American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Of Petra

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Annie Finch wrote a note for the Poetry Foundation about the name “Petra,” which she associates with a nineteenth-century poem by the British Anglican John William Burgon. This brought to mind the Petra section of Herman Melville’s Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876), which I’ve been rereading lately for an essay that Sean Reynolds commissioned for his new journal Wild Orchids. I may post excerpts from that essay in the coming weeks. In the meantime, here is a comment I left in response to Annie’s note:

El Deir. Petra

"El Deir. Petra" (from The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt & Nubia: From Drawings Made on the Spot by David Roberts)

Petra also shows up in Melville’s Clarel, especially in Canto 30 of Part Two, “Of Petra,” where Derwent (the character supposedly based on Hawthorne) asks Rolfe about it, calling it “The City Red in cloud-land.” Rolfe, an American adventurer (and supposedly a projection of Melville himself), has been there, and describes it as an apotheosis of eighteenth-century aesthetics: fabulously beautiful, but only reached after a rigorous journey; hewn from sublime landscape, haunted by a long-gone past (Petra was a part of the Edomite kingdom):

Mark’st thou the face of yon slabbed hight
Shouldered about by hights? what Door
Is that, sculptured in elfin freak?
The portal of the Prince o’ the Air?
Thence will the god emerge, and speak?
El Deir it is; and Petra’s there,
Down in her cleft. Mid such a scene
Of Nature’s terror, how serene
That ordered form. Nor less ’tis cut
Out of that terror–does abut
Thereon: that’s Art.

The canto ends with a wonderful exchange that highlights the differences between Melville and Hawthorne as Melville understood them. Derwent says, “That portal lures me.” Rolfe replies, “Nay, forebear; / A bootless journey.” And then a little later:

We’d knock. An echo. Knock again —
Ay, knock forever: none requite:
The live spring filters through cell, fane,
And tomb: a dream the Edomite!

To which Derwent happily replies:

And dreamers all who dream of him—
Though Sinbad’s pleasant in the skim.
Pæstum and Petra: good to use
For sedative when one would muse.

A perfect caricature: Melville the seeker, with a practical understanding of what’s involved in adventure and with a respect for dreams that assumes they’re inevitably tinged with melancholy. Hawthorne the storyteller, upholding adventure and dreams as ideals while relegating both, finally, to bedtime reverie.

Written by Ben Friedlander

May 5, 2009 at 5:10 pm

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