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Raphael in England, in Hazlitt, and in Billy Budd

Earlier in his travel through Italy, Melville had singled out paintings by Raphael at the Museo Barbonico in Naples (“face of Raphael’s Madonna touchingly maternal”) and at the Quirinale and Doria Pamphili palaces in Rome (NN J 103, 110, 111). Melville’s first exposure to authentic works by Raphael had come during the 1849 visit to Hampton Court in England in which he had taken note of Raphael’s seven “Cartoons” for the Sistine tapestries even though they “are not well disposed for light.” These designs, applied in body color on paper affixed to canvas, were still thought to be among the most precious treasures of the Royal Collection even though they were in a very poor state of conservation. Hazlitt had helped to solidify this elevated reputation in the essay on “The Pictures at Hampton Court” reprinted in the copy of Criticisms on Art that Melville acquired in 1870. Hazlitt devoted twelve pages of that fifteen-page essay to the glories of Raphael’s Cartoons. In the paragraph immediately after the one in which Melville marked and underlined the tribute to Sebastiano’s “conversable” lady “with green and white sleeves,” he marked two passages in the highly appreciative introduction Hazlitt gave to the Cartoons at Hampton Court before proceeding to a detailed discussion of each one.

Hazlitt began by declaring that “all other pictures look like oil and varnish to these.” In these works, “the painter seems to have flung his mind upon the canvas; his thoughts, his great ideas alone prevail; there is nothing between us and the subject; we look through a frame, and see scripture-histories, and are made actual spectators of miraculous events.” Melville drew one marginal line next to Hazlitt’s declaration that these images are “a sort of revelation of the subjects of which they treat; there is an ease and freedom of manner about them which brings preternatural characters and situations home to us with the familiarity of common-day occurrences; and while the figures fill, raise, and satisfy the mind, they seem to have cost the painter nothing.” He drew another line next to Hazlitt’s declaration that “the Cartoons are unique productions in the art. They are more intellectual, or rather visible abstractions of truth and nature.” Hazlitt completed this train of thought by declaring that these images have the vividness of a “waking dream.” He even suggested that this effect may be enhanced by the “decayed and dilapidated state of the pictures themselves. They are the more majestic for being in ruin.” Here, “amidst the wreck of colour, and the mouldering of material beauty, nothing is left but a universe of thought, or the broad imminent shadows of ‘calm contemplation and majestic pains!’” (77-78; MMO 263a, 077.13-17, 20-22).

Young Melville’s direct exposure to the Raphael Cartoons at Hampton Court at age 30 in 1849, enriched by the close attention to Hazlitt’s praise of these works shown by the marks he made in the copy of Criticisms on Art he acquired at age 50 in 1870, resulted in his own most powerful tribute to Raphael, even though he does not use the painter’s name, in the manuscript of Billy Budd he left unpublished at his death in 1891 at age 72. Pope Leo X had commissioned Raphael to depict acts of the apostles Peter and Paul, founders of the Christian Church, in the tapestries designed for the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel. Hazlitt devoted one substantial paragraph to each of the seven Cartoons for the tapestries in the Hampton Court collection. He began with Raphael’s depiction of The Death of Ananias, inspired by the miracle in Acts 5:1-5 in which Ananias is immediately, convulsively struck dead by the hand of God upon his being charged by Saint Peter of dishonesty in a matter of generosity to the poor (fig. 3). Melville alluded to that Biblical passage, and to Hazlitt’s commentary on Raphael’s cartoon inspired directly by that passage, and probably also to Melville’s memory of his direct encounter with that cartoon at Hampton Court forty years earlier, in the climactic moment of his Billy Budd manuscript. This occurs when young, innocent Billy—his mouth a “convulsed tongue-tie” and his face “a crucifixion to behold” after being falsely accused by Claggart—shoots out his right arm and strikes Claggart dead. Billy’s blow “had taken full effect upon the forehead, so shapely and intellectual looking a feature in the Master-at-arms; so that the body fell over lengthwise, like a heavy plank tilted from erectness. A gasp or two, and he lay motionless” (NN BBO 46-47).

CAT 108 fig 1 Raphael Death of Ananias V & A Website.jpg

Figure 3. Raphael. The Death of Ananias, body color on paper mounted on canvas, Cartoon for tapestry design, 1518. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, on loan from Queen Elizabeth II.

As soon as the ship’s Surgeon verified the death of the “prostrate” body, Captain Vere, who had been “standing motionless . . . with one hand to his brow . . . suddenly catching the Surgeon’s arm convulsively . . . exclaimed, pointing down to the body—‘It is the divine judgment of Ananias! Look!’” After “now again motionless standing absorbed in thought” until an “interrogatory” look from the Surgeon interrupted that thought, Captain Vere then “vehemently exclaimed—'Struck dead by an angel of God! yet the angel must hang!’” (47).

Melville’s compact dramatization of the immediate death of Claggart from the single, sudden blow by Billy has much more in common with Hazlitt’s commentary and the Cartoon that inspired it than the single word “Ananias.” Hazlitt sees The Death of Ananias as “one of the noblest of these noble designs. The effect is striking; and the contrast between the steadfast, commanding attitude of the Apostle, and the convulsed and prostrate figure of Ananias on the floor is finely imagined.” Equally striking is the contrast between the “commanding attitude” of he Captain Vere as he delivers his sudden judgment and the “prostrate” figure of Claggart on the floor in Melville’s story. In that story, the “convulsion” that Hazlitt, following Raphael, sees in the “convulsed and prostrate figure of Ananias” has been transferred to Billy’s “convulsed tongue-tie” and Captain Vere “convulsively” grabbing the Surgeon’s arm. Claggart’s “prostrate body” remained inert as Captain Vere pronounced his judgment, but it appeared more like that of Raphael’s Ananias when, before the arrival of the surgeon, Billy and Captain Vere had briefly examined the result of the blow. “The twain raised the felled one from the loins up into a sitting position. The spare form flexibly acquiesced, but inertly. It was like handling a dead snake. They lowered it back. Regaining erectness Captain Vere with one hand covering his face stood to all appearance as impassive as the object at his feet” (Hazlitt 78; BBO 47).

Hazlitt in his verbal response to The Death of Ananias is himself highly attentive to the posture and disposition of “prostrate” body on the floor. For him, “Ananias is a masterly, a stupendous figure. The attitude, the drawing, the expression, the ease, the force, are alike wonderful. He falls so naturally that it seems as if a person could fall in no other way; and yet of all the ways in which a human figure could fall, it is probably the most expressive of a person overwhelmed by and in the grasp of Divine vengeance. . . . The distraction of the face, the inclination of the head on one side, are as fine as possible, and the agony is just verging to that point in which it is relieved by death” (79). In Melville’s fictional tableau, the “convulsion” that Hazlitt felt in the “prostrate” body and “agonized” face of Ananias in Raphael’s pictorial story have been transferred the “convulsed tongue-tie” of the young sailor and the “convulsive” grasp of the commanding officer.

Raphael’s Death of Ananias was commissioned by Pope Leo X as part of a project to glorify the Catholic Church by a sequence of depicted events in which the acts of Saints Peter and Paul had inspired miraculous, salvific interventions into human affairs by the hand of God. In this context, it is appropriate that the physical convulsions and psychological agony of this divine intervention are primarily seen and felt through the fallen, contorted, prostrate figure of Ananias himself. The manuscript of Melville’s Billy Budd was written by a prose writer without an evident audience who wrestled with the uncompleted text during the last six years of his life. This fictional story resembles Raphael’s pictorial story in that the fallen victim of a sudden death was guilty of an evil act. The nature of the evil act of Raphael’s Death of Ananias was established by its Biblical source in the Book of Acts. The precise nature of the evil in Melville’s story is more indirectly expressed through authorial speculation about the “Natural Depravity” of mankind and the resemblance of Claggart’s body to a “dead snake” when lifted from the loins (BBO 28, 47). Ananias was struck dead by the hand of God, but the is no saving grace or divine intervention on the deck of the ship to stay the hand of Captain Vere, the commanding Abraham of Melville’s story, from taking the life of Billy, his sacrificial Isaac, for having violated technical stipulations in the Articles of War against striking an officer.

As Billy’s body ascended from the lift of the noose, it took on “the full rose of the dawn” as “the vapory fleece hanging low in the East was shot through with a soft glory as of the fleece of Lamb of God seen in mystical vision." After the necessary ceremonies conducted in the wake of the hanging, Billy’s hammock was “ballasted with shot and otherwise prepared to serve for his canvas coffin” and the entire crew was re-assembled to witness “the heavy sloped dive of the shotted hammock into the sea.” By mid-day, “the fleece of the low-hanging vapor had vanished, licked up by the sun that late had so glorified. And the circumambient air in the clearness of the serenity was like smooth white marble in the polished block not yet removed from the marble-dealer’s yard” (65, 67-68).