I’ve written on this not-very-talked-about collection of shorts from Melville, called The Happy Failure, before, and Melville has been a character-revival of some consequence as of late anyway, but this quirky story “The Two Temples” completely blindsided me. A short story in two parts, “Temple the First” and “Temple the Second,” the narrator is an unnamed “stranger in a strange land,” a hapless and penniless American in London, who cannot seem to find his way home. With his landlady’s rent overdue and nobody to turn to, he turns first to the only thing he ever knew for solace back home: church. With prayerbook in hand, he jaunts over to a lovely, well-to-do Anglican parish church, certain to find open doors and open arms. Finding neither, but instead a “fat-paunched, beadle-faced man” denying his entrance by the very look of him, he decides to then make his way through the side door, while the harsh usher brooms out three small boys.
Knowing he’s unwelcome, but desperate enough still for any kind of home comfort, he sneaks up the belltower to worship from above. It’s an astoundingly paradoxical move by Melville, who positions his main character aloft, above the communion of blue-blood saints, all the while being the coatless beggar the pharisees never wanted. On top of it, his perch is also the mouth of the furnace. He is oddly both the heavenly chosen, and the man at the wrong church–the low is high and the high sits below. The Temple First is a rude toying with the Pharisee’s grip on the Publican: unwelcome, he stands above:
When, all eagerness, and open book in hand, I first advanced to stand before the window, I involuntarily shrank, as from before the mouth of a furnace, upon suddenly feeling a forceful puff of strange heated air, blown, as by a blacksmith’s bellows, full into my face and lungs. Yes, thought I, this window is doubtless for ventilation. Nor is it quite so comfortable as I fancied it might be. But beggars must not be choosers. The furnace which makes the people below there feel so snug and cosy in their padded pews, is to me, who stand here upon the naked gallery, cause of grievous trouble. Besides, though my face is scorched, my back is frozen. But I won’t complain. Thanks for this much, anyway,–that by hollowing one hand to my ear, and standing a little sideways out of the more violent rush of torrid current, I can at least hear the priest sufficiently to make my responses in the proper place. Little dream the good congregation away down there, that they have a faith clerk away up here. Here, too, is a fitter place for sincere devotions, where, though I see, I remain unseen. Depend upon it, no Pharisee would have my pew, I like it, and admire it, too, because it is so very high. Height, somehow, hath devotion in it. The archangelic anthems are raised in a lofty place. All the good shall go to such an one. Yes, Heaven is high.
But, Melville seems to be of the persuasion that Heaven is strangely low. At least, as the narrator tells it, the church service ends and, in an attempt to exit unseen, he waits too long and finds himself locked in the belfry ventilator. He cannot get out, by knocking, or calling. Finally making enough noise to be rescued (by ringing the bells of the belfry, nonetheless!), the same “beadle-faced” usher discovers him and, this time, escorts him to a police car. Classic religious wrath for the classic view of “high” religious piety. This Temple is completely turned on its head in “The Temple Second.”
The Temple Second is a modest theater. Poorer now than he was before, the narrator wanders the dark streets for any kind of non-condemning communion, and happens upon the only lights still on in this humble neighborhood, a humble theater showing a play. Desperate to get in, but sure he cannot, he sits amongst those outside–though he is not a beggar–and is suddenly handed a ticket from a patron leaving early. He says this to the narrator: “You want to go in; I know you do. Take it. I am suddenly called home. There–hope you’ll enjoy yourself. Good-bye.” This then turns our narrator spinning neurotically from publican back to pharisee and back again–surely he can’t accept a gift as a beggar would?
“Shall I use it?” Mused I.–What? It’s charity.–But if it be gloriously right to do a charitable deed, can it be ingloriously wrong to receive its benefit?–No one knows you; go boldly in.–Charity.–Why these unvanquishable scruples? All your life, naught but charity sustains you, and all other in the world. Maternal charity nursed you as a babe; paternal charity fed you as a child; friendly charity got you your profession; and to the charity of every man you meet this night in London, are you indebted for your unattempted life. Any knife, any hand of all the millions of knives and hands in London, has you this night at its mercy. You, and all mortals, live but by sufferance of your charitable kind; charitable by omission, not performance.–Stush for your self-upbraidings, and pitiful, poor, shabby pride, you friendless man without a purse.–Go in.
Going in, debate over, but still hesitant to accept his state as beggar, he finds a warm, unobstructed seat and a free dram of ale from a young spectator in his row. Blown away by this act of charity from a boy who, unlike himself, really looked like a beggar, our narrator has a Scrooge-like transformation, mid-performance, blessing the boy for his gift. Because of his unhinged acceptance, suddenly this theater is more church, more home, than church or home ever had felt before. His dram of ale is a sort of eucharist, a reminder of unwarranted and free-ranging welcome:
[The boy] stared at my strange burst, smiled merrily, and left me, offering his coffee-pot (of beer) in all directions, and not in vain.
‘Tis not always poverty to be poor, mused I; one may fare well without a penny. A ragged boy may be a prince-like benefactor. Because that unpurchased penny-worth of ale revived my drooping spirits strangely. Stuff was in that barley malt; a most sweet bitterness in those blessed hops. God bless the glorious boy!
…I went home to that lonely lodging, and slept not much that night, for thinking of the First Temple and the Second Temple; and how that, a stranger in a strange land, I found sterling charity in the one; and at home, in my own land, was thrust out from the other.