There are furtive joys and obscure pleasures known only to the very bookish. Last night I was making a sentimental stroll through Book I of Paradise Lost and came across the following passage, a description of fallen angels mustering in their legions on the plain of Hell:
……………[I]n even balance down they light
On the firm brimstone and fill all the plain;
A multitude like which the populous North
Poured never from her frozen loins to pass
Rhene or Danau, when her barbarous sons
Came like a deluge on the South, and spread
Beneath Gibraltar to the Libyan sands.
It was too oddly familiar: the image of barbarians flooding southward, the “frozen loins” of the north, etc. Then came a leaping Eureka! moment as I snatched up an old notebook and found copied inside this passage from Herman Melville’s marvelously weird (however imperfect) Pierre, or The Ambiguities:
Sudden onsets of new truth will assail him and overrun him as the Tartars did China; for there is no China Wall that a man can build in his soul which shall permanently stay the irruptions of those barbarous hordes which Truth ever nourishes in the loins of her frozen, yet teeming, North, so that the Empire of Human Knowledge can never be lasting in any one dynasty, since Truth still gives new Emperors to the earth.
Melville, it seems, had Milton on the brain. As a general statement this is no great revelation – not since the unearthing some years ago of Melville’s own copy of Milton’s works and the publication of his annotations to Paradise Lost. But as a particular instance of Miltonic influence, I like to imagine I am its sole discoverer. It feels something like playing Galileo and being first to glimpse the lunar mountains or to measure the tail of an unknown comet.
Was it a conscious reference on Melville’s part? Likely not. The transposition of truths for devils is intriguing, but there’s not enough to go on, I think. Still, it’s a great find. Just there, for the briefest moment, we catch a sort of celestial alignment of the minds and Melville (who is quite opaque most of the time) becomes temporarily transparent: along the axis of metaphor we see right through him all the way to Milton.
Literary detective work like this, when done in the way of duty, is the daily sweat and toil of graduate students locked in cold, dim reading rooms of university libraries. They note each minor find dispassionately and move on. But when made years out of school in the embrace of a plush armchair and solely by power of chance and memory, such discoveries are moments of rarest serendipity, enough to sustain us for a week, even two, in the long march through the Vale of Tears that is our life. Only those who suffer from my particular malady will understand.