Herman Melville

1819 - 1891




Part I.  Jerusalem






Canto xxxvii

A Sketch.


Not knowing them in very heart,

Nor why to join him they were loth,

He, disappointed, moved apart,

With sad pace creeping, dull, as doth


Along the bough the nerveless sloth.


For ease upon the ground they sit;

And Rolfe, with eye still following

Where Nehemiah slow footed it,

Asked Clarel: "Know you anything

Of this man's prior life at all?"

"Nothing," said Clarel. —"I recall,"

Said Rolfe, "a mariner like him."

"A mariner?"—"Yes; one whom grim

Disaster made as meek as he

There plodding." Vine here showed the zest

Of a deep human interest:

"We crave of you his history:"

And Rolfe began: "Scarce would I tell

Of what this mariner befell—

So much is it with cloud o'ercast—

Were he not now gone home at last

Into the green land of the dead,

Where he encamps and peace is shed.

Hardy he was, sanguine and bold,

The master of a ship. His mind

In night-watch frequent he unrolled—

As seamen sometimes are inclined—

On serious topics, to his mate,

A man to creed austere resigned.

The master ever spumed at fate,

Calvin's or Zeno's. Always still

Man-like he stood by man's free will

And power to effect each thing he would,

Did reason but pronounce it good.

The subaltern held in humble way

That still heaven's over-rulings sway

Will and event.

"On waters far,

Where map-man never made survey,

Gliding along in easy plight,

The strong one brake the lull of night

Emphatic in his willful war—

But staggered, for there came a jar

With fell arrest to keel and speech:

A hidden rock. The pound—the grind—

Collapsing sails o'er deck declined—

Sleek billows curling in the breach,

And nature with her neutral mind.

A wreck. 'Twas in the former days,

Those waters then obscure; a maze;

The isles were dreaded—every chain;

Better to brave the immense of sea,

And venture for the Spanish Main,

Beating and rowing against the trades,

Than float to valleys 'neath the lee,

Nor far removed, and palmy shades.

So deemed he, strongly erring there.

To boats they take; the weather fair—

Never the sky a cloudlet knew;

A temperate wind unvarying blew

Week after week; yet came despair;

The bread though doled, and water stored,

Ran low and lower—ceased. They burn—

They agonize till crime abhorred

Lawful might be. O trade-wind, turn!

"Well may some items sleep unrolled—

Never by the one survivor told.

Him they picked up, where, cuddled down,

They saw the jacketed skeleton,

Lone in the only boat that lived—

His signal frittered to a shred.

" 'Strong need'st thou be,' the rescuers said,

'Who hast such trial sole survived.'

'I willed it,' gasped he. And the man,

Renewed ashore, pushed off again.

How bravely sailed the pennoned ship

Bound outward on her sealing trip

Antarctic. Yes; but who returns

Too soon, regaining port by land

Who left it by the bay? What spurns

Were his that so could countermand?

Nor mutineer, nor rock, nor gale

Nor leak had foiled him. No; a whale

Of purpose aiming, stove the bow:

They foundered. To the master now

Owners and neighbors all impute

An inauspiciousness. His wife—

Gentle, but unheroic—she,

Poor thing, at heart knew bitter strife

Between her love and her simplicity:

A Jonah is he?—And men bruit

The story. None will give him place

In a third venture. Came the day

Dire need constrained the man to pace

A night patrolman on the quay

Watching the bales till morning hour

Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;

Call him, and he would come; not sour

In spirit, but meek and reconciled;

Patient he was, he none withstood;

Oft on some secret thing would brood.

He ate what came, though but a crust;

In Calvin's creed he put his trust;

Praised heaven, and said that God was good,

And his calamity but just.

So Sylvio Pellico from cell-door

Forth tottering, after dungeoned years,

Crippled and bleached, and dead his peers:

'Grateful, I thank the Emperor,'"


There ceasing, after pause Rolfe drew

Regard to Nehemiah in view:

"Look, the changed master, roams he there?

I mean, is such the guise, the air?"

The speaker sat between mute Vine

And Clarel. From the mystic sea

Laocoon's serpent, sleek and fine,

In loop on loop seemed here to twine

His clammy coils about the three.

Then unto them the wannish man

Draws nigh; but absently they scan;

A phantom seems he, and from zone

Where naught is real though the winds aye moan.