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Turner’s The Walls of Rome in Melville’s copy of Byron’s Poetical Works

MBB 2.1 crop jpg.jpg

MBB 2.1. E. Finden after J. M. W. Turner. The Walls of Rome (Tomb of Caius Sestus). Title page vignette for volume VII of Melville’s copy of the Boston edition of The Poetical Works of Lord Byron. Boston: Little, Brown, c. 1853. Houghton Library, Harvard University (Sealts no. 112).

Included among the 33 engravings after paintings after J. M. W. Turner cataloged in chapter 7 of this book are several that specifically depict Turner’s vision of Ancient Rome, Modern Italy, or the relation between the two. Among such prints are Ancient Rome, The Golden Bough, Florence, and Venice—the Dogana (CAT numbers to be assigned). Turner’s keen interest in the contrast between Ancient Rome and Modern Italy was expressed in paintings he exhibited at the Royal Academy in the 1830s and 1840s addressing those themes in specifically Byronic terms—as well as in watercolors he created to be engraved for the sixteen-volume Life and Works of Lord Byron published by John Murray in London in 1832 and acquired by Herman Melville in the Boston reprint by Little, Brown in the early 1850s (see also MBB 1.2).

The image of The Walls of Rome engraved by E. Finden as the title vignette of chapter 7 in the Boston edition acquired by Melville evokes Ancient Rome with its ancient walls, proud towers, and the famous pyramid containing the Tomb of Caius Sestus. More contemporary associations are evoked by Turner’s attention to the graves of the English Protestant Cemetery, famous to nineteenth-centuries tourists as the burial site of both Shelley and Keats.  The jumble of ancient fragmentary ruins and living creatures in the immediate foreground conveys Turner’s sense of a contemporary consciousness that must continually try to read the present in the context of the past. This image was engraved in 1832 as the frontispiece of the volume of Byron’s Life and Works containing Byron’s The Deformed Transformed. This verse drama includes a meditation “before the walls of Rome” in which “the past earth / And present phantom Imperial Rome / Is peopled” with “mighty spirits” from “great ages” that “flit along the eternal city’s ramparts / And stretch their glorious, gory, shadowing hands, / And beckon me away” (Brown, Turner and Byron, p. 112).

On February 27, 1857, his second full day in Rome, Melville walked from the Baths of Caracalla to the “Protestant Burial Ground & pyramid of Cestius under walls”. He “thought of Shelley” at the Baths of Caracalla, where the “majestic & desolate grandeur” of the “glades & thickets among the ruins” of the “thousands of arches” recalled the “drama and mind” of the poet whose Prometheus Unbound had been inspired by this very site.  After making his way to the Protestant Burial Ground “without a guide,” Melville read the “epitaph” of Keats, who was “separated from the adjacent ground by trench—Shelley in other ground. Plain stone.” After further wondering among the ruins, palaces, and museums of Rome, Melville ended his journal entry for that day by recalling the “fresh, alluvial look” of the Tiber River near the “masonry” of St. Angelo Bridge, “primeval as Ohio in the midst of all these monuments of the centuries” (NN J 106-07).

As Melville continued to collect prints, engravings, and books about ancient Rome and modern Italy in his later years, so did he continue to think about Shelly and Keats and the legacies of these two poets who had died so young. Melville published “Shelley’s Vision,” about a young man who achieves self-respect after periods of isolation and self-doubt, in Timoleon in 1891 (NN PP 283). Among the poems left published at his death was “Time’s Betrayal,” an extended metaphor about vandals who steal the sap from young maple trees in a way that may inhibit their growth and longevity but can also provoke an exfoliation of extreme beauty before death,” as in the case of “Keats, stabbed by the Muses” (NN BBO 96-97). The epitaph that Melville read when standing next to Keats’s grave had been supplied by Shelley: “This grave includes all that was mortal of a young English poet, who, on his deathbed, in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies, desired these words to be engraven on his tombstone: ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’” This entry in the NN edition of Melville’s Journal is followed by Finden’s engraving of Turner’s The Walls of Rome from volume XIII of the 1832 Murray edition (NN J 467-68).