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Parting Thought on Flaxman's Dante

Looking back on these twenty-three engravings that “remain” from whatever else Melville may once have owned from Flaxman’s Dante, we have a graphic slice of Purgatory that also looks back to the Inferno (especially in the fall of Lucifer and The Region of Smoke) and ahead to the Paradisio (in the Angel of Annunciation with Mary and all subsequent angelic interventions). In these drawings Flaxman has put his own graphic stamp on issues of ultimate meaning that Dante had addressed in The Divine Comedy and that Melville was to address throughout his career in texts such as Mardi, Pierre, Clarel, and Billy Budd. Rereading such Dante-inspired chapters as 184-189 in Mardi with Flaxman at hand, one sees Melville foregrounding many of the same elements that Flaxman had made visible: the angels who “talk in mystic music” and “fan me  . . . with thy twilight wings” (NN M 616); clouds that are “hooding the gibbering winds” (622); the “black cloud [that] seems floating from me” as “forked flames wane” (629); and the extended dream or vision by which Babbalanja is converted, emerging from the “shining spot” in which “bright wings” become “visible: between them, a pensive face angelic, downward beaming” (632). Now, to the sounds of “exulting choral strains” followed by a “feathery rush,” Babbalanja, “nested ‘neath its wing,” is suddenly transported to “where we clove the air; passed systems, suns, and moons,” a celestial motion leading eventually to a condition in which “all space is peopled” by “spirits in their essences” and “all air is vital with intelligence which seeks embodiment” (632-36). 

At the beginning of this sequence Babbalanja had seen the Christian haven of Serenia as a place “where Mardians pretend to the unnatural conjunction of reason with things revealed” (622). After his vision, he is converted, taking with him all of his companions except Taji himself, who ends the novel pursuing the truth he has not yet found “over an endless sea” (654).

Pierre is more like a Divine Comedy in reverse, as Pierre, born into the aristocratic paradise of pride and privilege in Saddle Meadows, is plunged into a purgatorial and ultimately infernal condition. He suffers, ironically, for the nobility with which he tries to absorb, and act upon, doing good to all. He acts upon his belief, immediately upon meeting her, that the young woman who calls herself Isabel is in fact an illegitimate daughter of his much revered father. The purgatorial nature of his essential anguish is well summarized in the authorial comment that Pierre, having internalized both Dante’s Inferno and Shakespeare’s Hamlet at too young an age, found himself in a condition in which “Dante had made him fierce; and Hamlet had insinuated that there was none to strike. Dante had taught him that he had a bitter cause of quarrel; Hamlet taunted him with faltering in the fight” (NN P 170).

Flaxman’s drawings, as well as Dante’s words, as Schless first helped us see, greatly sharpened the artistry with which Melville was able to convey such a paralyzed and inchoate psychological state. More strikingly than with Taji in Mardi, Pierre’s plight is one in which the Christian beatitudes not only offer no rest but only exacerbate, when he tries to apply them, the intractability of the crises he faces. At the apex of Pierre’s crisis in chapter 10 (“The Unprecedented Final Resolution of Pierre”) the narrator asks, “Ah, thou rash boy! Are there no couriers in the air to warn thee away from these emperilings . . . . Whither fled the sweet angels that are alleged guardians to man?” (176). By chapter 21, Pierre’s inner instincts have taken him, seemingly with the highest and noblest aspirations, down from the more ethereal realms of Flaxman’s artistry into that “deep, deep, and still deeper” Piranesian space where the “heart of man” finds itself “descending . . . into a spiral stair in a shaft, without any end, and where that endlessness is only concealed by the spiralness of the stair, and the blackness of the shaft” (288-89). Piranesi deepened and intensified the spiral descent of The Drawbridge in the second edition of 1861 (see fig. 1 below; Robison, cat. 33, second edition).

piranesi drawbridge second.jpg

Figure 1. Piranesi, The Drawbridge, etching, plate 7 in second edition of Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), 1761-78. Yale University Art Gallery.

Melville published Clarel in 1876, twenty-five years after Pierre, one hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, and six hundred years after the birth of Dante. Piranesi’s endless Carceri, in their darker, deeper state from 1761—more than Flaxman’s Purgatorial angels, drawn in Rome just thirty years later—were to sound the “Prelusive” note for mankind’s more ultimate ponderings.