Monthly Archives: March 2015

Northern Lights, naked and scabbardless.

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“A right valiant and jaunty Chevalier is our hero; going about with his long Toledo perpetually drawn. Rely upon it, he will fight you to the hilt, for his bony blade has never a scabbard. He himself sprang from it at birth; yea, at the very moment he leaped into the Battle of Life; as we mortals ourselves spring all naked and scabbardless into the world. Yet, rather, are we scabbards to our souls. And the drawn soul of genius is more glittering than the drawn cimeter of Saladin. But how many let their steel sleep, till it eat up the scabbard itself, and both corrode to rust-chips. Saw you ever the hillocks of old Spanish anchors, and anchor-stocks of ancient galleons, at the bottom of Callao Bay? The world is full of old Tower armories, and dilapidated Venetian arsenals, and rusty old rapiers. But true warriors polish their good blades by the bright beams of the morning; and gird them on to their brave sirloins; and watch for rust spots as for foes; and by many stout thrusts and stoccadoes keep their metal lustrous and keen, as the spears of the Northern Lights charging over Greenland.”

(Herman Melville, Mardi (1849) chapter 32.)

Mardi was, famously, not a critical success. “We have seldom found our reading faculty so near exhaustion, or our good nature as critics so severely exercised, as in an attempt to get through this new work by the author of the fascinating Typee and Omoo”, wrote George Ripley in the New York Tribune, May 10 1849 – coincidentally the day of the Astor Place Riot in New York, in which 22 people, supporters of American Shakespearean actor Edwin Forrest, were killed when New York State militia opened fire on a crowd protesting at British actor William Macready’s ‘interpretation’ of Macbeth. The class politics of American culture, also naked and scabbardless. See http://www.shakespeareinamericanlife.org/stage/onstage/yesterday/astor.cfm

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