Skip to main content

Turner’s The School of Homer in Melville’s copy of Byron’s Poetical Works

MBB 1.2 Finden after Turner. School of Homer from HM's Byron. HCL.jpg

MBB 1.2. Edward Finden after J. M. W. Turner after a drawing by William Page. The School of Homer (Scio). Steel engraving, vignette, 1833, bound facing p. 263 in vol. X of Melville’s copy of the Poetical Works of Lord Byron (Boston: Little, Brown, c. 1853). Houghton Library, Harvard University (Sealts no. 112).

Many illustrations in books from Melville’s library richly supplement the engravings he collected of Ancient Grecian subjects.  Beyond the 378 engravings in Wordsworth’s Greece and various Greek subjects in the Life and Works of Lord Byron, one finds, for example, an engraved bust of Homer as the frontispiece to the first volume of Pope’s translation in the Classical Library published by Harper in New York (Sealts no. 147). Among the wood engravings in Wordsworth are additional images of the Temple of Minerva at Aegina and related Ancient Grecian temples. Greek-related engravings after Turner in Melville’s edition of the Life and Works of Lord Byron included Cephalonia, Negropont, The Gate of Theseus, The Plain of Troy, Corinth (from the Acropolis), Parnassas and Castalian Spring (Delphi), Scio (Fontana di Melek Mehmet, Pasha), and The School of Homer (Scio). Of all of those, The School of Homer, reproduced here, most richly evokes the ancient world that “hearthless Homer might have known” (in the words of Melville’s “Syra: A Transmitted Reminiscence"; NN PP 309-11). The history of the manner in which this one image was drawn, engraved, and disseminated illustrates the fascination of English artists, engravers, poets, and publishers with both modern and ancient Greece in the 1830s.

J. M. W. Turner traveled to Italy in 1819 and again in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s but he never traveled to Greece. He therefore relied on a sketch by William Page to inform the watercolor drawing that Turner created for Edward Finden to engrave as The School of Homer (Scio). Finden's engraving first appeared as the frontispiece-vignette to volume XVII of The Works of Lord Byron in the London edition published by John Murray in 1832-34 (Wilton no. 1234). That same engraved plate was used again in Finden’s own Landscape Illustrations . . . of Lord Byron in 1833-34. Twenty years later that same engraved plate was used yet again (with its original date 1833 altered to 1851) in the sixteen-volume of edition of the Life and Works of Lord Byron published by Little, Brown in Boston (c. 1853) that Melville was to acquire, now being preserved by the Houghton Library at Harvard (Sealts nos. 112, 369). In the Boston edition the image was no longer a frontispiece-vignette, as it had been in the original London edition. It was instead inserted facing p. 263 in vol. X of the American edition of Byron’s Works, a volume primarily devoted to Bryon’s narrative poem Don Juan. The frontispiece- and title-vignettes to this volume of the American edition, Cologne and The Castellated Rhine, were also images by Turner that Finden had engraved for the Murray edition of Byron’s Works as well as own Landscape Illustrations . . . of Byron in the early 1830s.

The engraving of Turner’s The School of Homer (Scio) reprinted in the Boston edition in the early 1850s from the London edition in the early 1830s could have set off very rich associations of both thought and feeling in Melville whenever he was looking at the image in the middle of volume X. Finden’s engraving of this Grecian landscape after Turner might have made him think of the engraved prints had acquired of Bentley’s Temple of Minerva in Aegina after Fielding (CAT 16). This striking Byronic landscape vignette after Turner might also have reminded him not only of all the other engraved vignettes after Turner in his sixteen-volume Boston edition of Byron (there were 27 in all, 24 of them engraved by Edward Finden) but also of the 32 free-standing images after Turner he eventually acquired for his own print collection (CAT numbers not yet assigned). The allusion to The School of Homer in the title of this atmospheric vignette might well have brought to mind his own copy of Cooke’s engraved bust of Homer from the Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings (CAT 6), whereas the parenthetical allusion to (Scio) in its subtitle might have reminded Melville not only of the Homeric associations of Scio but of the Bryronic ones with which he framed his poem “Syra: A Transmitted Reminiscence” in 1891.

Melville’s “Syra” was enriched not only by the ancient and modern literary and pictorial associations with both Scio and Syra, but by his own visits to each of those islands during the Mediterranean voyage in which he was himself as “hearthless” as Homer between December 1856 and February 1857 (NN J 53, 71, 98). For a discussion of Finden’s engraving of Turner’s The School of Homer (Scio) in relation to Melville’s interest in the ancient and modern Greece as mediated by English poets, painters, publishers, and engravers, see Wallace, “’Aloof’ and ‘Aloft’: Cape Colonna in Melville’s Poem and Turner’s Engravings,” 463-71, figs. 1-5.

Judging from Melville’s own annotations in the Boston edition of Bryon, it appears that “this edition was read by Melville after his trip to the Near East  in 1856-57 and during his study of versification in 1858-59,” a process that laid the foundation for the four books of poetry he was to publish after moving his family from the Pittsfield farm to the house in New York in 1863 (Sealts, Melville's Reading, p. 161). On the title page of volume X of the Boston edition of Byron’s works—the same volume in which The School of Homer (Scio) faces p. 263—Melville underlined the name of J. M. W. Turner imprinted immediately beneath the title-vignette of The Castellated Rhine engraved by Finden (Cowen, 4:73; fig. 1 below).

MBB 1.2 fig 1 Turner Castellated Rhine from HM Byron HCL slide  jpg.jpg

Fig. 1. Edward Finden after J. M. W. Turner. The Castellated Rhine. Title-vignette in Melville’s copy of vol. X of the Poetical Works of Lord Byron (Boston: Little, Brown, c. 1853). ANN: Turner's name underlined.

Seeing the name of Murray's publishing house beneath the title vignette of volume X of the Boston edition Melville acquired in the 1850s would have activated yet another group of associations. During his own first visit to London in 1849, Melville met many times with the John Murray who had published the London editions of Typee in 1846 and Omoo in 1847. This John Murray was the son of the John Murray who had published the works of Byron and other literary figures, often with illustrations by Turner, in the 1830s. The younger Murray was more literal-minded than his more literary father, and he told Melville that the new manuscript he had brought to London was “not in my line” as a publisher. Murray was, however, cordial to the young American socially. After taking him upstairs in his publishing house to “see his gallery of literary portraits,” with “fine heads of Byron, Moore, Campbell” and others, Murray arranged for young Melville to meet some of London’s leading authors, artists, and publishers at a succession of supper clubs in the city (NN J 19, 21-22).

The first of three memorable December dinners was held at Elm Court, Temple, where Melville had “a glorious time till noon of night” (inspiring him to coin the phrase “The Paradise of Batchelors” in his journal entry the next morning). This was followed by two convivial dinners at the Erechtheum Club. The rotating cast for these three evenings included, beyond Murray himself, Sir John Leslie, the painter; Peter Cunningham, “author of Murray’s London Guide”; Charles Knight, “Publisher of the Penny Cyclopedia”; and Richard Ford, “the Spanish Traveler and Editor of the Guide Book” (NN J 44, 46). Young John Murray did not publish any of Melville’s fiction after 1847, but he did make an unnamed appearance as the presiding spirit of Melville’s “The Paradise of Bachelors,” published as a diptych with “The Tartarus of Maids” in 1855 (NN PTO 316-35).

  • Works Cited:
  • Byron, George Gordon. The Poetical Works of Lord Byron. Boston: Little, Brown, c. 1853. 10 vol. (Sealts no. 112).
  • Wallace, Robert K. “’Aloof’ and ‘Aloft’: Cape Colonna in Melville’s Poem and Turner’s Engravings.” In Melville ‘Among the Nations’: Proceedings of an International Conference; Volos, Greece, July 2-6, 1977. Ed. Sanford E. Marovitz and A. C. Christodoulou. Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 2001. 463-471.
  • Wilton, Andrew. J. M. W. Turner: His Art and Life. New York: Rizzoli, 1979.