Thursday, February 28, 2008

Questions and Answers

The sufferance of her race is shown,
And retrospect of life,
Which now too late deliverance dawns upon;
Yet is she not at strife.

Her children's children they shall know
The good withheld from her;
And so her reverie takes prophetic cheer--
In spirit she sees the stir.

Far down the depth of thousand years,
And marks the revel shine;
Her dusky face is lit with sober light,
Sibylline, yet benign.

“Formerly a Slave. An Idealized Portrait, by E. Vedder, in the SpringExhibition of the National Academy, 1865” by Herman Melville

When Herman Melville saw a portrait of a former slave named Jane Jackson painted by Elihu Vedder, he felt inspired to write the poem “Formerly a Slave” copied above. Born February 26, 1836, Vedder normally painted in a symbolist style, taking mythological material such as the sphinx and creating dreamlike scenes such as The Questioner of the Sphinx (above, from 1863). Melville, however, sensed the “sibylline” quality of Vedder’s painting of Jackson in the “depth of thousand years” in her face. (Vedder later painted Jackson as the Cumaean Sibyl.) Melville’s admiration for Vedder continued, leading him to dedicate his 1891 collection of poems titled Timoleon to “My countryman/ Elihu Vedder.” Although some (including Wikipedia) allege that Melville and Vedder knew one another, they never met. Vedder’s thank you note to Melville for the dedication to him arrived after Melville’s death. Few American artists worked in a Symbolist style, so Melville quite easily saw a kindred spirit in Vedder, a true visionary of the late nineteenth century once forgotten like Melville yet still awaiting a rediscovery.

Vedder gravitated to fellow visionaries throughout his career, both living and dead. A poet himself, he knew Walt Whitman and later became friends with William Butler Yeats. The Pre-Raphaelites greatly influenced his work and, by extension, introduced him to the work of William Blake. In The Pleiades (above, from 1885) we see both the visionary style of Blake as well as the idealized female form (the “stunner”) of Pre-Raphaelitism. The Pleiades were seven nymphs of Greek mythology who were the daughters of Atlas and gave birth to children by Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares. In Vedder’s eyes, they are the epitome of female beauty and grace, idealized figures swirling about in luxurient drapery and shining as brilliantly as the stars named after them.

I’ve always found the Symbolist style to be fascinating. When the narrative elements verge on the obscure, it veers into proto-Surrealism. When the narrative strays into the obvious, it derails into the facile. Vedder always seems to steer the proper course, as in works such as The Sorrowing Soul Between Doubt and Faith (above, from 1887). The poor soul in the center finds herself torn between following the secular wisdom of the ages (symbolized by the greybeard on the left) and the spiritual uplift of religion (symbolized by the angel on the right). By defining secular knowledge as “Doubt,” Vedder answers the question almost immediately, but in that triumvirate he neatly encapsulates the central dilemma of the Victorian age–hold on to the faith of their fathers or accept the new tenets of Darwinism and science. Although he labels one side as “Doubt,” the tension remains in that the old man and the knowledge he offers remain attractive to at least part of the questioner’s mind. In such images, Vedder speaks to the same dilemma America faces today as debates over evolution and the separation of church and state continue to bring sorrow to the national soul.

1 comment:

Sally Big Woods said...

nice post. As always. Love the "Sorrowing Soul..." by Vedder.