Why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image

I’ve always assumed Melville’s reference to Narcissus (below) was of a very general sort – serving only as a means to activate a connection to his concluding ‘ungraspable phantom of life’ – but thinking on it a bit while reading Ovid’s version this morning it does seem an easy argument to push for a deeper connection. For instance, Ovid’s

quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas? (why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image) is a more than suitable reply to Ahab’s All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks speech in The Quarter-Deck. But the argument makes itself for anyone who cares so here are the passages side by side.

From ch. 1 (Loomings) of Moby Dick:


And still deeper the meaning of that story of Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. But that same image, we ourselves see in all rivers and oceans. It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.

From Ovid’s Metamorphoses 3.430, in the Loeb translation:

What he sees he knows not; but that which he sees he burns for, and the same delusion mocks and allures his eyes. O fondly foolish boy, why vainly seek to clasp a fleeting image? What you seek is nowhere; but turn yourself away, and the object of your love will be no more. That which you behold is but the shadow of a reflected form and has no substance of its own. With you it comes, with you it stays, and it will go with you—if you can go.

quid videat, nescit; sed quod videt, uritur illo,
atque oculos idem, qui decipit, incitat error.
credule, quid frustra simulacra fugacia captas?
quod petis, est nusquam; quod amas, avertere, perdes!
ista repercussae, quam cernis, imaginis umbra est:
nil habet ista sui; tecum venitque manetque;
tecum discedet, si tu discedere possis!

According to Melville’s Marginalia Melville’s personal copy of Ovid no longer survives but there is a digitized copy of (a different printing) of that edition online at Hathitrust. Here’s the passage (pg 85, lines 495-500 of bk. 3, translated by Addison).

Nor knows he who it is his arms pursue
With eager clasps, but loves he knows not who.
What could, found youth, this helpless passion move?
What kindled in thee this unpitied love?
They own warm blush within the water glows,
With thee the color’d shadow comes and goes,
Its empty being on thyself relies;
Step thou aside and the frail charmer dies.

One would hope he also had access to the classic Arthur Golding edition – since it does a far better job of capturing the elements he’d want for Moby Dick:

He knowes not what it was he sawe. And yet the foolish elfe
Doth burne in ardent love thereof. The verie selfsame thing
That doth bewitch and blinde his eyes, encreaseth all his sting.
Thou fondling thou, why doest thou raught the fickle image so?
The thing thou seekest is not there. And if aside thou go,
The thing thou lovest straight is gone. It is none other matter
That thou doest see, than of thy selfe the shadow in the water.
The thing is nothing of it selfe: with thee it doth abide,
With thee it would departe if thou withdrew thy selfe aside.

A final note of passing interest- the Melville’s Marginalia site does preserve one bit of Melville’s engagement with Ovid – a marginal checkmark in Warton’s History of English Poetry next to the sentence which begins ‘The Elegies of Ovid, which convey the obscenities of the brothel in elegant language….’.

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