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Parting Thought on the Dutch Taferelen

All the above illustrations of Biblical capital letters helped Melville as a collector and author to achieve that state in which “Imagination time repealed,” the phrase he used in Clarel for the power of the imagination to “restore” images from as deep in the past as “Sodom in her funeral pyre” (NN C 2.32.33-34). His entire print collection preserves hundreds of imaginative acts by which artists and engravers have combined to “repeal time” by “restoring” humanity’s individual and collective experience in graphic form. Many of these pictorial “restorations” were created in response to texts from the ancient world whose relevance to contemporary culture were themselves being “restored” in a project specifically devoted to illustrating the printed or spoken word—as in The Persians by Aeschylus illustrated by Flaxman and Reveil or the Dutch Old Testament Bible illustrated by Hoet, Houbraken, and Picart.

Melville, however, also knew the danger of being too absorbed in trying to “repeal time” and “restore” the past. As he wrote in White-Jacket, at the peak of his youthful career (and of the Young America movement), “Those who are solely governed by the Past stand like Lot’s wife, crystallized in the act of looking backward, and forever incapable of looking before” (NN WJ 150). Melville in his later decades increasingly relied on his print collection to help him “restore” specific images of the past, but always with an eye to the future too, as seen in Clarel and Timoleon as well as Billy Budd.