Herman Melville, “Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century” & Commentary

Poem and a few of my comments.

Herman_Melville_1860Herman Melville

“Fragments of a Lost Gnostic Poem of the Twelfth Century”

Found a family, build a state,
The pledged event is still the same:
Matter in end will never abate
His ancient brutal claim.

Indolence is heaven’s ally here,
And energy the child of hell:
The Good Man pouring from his pitcher clear
But brims the poisoned well.


I’m impressed by the clarity and compact nature of this poem – which is surprising for Melville, who is not known for clarity or compactness. He is, however, an American writer to place alongside Shakespeare – not that we need to have a writer equal to Shakespeare. The notion smacks of arrogance on my part … which makes Melville’s poem all the more real.

This work strikes me as a poem about the human bent toward self-destruction – God and humanity; the pledged event and brutal claim; to found, to poison. The poem’s title does a wonderful job in displacing the reader in terms of time and setting, making the work universal – in preparation for a merging of old and new worlds. I’m drawn in by the mythical implications of the opening line, which is spoken under the shadow of Manifest Destiny – our culture’s Achilles heel, our “poisoned well”. The two institutions, so-called, in the opening – family and state – are actually at war with one another. Melville deepens this dual conflict in the second stanza: indolence and heaven; energy and hell. These odd allies are reminiscent of William Blake’s writings.

The odd pairing becomes important for Melville’s haunting image that closes the poem: the Good Man pouring from the pitcher into the poisoned well. The reader must question what is poured. For me, it’s the whole of our culture that is being poured out. This pouring either poisons the well or at least adds to its already deadly state. If the well is taken as a religious symbol, then the biblical notion of living water becomes transformed into a source more accustomed to death – the God of the Old Testament – reflecting Melville’s view of “the ancient brutal claim”. What I find most interesting here is the fact that the well is already poisoned. Maybe this reflects Melville’s view of the human condition – be it social, religious, or political. Also, his emphasis of [G]ood [M]an adds some sort of elevated quality to the nameless character who is, ultimately, a figure of darkness.

What remains? Fragments. Uncertainty. Loss.


~ by samofthetenthousandthings on May 24, 2015.

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