This essay addresses Melville’s epic poem, Clarel (1876), described by Walter Bezanson as ‘a historical document almost of the first order’. It accounts for its generic instability (between epic and lyric) not as failure, but as a commitment to the pulse of what Ronald Mason calls Melville’s ‘historical, even dialectical, approach’. I argue that this dynamic mode – in which poetry engages the material – aligns Melville with Matthew Arnold (who Melville read closely) through their respective poetic responses to contemporary ‘higher criticism’ of the Bible. The essay traces Clarel’s repeated staging of collective acts of ‘beauty making,’ in the form of singing, chanting, and reading, as heuristic tools in the will to recognize relationships between material presence and ineffable yet enduring affect, even in radically altered conditions of faith. The essay thus significantly refines our sense of how poetry engages historical and material conditions by putting this leading American writer into dialogue with his transatlantic contemporary
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