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Education of Bacchus

CAT 137 Storer after Poussin Nurture of Bacchus BA 122.jpg

CAT 137. Storer after N. Poussin. Education of Bacchus, from The Nurture of Bacchus, early 1630s, the Louvre, Paris. London: Vernor, Hood & Sharpe, March 1, 1807. Reproduced in Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 3, 1808. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Melville’s five engravings after paintings by Nicolas Poussin from the Historic Gallery show the full range of the master’s career from young to old and from mythological and historical to religious subjects. Storer’s engraving of the Education of Bacchus is from the painting in the Louvre known as The Nurture of Bacchus, variously dated from the mid-1620s to the early 1630s. This an early painting directly influenced by the bacchanals of Titian before the latter were transported from Rome to Madrid later in the 1630s; the voluptuous reclining figure at the far right with the baby at her breast is taken directly from Titian’s Andrians. This early pastoral painting is “very different” from the “late, serious, and highly mythologized representation of the Birth of Bacchus” that Poussin painted twenty years later (Friedlaender, pl. 18).

The commentary in the Historic Gallery notes that Poussin has here sided with those “mythologists” who believe the early education of Bacchus to have been “superintended” by “the Fauns and Dryads.” After narrating who is doing what to educate the young “divinity,” the author declares that this painting is in “the first manner of Poussin, called by Sir Joshua Reynolds his dry manner.” This writer considers this early style to be absolutely superior to those later works by Poussin in which “there is a greater union between the figure and the ground,” but less emphasis on “expression and design.” The commentator cites Poussin’s declaration that “there are nine things in painting, which, though impossible to teach are essential to that art. The first consideration of a painter should be disposition, then ornament, agreement of parts, beauty, taste, spirit, costume, attention to nature, and judgement above all” (n.p.).

Melville’s treatment of Bacchus, like that of Poussin, evolved over time. In the “Dreams” chapter of Mardi, in which the narrator imagines arguments between St. Paul and Montaigne, and between Julian the Apostate and Augustine, he delightfully imagines “Bacchus my butler, Virgil my minstrel, Philip Sydney my page” (NN M 368). In White-Jacket a welcome respite from the tedium of the voyage is provided by the discovery of “five goodly puncheons” floating at sea. When hoisted on board, they are found to be filled with port; as the sailors crowd round, “it was a sight which Bacchus and his bacchanals would have gloated over” (NN WJ 153). Deeper dimensions are reached in Clarel. When a masquer at Mar Saba extols the virtues of that “Saturnian Age, the Golden,” Clarel begins to question those absolutes of “right and wrong” and “thought and feeling” by which he had previously lived. He begins to feel a new appreciation for “sylvan sculpture” depicting “Bacchant, Faun / Or shapes more lax by Titian drawn” (NN C 3.20.338-89). This moment prepares him for the much deeper challenge posed by the presence of the Prodigal, the young man from Lyon in France, with whom he spends a night in Bethlehem. 

The Prodigal embodies in Clarel’s own day the sensual, pagan virtues embodied by young Bacchus at his best, unburdened by the abstract theological interrogations that have cut the “priggish” Clarel off from the sensory world around him. We have already seen the argument between the two young men about whether the Song of Solomon be sensual, allegorical, or mystical in “The Prodigal” (4.26.138-193). Melville alludes in this canto not only to Solomon and his Song (CAT 50-62) but also to the Grapes of Eschol (CAT 38), Bathsheba (CAT 44), Rehab (CAT 42), Tasso’s Armida, Titian’s Venus of Urbino (CAT 109; Fig. 3), and his Bella Donna (CAT 109; Fig. 4).

The Prodigal becomes a living Bacchus in the words of Derwent as he and Clarel watch him walk blissfully into the morning air. Derwent relates his own encounter with the Prodigal the night before. He calls him “that laxer one” (a phrase that in itself recalls Melville’s “Bacchant, Faun / Or shapes more lax by Titian drawn”). He tells Clarel how, when speaking with this young man,

“My thoughts were wandering away,
Though never once mine eyes did stray,
He did so pleasingly beguile
To keep them fixed upon his form:
Such harmony pervades his warm
Soft outline. . . . It was some such fair
Young sinner in the time antique
Suggested to the happy Greek
His form of Bacchus—the sweet shape!
Young Bacchus, mind ye, not the old:
The Egyptian ere he crushed the grape.” (NN C 4.27.12-26)

This is Melville, late in Clarel, reaching his own poetic equivalent of Poussin’s (and Claude’s) later meditations on ancient, mythological truths.

Derwent can no more take his eye off the living Prodigal than the viewer can from the “laxer” shapes that Poussin or Titian did draw. This poetic meditation, like the later ones of those two painters, takes this subject far beyond the decorative or the merely archaic. Here is the original painting, inspired by Titian, painted by Poussin at age 30 in 1634, that Melville would have seen at age 30, at the Louvre, in 1849:

CAT 137 fig 1 Nicolas_Poussin_-_The_Nurture_of_Bacchus_-_WGA18285 Louvre.jpg

Figure 1. Nicholas Poussin, The Nurture of Bacchus, oil on canvas, between 1624 and 1625. The Louvre.