Herman Melville

1819 - 1891




Part II.  The Wilderness






Canto xxxi

The Inscription.


While yet Rolfe's foot in stirrup stood,

Ere the light vault that wins the seat,

Derwent was heard: "What's this we meet?

A Cross? and—if one could but spell—


Inscription Sinaitic? Well,

Mortmain is nigh—his crazy freak;

Whose else? A closer view I'll seek;

I'll climb."

In moving there aside


The rock's turned brow he had espied;

In rear this rock hung o'er the waste

And Nehemiah in sleep embraced

Below. The forepart gloomed Lot's wave

So nigh, the tide the base did lave.


Above, the sea-face smooth was worn

Through long attrition of that grit

Which on the waste of winds is borne.

And on the tablet high of it—

Traced in dull chalk, such as is found


Accessible in upper ground—

Big there between two scrawls, below

And over—a cross; three stars in row

Upright, two more for thwarting limb

Which drooped oblique.


At Derwent's cry

The rest drew near; and every eye

Marked the device.—Thy passion's whim,

Wild Swede, mused Vine in silent heart.

"Looks like the Southern Cross to me,"


Said Clarel; "so 'tis down in chart."

"And so," said Rolfe, " 'tis set in sky—

Though error slight of place prevail

In midmost star here chalked. At sea,

Bound for Peru, when south ye sail,


Startling that novel cluster strange

Peers up from low; then as ye range

Cape-ward still further, brightly higher

And higher the stranger doth aspire,

Till off the Horn, when at full hight


Ye slack your gaze as chilly grows the night.

But Derwent-see!"

The priest having gained

Convenient lodge the text below,

They called: "What's that in curve contained


Above the stars? Read: we would know."

"Runs thus: By one who wails the loss,

This altar to the Slanting Cross."

"Ha! under that?" "Some crow's-foot scrawl."

"Decipher, quick! we're waiting all."


"Patience: for ere one try rehearse,

'Twere well to make it out. 'Tis verse."

"Verse, say you? Read." "'Tis mystical:

" 'Emblazoned bleak in austral skies—

A heaven remote, whose starry swarm


Like Science lights but cannot warm—

Translated Cross, hast thou withdrawn,

Dim paling too at every dawn,

With symbols vain once counted wise,

And gods declined to heraldries?


Estranged, estranged: can friend prove so?

Aloft, aloof, a frigid sign:

How far removed, thou Tree divine,

Whose tender fruit did reach so low—

Love apples of New-Paradise!


About the wide Australian sea

The planted nations yet to be—

When, ages hence, they lift their eyes,

Tell, what shall they retain of thee?

But class thee with Orion's sword?


In constellations unadored,

Christ and the Giant equal prize?

The atheist cycles—must they be?

Fomentors as forefathers we?'"

"Mad, mad enough," the priest here cried,


Down slipping by the shelving brinks;

"But 'tis not Mortmain," and he sighed.

"Not Mortmain?" Rolfe exclaimed. "Methinks,"

The priest, " 'tis hardly in his vein."

"How? fraught with feeling is the strain?


His heart's not ballasted with stone—

He's crank." "Well, well, e'en let us own

That Mortmain, Mortmain is the man.

We've then a pledge here at a glance

Our comrade's met with no mischance.


Soon he'll rejoin us." "There, amen!"

"But now to wake Nehemiah in den

Behind here.—But kind Clarel goes.

Strange how he naps nor trouble knows

Under the crag's impending block,


Nor fears its fall, nor recks of shock."


Anon they mount; and much advance

Upon that chalked significance.

The student harks, and weighs each word,

Intent, he being newly stirred.



But tarries Margoth? Yes, behind

He lingers. He placards his mind:

Scaling the crag he rudely scores

With the same chalk (how here abused!)

Left by the other, after used,


A sledge or hammer huge as Thor's;

A legend lending—this, to wit:

"I, Science, I whose gain's thy loss,

I slanted thee, thou Slanting Cross."

But sun and rain, and wind, with grit


Driving, these haste to cancel it.