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Vedder’s The Sorry Scheme in Melville’s copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

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MBB 1.4. Elihu Vedder. The Sorry Scheme, in Melville’s copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia; Rendered into English verse by Edward Fitzgerald, with an Accompaniment of Drawings by Elihu Vedder (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin Company, c. 1886), n.p. Harvard College Library (Sealts no. 392).

The fifty-plus images within Melville’s copy of Vedder’s illustrated edition of the Rubáiyát offer a rich visual supplement to the hundreds of freestanding prints that Melville collected. The Sorry Scheme reproduced here is of interest for several reasons beyond the relation of the buzzard perched above its inscribed verses to the Humā hovering over the prince in the Persian tile (CAT 69). The second verse of The Sorry Scheme has special meaning in relation to Eleanor Melville Thomas, the young granddaughter who had visited the aged author in his study on East 26th Street, surrounded by the many hundreds of books and prints he had collected.

Would but some wingéd Angel ere too late
Arrest the yet unfolded Roll of Fate,
    And make the stern Recorder otherwise
Enregister, or quite obliterate!

Young Eleanor was to become that “wingéd Angel.” Among her “most cherished girlhood memories” after Melville’s death in 1891 were the visits Eleanor made to the 18th Street apartment into which her grandmother Elizabeth had transferred most of the books and prints from Herman’s library and art collection. Young Eleanor especially treasured those moments in which she “was encouraged to make ambitious pencil copies of Elihu Vedder’s illustrations of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, using for a drawing board the great desk whose tall glassed-in shelves had been removed” (Metcalf 289). Not long after the death of Elizabeth Shaw Melville in 1906, Herman Melville’s writing desk, books, and prints were transferred from the apartment in New York City the house in South Orange, New Jersey, in which Eleanor’s mother Frances Thomas preserved these artifacts from Melville’s study until her own four daughters, spearheaded by Eleanor, would eventually incorporate them into their own lives and legacies. The photograph of Eleanor Melville Thomas standing next to her grandfather’s desk (fig. 1) was taken in the New Jersey home before young Eleanor married Henry Metcalf in 1913. For more background on the photo and Eleanor’s life, see “Saved by the Granddaughters” an “Preferring This to That” in the essay “Herman Melville as Print Collector” on this site.

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Figure 1. Eleanor Melville Thomas at her Grandfather’s Writing Desk, c. 1910. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

I was first shown the above photo by Eleanor’s son David Metcalf when I visited his home in Brunswick, Maine, in 1994 to examine two exquisite Italian prints from Melville’s collection David had inherited from his mother: Piranesi’s engraving of The Arch of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (CAT 79) and Volpato’s engraving of Raphael’s Loggia at the Vatican (CAT 108). By the time David had turned ten years old in the Metcalf family home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, his mother’s actions as the “wingéd Angel” of the “yet unfolded Roll of Fate” had already “arrested” and begun to reverse the half-century of neglect that had “quite obliterated” any active appreciation of her grandfather’s literary legacy. The publication of Billy Budd in 1924 from the unfinished manuscript that Eleanor had excavated from the breadbox in which her grandmother had preserved it was the first major step in this reversal. In the early 1940s, as the Melville revival was reaching into several of the nation’s leading universities, Eleanor Metcalf combined with her sisters Jeannette Thomas Chapin and Katharine Thomas Binnian to donate most of the books from Melville’s library that had been preserved in their New Jersey home to Harvard College Library (Sealts, p. 15). In 1948 Eleanor Metcalf edited the first published edition of Melville’s journal of his voyage to England and the Continent in 1849. In 1952 she donated 278 of Melville’s prints and engravings to the Berkshire Athenaeum and in 1953 she published her biography entitled Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle.

Each of the above actions over a thirty-year period helped “enregister” anew Eleanor’s grandfather in the “Roll of Fate.” Each brought into direct and successful action the spirit of Love expressed in the third verse from the Rubáiyát that Vedder inscribed into his pictorial depiction of The Sorry Scheme:

Ah Love! Could you and I with Him conspire
To grasp this sorry Scheme of things entire,
    Would not we shatter it to bits—and then
Re-mould it nearer to the Heart’s Desire!

The expression of the “wingéd Angel” Vedder has drawn to the immediate left of the “Ah Love!” verse encapsulates perfectly the spirit of the words Vedder inscribed in that verse as well as the devotion of the granddaughter that Melville’s copy of this edition of the Rubáiyát had helped to inspire.

The sixty-year trajectory that took Eleanor Melville Thomas from the nine-year-old granddaughter visiting her grandfather amongst his books and pictures in 1891 to the accomplished woman who published Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle in 1953 is best captured in words by Vedder's own description of the cover of his illustrated edition of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám in the “List of Illustrations and Notes” he published at the end of the volume: “The swirl which appears here, and is an ever-recurring feature of the work, represents the gradual concentration of the elements that combine to form life; the sudden pause through the reverse of the moment which marks the instant of life, and then the gradual, ever-widening dispersion again of these elements into space” (n. p.). That same trajectory is best coveyed visually, of course, by the cover itself (fig. 2):

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Figure 2. Elihu Vedder. Cover of Melville’s copy of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin Company, c. 1886). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

  • Works Cited:
  • Metcalf, Eleanor Melville. Herman Melville: Cycle and Epicycle. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1953.
  • Vedder, Elihu. The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám . . . with an accompaniment of Drawings by Elihu Vedder. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, c. 1886 (Sealts no. 195).