“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).