Moses’s melancholy yew” (NN C 2.22.77-9). His metaphor relates well to the imagery of the enclosed garden in CAT 56, in which two palms share the space with other variegated species, including members of the evergreen family to which the yew belongs.

The best living authority on how all the above strands weave together in Clarel is Ilana Pardes—who teaches at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, who studied at the University of California at Berkeley, and whose last name is the Hebrew equivalent of the Old Persian pairidaeza. Her essay on Clarel as “Melville’s Song of Songs” illuminates a variety of ways in which his epic “Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land” reanimates the tensions among social, spiritual, and mystical realms of the Song of Solomon—as well as those among the erotic yearnings, expressions, and sublimations latent with the “sealed fountains” of each work’s leading personae. Pardes is also attentive to the overlapping presence of Hebrew, Persian, and Greek thought and imagery in both Clarel and the Song of Songs—as well as to the degree to which Melville in Clarel defined his own position within the exegetical crises in which nineteenth-century poets and theologians were reinterpreting the ancient Song of Songs. In Clarel, Pardes argues, Melville “ventures to take part in both the re-literalization of the Song and its re-allegorization, refusing to lose either the pleasures if literal readings, with their sensual immediacy and Oriental flavor, or the complex signification that allegory can offer” (“Melville’s Song of Songs,” 224-45). Melville had one pictorial model for seeing the poem both literally and allegorically in the ten van der Heyden engravings cut from Sudermann’s 1622 emblem book that he could easily cup in one hand or spread out on the surface of his writing desk.

Van der Heyden’s engravings for Sudermann’s Solomonic emblem book gave Melville a helpful pictorial equivalent for his own poetic impulse to merge the literal with the allegoric in a healthy, robust aesthetic equilibrium of the kind he celebrated in “Art,” the ars poetica he published in the year he died. “What unlike things must meet and mate,” he wrote, “and fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart, / To wrestle with the angel Art” (NN PP 280). Prominent among those “unlike things” contributing to Melville’s own poetic art late in life were words and images; poems and paintings; books and engravings. The twenty-four engravings cut from Father Saurin’s Dutch Taferelen, published in the Hague in 1718, and the ten engravings cut from Sudermann’s Solomonic emblem book, published in Frankfurt in 1622, all enriched his ability to infuse his own verbal expression with pictorial sophistication in both subject and style.