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Epicurus, Metrodorus, Unknown, and Adrian

CAT 70 George Cooke. Epicurus, Metrodorus, Adrian, etc. BA 103.jpg

CAT 70. Engraved by George Cooke. Epicurus, Metrodorus, Unknown, and Adrian, In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 4.  London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1812. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Melville’s annotations on the face of this print follow the text of the Historic Gallery in identifying the yoked figures at the top as Epicurus on the left and Metrodorus on the right, with Adrian at the lower right face to face with an unknown personage. After identifying Epicurus as the epicurean philosopher born in Attica in 342 B.C., the text that accompanies this frontispiece to volume 4 offers two possibilities for the figure of Metrodorus, either the poet and philosopher of Athens or the physician in Chios, a disciple of Democritus, and master of Hippocrates. Because the two heads “have been wrought from a single block of marble,” the HG surmises that this Metrodorus represents the second of the two, whose “philosophical principles” would have been closer to those of Epicurus (HG 4, n.p.). Emil Braun, in Melville’s copy of The Ruins and Museums of Rome, notes that the heads of Epicurus and Metrodorus are "united in double hermes . . . in the chamber of philosophers in the Capitoline Museum." In honor of their friendship, "followers of Epicurus . . . consecrated the twentieth of each month to the memory of both Epicurus and Metrodorus" (Braun 246).

Hennig Cohen, in his edition of Selected Poems of Herman Melville, was the first critic to note Melville’s ownership of this print. He notes that “Metrodorus was the name of at least ten Greek philosophers or literary figures, five of whom Melville would have known from Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary.” Of these, Cohen selects Metrodorus of Chios, a philosophic skeptic, and Metrodorus of Lampascus, a philosopher of pleasure, as the most likely subjects of the bust. He also posits the latter Metrodorus as the subject of Melville’s poem “The Garden of Metrodorus” in Timoleon. This poem is a meditation on the relation of thought to action and seclusion to engagement.

The Athenians mark the moss-grown gate . . .
Where never foot-path to the gate is seen. . . .
Here none come forth, here none go in,
Here silence strange, and dumb seclusion dwell.

The poem asks,

Content from loneliness who may win?
And is this stillness peace or sin
Which noteless thus apart can keep its dell?

Cohen notes that, in keeping with the Greek skeptic tradition, the poem is a series of questions without clear answers (Cohen 231-32; NN PP 270, 784-85). By self-publishing “The Garden of Metrodorus” in the last year of his life, Melville was still wrestling with the relative reclusiveness of his later years.

References to Epicurus in Melville’s writing are much more indirect, most often being linked with the epicurean consumption of some strange kind of food. The “saline salad” in Typee is “an Epicurean treat” that Tommoo “ejects” (NN T 113-4). The “royal epicures” in Mardi savor the rare “admixtures” of the tropical banquet (NN M 256). Sailors in Redburn savor the “epicurean dampness” of the “rope” they chew (NN R 272). Messmates in White-Jacket “wax gay and epicurean over their salt fare” (NN WJ 62). Stubb, devouring his whale steak in Moby-Dick, “no more than the sharks heeded the smacking of his own epicurean lip” (NN MD 293).

The Roman busts facing each other in the lower half of the print are separated and framed by the laurel which also supports the Greek dyad above. Adrian, at the lower right, is the Roman emperor also known as Hadrian. This bust, a “most estimable piece of sculpture,” was found near the beginning of the eighteenth century in “the castle of St. Angelo.” It then became part of “the Vatican Collection,” where Melville would have seen it during his three visits to that collection in March 1857 (HG 4, n. p.; NN J 108, 110, 112). Adrian’s importance to Melville will be discussed under CAT 73, where we see the same bust in a frontal view engraved by George Cooke. The “Unknown” figure facing Adrian bears some resemblance to Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome, who was an acquaintance, and exact contemporary, of Virgil (CAT 71, immediately below).

Ancient Roman Busts
(CAT 70) Epicurus, Metrodorus, Unknown, and Adrian