Herman Melville

1819 - 1891




Part IV.  Bethlehem






Canto xxi

Ungar and Rolfe.


["]Such earnestness! such wear and tear,

And man but a thin gossamer!"

So here the priest aside; then turned,

And, starting: "List! the vesper-bell?


Nay, nay—the hour is passed. But, oh,

He must have supped, Don Hannibal,

Ere now. Come, friends, and shall we go?

This hot discussion, let it stand

And cool; to-morrow we'll remand."


"Not yet, I pray," said Rolfe; "a word;"

And turned toward Ungar; "be adjured,

And tell us if for earth may be

In ripening arts, no guarantee

Of happy sequel."


"Arts are tools;

But tools, they say are to the strong:

Is Satan weak? weak is the Wrong?

No blessed augury overrules:

Your arts advance in faith's decay:


You are but drilling the new Hun

Whose growl even now can some dismay;

Vindictive in his heart of hearts,

He schools him in your mines and marts—

A skilled destroyer."


"But, need own

That portent does in no degree

Westward impend, across the sea."

"Over there? And do ye not forebode?

Against pretenses void or weak


The impieties of 'Progress' speak.

What say these, in effect, to God?

'How profits it? And who art Thou

That we should serve Thee? Of Thy ways

No knowledge we desire; new ways


We have found out, and better. Go—

Depart from us; we do erase

Thy sinecure: behold, the sun

Stands still no more in Ajalon:

Depart from us!'—And if He do?


(And that He may, the Scripture says)

Is aught betwixt ye and the hells?

For He, nor in irreverent view,

'Tis He distills that savor true

Which keeps good essences from taint;


Where He is not, corruption dwells,

And man and chaos are without restraint."

"Oh, oh, you do but generalize

In void abstractions."



If be a people which began

Without impediment, or let

From any ruling which fore-ran;

Even striving all things to forget

But this—the excellence of man


Left to himself, his natural bent,

His own devices and intent;

And if, in satire of the heaven,

A world, a new world have been given

For stage whereon to deploy the event;


If such a people be—well, well,

One hears the kettle-drums of hell!

Exemplary act awaits its place

In drama of the human race."

"Is such act certain?" Rolfe here ran;


"Not much is certain."

"God is—man.

The human nature, the divine—

Have both been proved by many a sign.

'Tis no astrologer and star.


The world has now so old become,

Historic memory goes so far

Backward through long defiles of doom;

Whoso consults it honestly

That mind grows prescient in degree;


For man, like God, abides the same

Always, through all variety

Of woven garments to the frame."

"Yes, God is God, and men are men,

Forever and for aye. What then?


There's Circumstance—there's Time; and these

Are charged with store of latencies

Still working in to modify.

For mystic text that you recall,

Dilate upon, and e'en apply—


(Although I seek not to decry)

Theology's scarce practical.

But leave this: the New World's the theme,

Here, to oppose your dark extreme.

(Since an old friend is good at need)


To an old thought I'll fly. Pray, heed:

Those waste-weirs which the New World yields

To inland freshets—the free vents

Supplied to turbid elements;

The vast reserves—the untried fields;


These long shall keep off and delay

The class-war, rich-and-poor-man fray

Of history. From that alone

Can serious trouble spring. Even that

Itself, this good result may own—


The first firm founding of the state."

Here ending, with a watchful air

Inquisitive, Rolfe waited him.

And Ungar:

"True heart do ye bear


In this discussion? or but trim

To draw my monomania out,

For monomania, past doubt,

Some of ye deem it. Yet I'll on.

Yours seems a reasonable tone;


But in the New World things make haste:

Not only men, the state lives fast—

Fast breeds the pregnant eggs and shells,

The slumberous combustibles

Sure to explode. 'Twill come, 'twill come!


One demagogue can trouble much:

How of a hundred thousand such?

And universal suffrage lent

To back them with brute element

Overwhelming? What shall bind these seas


Of rival sharp communities

Unchristianized? Yea, but 'twill come!"

"What come?"

"Your Thirty Years (of) War."

"Should fortune's favorable star


Avert it?"

"Fortune? nay, 'tis doom."

"Then what comes after? spasms but tend

Ever, at last, to quiet."



Whatever happen in the end,

Be sure 'twill yield to one and all

New confirmation of the fall

Of Adam. Sequel may ensue,

Indeed, whose germs one now may view:


Myriads playing pygmy parts—

Debased into equality:

In glut of all material arts

A civic barbarism may be:

Man disennobled—brutalized


By popular science—Atheized

Into a smatterer— —"

"Oh, oh!"

"Yet knowing all self need to know

In self's base little fallacy;


Dead level of rank commonplace:

An Anglo-Saxon China, see,

May on your vast plains shame the race

In the Dark Ages of Democracy."




In stilled estate,

On him, half-brother and co-mate—

In silence, and with vision dim

Rolfe, Vine, and Clarel gazed on him;

They gazed, nor one of them found heart


To upbraid the crotchet of his smart,

Bethinking them whence sole it came,

Though birthright he renounced in hope,

Their sanguine country's wonted claim.

Nor dull they were in honest tone


To some misgivings of their own:

They felt how far beyond the scope

Of elder Europe's saddest thought

Might be the New World's sudden brought

In youth to share old age's pains—


To feel the arrest of hope's advance,

And squandered last inheritance;

And cry—"To Terminus build fanes!

Columbus ended earth's romance:

No New World to mankind remains!"