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“Jacob’s mystic heart” in Raphael’s Loggia and Melville’s “Art”

The presence of Raphael in Melville’s own fiction and poetry is most obvious when the painter’s name is used in a way that can be distinguished from that of the angel Raphael (which is not always the case; see Clarel 3.31.27-28 or Confidence-Man, chapter 37). The painter Raphael appears at the end of Pierre in the catalog of the New York auction gallery which features “such names as Rubens, Raphael, Angelo, Domenichino, Vinci, all shamelessly prefaced with the words ‘undoubted,’ or ‘testified’” (NN P 349). He also appears in “At the Hostelry,” whose headnote for section VII expresses “Raphael’s concern for the melancholy estate of Albert Durer.” But Raphael does not himself appear in the actual poetic text, perhaps because Melville’s heavily revised manuscript was unfinished at the time of his death (NN BBO 163-64). Melville’s profounder allusions to Raphael enrich passages in which the painter’s name does not appear. We have already examined the buried allusions to both Raphael and Hazlitt in Melville's depiction of “the divine judgment on Ananias!” in Billy Budd (see fig. 3 above). Melville’s rich appreciation of Raphael’s artistry also permeates “Art,” the eleven-line poem in Timoleon, the slim volume of poetry he published in an edition of twenty-five copies in the last year of his life (NN PP 280).

As much as anything Melville ever wrote, “Art” serves as an ars poetica that condenses his lifelong sense of those qualities of heart and mind that must “meet and mate” in the artist who aspires to the highest expression in either verbal or pictorial art. In the first four lines that aspiration takes the form of a dream:

     In placid hours well pleased we dream
Of many a brave unbodied scheme.
But form to lend, pulsed life create,
What unlike things must meet and mate.

One of Raphael’s most beautifully embodied “schemes” for such an aspirational “dream” is found in the “pulsed life” of the design he provided for Jacob’s Dream (fig. 9), the first fresco in the sixth arcade through which Melville walked before writing the journal entry about what he had seen overhead on March 2, 1857 (NN J 108).

CAT 108 fig 9 new Raphael Jacob's Dream JSTOR.jpg

Figure 9. Raphael. Jacob’s Dream, first fresco in sixth arcade of Raphael’s Loggia in the Vatican, c. 1518.

The Biblical inspiration for Jacob’s Dream was the passage in Genesis 28 in which God renews with Isaac’s son Jacob the pledge He had given Isaac in Genesis 26, which itself had renewed the pledge He had given to Isaac’s father Abraham in Genesis 12 (see CAT 28). When Jacob “went out from Beersheba” he “lighted upon a certain place.” And because

the sun was set . . . he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.

God further pledged that “I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest, and will bring thee again into this land; for I will not leave thee, until I have done that which I have spoken to thee of” (Genesis 28:10-15).

When Jacob “awaked out of his sleep . . . he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not. And he was afraid, and said, How dreadful is this place! this is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Jacob then “vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, So that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God” (16-21).

In Biblical interpretation, Jacob’s dream is often seen as an Old Testament anticipation of the process by which the resurrection of Jesus will create a spiritual pathway between the realms of heaven and earth, symbolized by the ladder on which “the angels of God” are “ascending and descending.” In the life of Jacob, however, the dream of God’s promise in Genesis 28 cannot be achieved until Jacob wrestles with the angel of God in Genesis 32, just as in the life of Jesus the resurrection is achieved only after the crucifixion. In Genesis 32, when Jacob was alone, his wives and possessions on the other side of a stream, he encountered an unnamed person with whom he “wrestled” through the night “until the breaking of the day,” at which point he asked to be “let go.” When now he was asked his name, “he said, Jacob.” And now his opponent said, “Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for . . . hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.” After being blessed, “Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved” (Genesis 32:24-30).

In Melville’s “Art,” as in the story of Jacob, the promise of the “dream” is achieved only after “the wrestle with the angel.” The transport from the one condition through to the other is achieved through the “pulsed life” of seven lines of poetry whose “unlike things” have found a way to “mate / And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart, / To wrestle with the angel--Art.” The verbal ingredients made to mate in these lines represent elements in the lives of human beings that are invisible to the eye; they can be internalized only by those with a “mystic heart” strong enough to “fuse” them:

A flame to melt—a wind to freeze;
Sad patience—joyous energies;
Humility—yet pride and scorn;
Instinct and study; love and hate;
Audacity; reverence. These must mate,
And fuse with Jacob’s mystic heart,
To wrestle with the angel—Art. (280)

Much of the “pulsed life” here is conceptual—in the powerful succession of seemingly incompatible qualities. The “pulsed life” of these lines is also felt in the prevailing iambic tetrameter rhythm so unmistakably present in “A flame to melt—a wind to freeze.” That pattern is briefly interrupted by the strong initial beats in the lines beginning with “Sad patience” and “Instinct” before the tightening of tension and irregularity of meter bring a complete stop on “Audacity; reverence” in the middle of line 9. “These must mate” reestablishes the strong iambic rhythm in which the action of “Jacob’s mystic heart” brings us to the perfect rhyme of “heart” with “art,” displacing that of “hate” and “mate” (280).

Bell suggests that the essential ingredients in Raphael’s Jacob’s Dream are “treated in the traditional style so well known” (68). That is true to a point. We see Jacob asleep, his head on a rock. We see the angels “ascending and descending” on the “ladder” leading up to heaven, this ladder looking more like a golden staircase. We see delicious color harmonies as the delicate peach of his clothing, contrasting with the slate gray of the rock, leads us up into the lovely pastels of the angels moving back and forth between heaven and earth on the stairway of gold up through the narrowing gap in the encroaching gray of the clouds toward the “gate of heaven” through which God has spoken to Jacob.

So far one might say that Raphael has deployed the essential ingredients of Jacob’s dream “in the traditional style so well known.” But what to make of the ominous figure of the voice of God gliding in like a black vampire bat above the sweet forms of the angels? If this were a fresco illustrating Milton’s Paradise Lost, published a century and a half later, one might see that looming black figure as Satan, the archangel who is so precipitously falling out of heaven in Reveil’s engraving after the drawing by Flaxman in Melville’s collection (CAT 95). One must return to Raphael’s Biblical source in Genesis 28 to recall the way in which Jacob bargains with God: “If God will be with me . . . so that I come again to my father's house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God” (Genesis 28:20-22; italics mine). Jacob’s story does not work out exactly in the way he envisions here. That is probably why Melville, when reading Genesis 28 in the edition of the Bible he acquired in 1850, wrote these words in the margin of Jacob’s bargain with God: “Doth Jacob serve God for naught?” (Sealts no. 62).

Once one registers the sense of dread, whether that be visual or emotional, attaching to the looming black figure where one might otherwise expect see a more comforting personification of the voice of God, other elements of Raphael’s Dream fresco claim our attention. This is especially true of the somber black landscape behind Jacob’s head to the left of the golden stairway of light. Look closely enough and you make out a series of black crosses protruding from the black soil, turning the left side of the fresco into a cemetery whose unrelieved darkness is rendered even more sinister by the palest of light from the sliver of a moon. The inert landscape on the left side of the fresco is as dreadfully unsettling as the floating black figure presiding over the whole.

The “pulsed life” of this fresco is most fully felt, of course, in the foreground figure of Jacob himself. It is hard to imagine a body that could appear more animated while lying inert in the midst of a dream. His sleeping face is looking away from us as his arms reach out as if to embrace our world. We see the world he is seeing with our open eyes where he is only seeing it in his sleep. His right arm unconsciously stretching far to the left and his left leg stretching far to the right form the base of a pictorial triangle that narrows to its apex as the angels are ascending and descending on the ascending stairway of golden light. The vertical motion of the angels is echoed by the rising torso of Joseph, who upper left arm is almost perpendicular to the ground on which he sleeps.

In all of interior and exterior ways in which the figure of Jacob anchors and animates this fresco, it would be hard to find a better candidate anywhere in Raphael’s oeuvre to embody either Melville’s evocation of a “pulsed life” or Hazlitt’s declaration in the essay “On the Fine Arts” in Melville’s copy of Criticisms on Art that Raphael’s human figures, “however ordinary in themselves,” are full of expression . . . every nerve and muscle is impregnated with feeling--bursting with meaning.” It would be equally hard, given the subject of this particular fresco, to find a better example of this extension of Hazlitt’s assertion: “in Raphael all our natural sensibilities are heightened and refined by the sentiments of faith and hope, pointing mysteriously to the interests of another world” (164-65).

It might seem that the “unlike things” made to “meet and mate” through the fusion supplied by “Jacob’s mystic heart” in Melville’s poem “Art” are more radically in opposition to each other than those commonly found in Raphael’s artworks, whose essential ingredients are generally considered to be more harmonious. Consider, however, the surprising similarities between the strongly torqued but equally earthbound bodies of Jacob in Jacob’s Dream (in the very act of receiving a heavenly revelation direct from God) and Ananias in The Death of Ananias (in the very act of being struck dead by the vengeance of that same God). Each figure has the conspicuous muscularity that Raphael had recently internalized from paintings by Michelangelo. Raphael appears to have created the design for Ananias in The Death of Ananias tapestry quite soon after having created the design for Jacob in the Jacob’s Dream fresco, in each case leaving it someone else (a guild of Belgian weavers for the Ananias figure, his assistant Guilio Romano for the Jacob figure) to complete the tactile expression in pictorial form of the “pulsed life” inspiring each of these “brave unbodied schemes.”

On the first day of April 1857, when Melville was arriving in Venice after making brief stops in Bologna, Ferrara, and Padua, The Confidence Man, the last novel he was to publish in his lifetime, was published in New York City. Three times in the course of this novel Melville had inserted chapters which digressed from its narrative of life on a Mississippi River steamboat in order to address ethical and aesthetic issues worthy of consideration by any author of any fiction. One manifestation of that digression in chapter 14 (“Worth the consideration of those to whom it may prover worth considering”) is the declaration that “the grand points of human nature are the same to-day as they were a thousand years ago. The only variability in them is in expression, not in feature.” In chapter 33 (“Which may pass for whatever it may prove to be worth”), Melville declared that books of fiction convey “more reality, than real life itself can show.” The best fiction is true to nature, yes, but to “nature unfettered, exhilarated, in effect transformed. . . . It is with fiction, as with religion: it should present another world, and yet one to which we feel the tie” (NN CM 171, 183). This, too, is language which relates exceptionally well to Jacob’s Dream in Raphael’s Loggia.

Those metachapters that Melville submitted to his publisher before sailing from New York City in October 1856 showed that he was well equipped, internally, to absorb and process everything he was to experience from his visits to the Pyramids of Egypt, the Holy Lands of Palestine, the Holy Temples of Greece, and the Statues and Galleries of Italy, all the time instinctively ready to compare the surviving legacy of these ancient cultures against the lived life of those moderns among whom he traveled. Melville had sailed from New York in October 1856 as a novelist who had written eleven books of fiction in eleven years that had exhausted his nautical subjects and his landlocked options. He returned to New York in May 1857 as a budding poet and art enthusiast who was to lecture on the “Statues of Rome” in the first year of his return, submit a volume of poetry during his third year, and spend the next three decades of his life publishing four books of poetry and collecting more than four hundred fine art engravings from Ancient Greece and Persia all the way through the Italian Renaissance to the birth of French Impressionism, all of this cultural excavation and expression supported by an expanding library of more than six hundred surviving books in literature, history, and art.