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Book review: The poetry of “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville

One of the great pleasures of reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is his wondrously muscular prose.  So thick with meaning and image, so meaty with psychological insight, so dense and meaty.

Often, reading one of his paragraphs — even one of his sentences — I was struck by the poetry of his prose.  It is a prose-poetry of rhythm and sound, of deep echoes (of Shakespeare, of the Bible, or the vast store of literature), of hard edges and the softness-hardness of the ocean water.

Here are ten examples:

The Pacific

When gliding by the Bashee isles

we emerged at last upon the great South Sea;

were it not for other things, I could have greeted

my dear Pacific

with uncounted thanks,

for now the long supplication of my youth was answered;

that serene ocean rolled eastwards from me

a thousand leagues of blue.

There is, one knows not what sweet mystery about this sea,

whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak

of some hidden soul beneath;

like those fabled undulations

of the Ephesian sod over the buried Evangelist St. John.

And meet it is, that over these sea-pastures,

wide-rolling watery prairies

and Potters’ Fields of all four continents,

the waves should rise and fall,

and ebb and flow unceasingly;

for here, millions of mixed shades and shadows,

drowned dreams,

somnambulisms, reveries;

all that we call lives and souls,

lie dreaming, dreaming, still;

tossing like slumberers in their beds;

the ever-rolling waves but made so by their restlessness.


A meditation before the bones of ancient whales

When I stand among these mighty Leviathan skeletons,

skulls, tusks, jaws, ribs, and vertebræ,

all characterized by partial resemblances

to the existing breeds of sea-monsters;

but at the same time bearing on the other hand

similar affinities to the annihilated antichronical Leviathans,

their incalculable seniors;

I am, by a flood,

borne back to that wondrous period,

ere time itself can be said to have begun;

for time began with man.

Here Saturn’s grey chaos rolls over me,

and I obtain dim, shuddering glimpses

into those Polar eternities;

when wedged bastions of ice pressed hard

upon what are now the Tropics;

and in all the 25,000 miles of this world’s circumference,

not an inhabitable hand’s breadth of land was visible.

Then the whole world was the whale’s;

and, king of creation,

he left his wake

along the present lines of the Andes and the Himmalehs.

Who can show a pedigree like Leviathan?

Ahab’s harpoon had shed older blood than the Pharaoh’s.

Methuselah seems a school-boy.

I look round to shake hands with Shem.

I am horror-struck at this antemosaic, unsourced existence

of the unspeakable terrors of the whale,

which, having been before all time,

must needs exist after all humane ages are over.


The Blacksmith and the Burglar Drink

He was an old man, who,

at the age of nearly sixty,

had postponedly encountered

that thing in sorrow’s technicals called ruin.

He had been an artisan of famed excellence,

and with plenty to do;

owned a house and garden;

embraced a youthful, daughter-like, loving wife,

and three blithe, ruddy children;

every Sunday went to a cheerful-looking church, planted in a grove.

But one night, under cover of darkness,

and further concealed in a most cunning disguisement,

a desperate burglar slid into his happy home,

and robbed them all of everything.

And darker yet to tell,

the blacksmith himself did ignorantly conduct this burglar

into his family’s heart.

It was the Bottle Conjuror!

Upon the opening of that fatal cork,

forth flew the fiend, and shrivelled up his home.

Now, for prudent, most wise, and economic reasons,

the blacksmith’s shop was in the basement of his dwelling,

but with a separate entrance to it;

so that always had the young and loving healthy wife

listened with no unhappy nervousness, but with vigorous pleasure,

to the stout ringing of her young-armed old husband’s hammer;

whose reverberations,

muffled by passing through the floors and walls,

came up to her, not unsweetly, in her nursery;

and so, to stout Labor’s iron lullaby,

the blacksmith’s infants were rocked to slumber.

Oh, woe on woe!

Oh, Death, why canst thou not sometimes be timely?

Hadst thou taken this old blacksmith to thyself

ere his full ruin came upon him,

then had the young widow had a delicious grief,

and her orphans a truly venerable, legendary sire

to dream of in their after years;

and all of them a care-killing competency.

But Death plucked down some virtuous elder brother,

on whose whistling daily toil solely hung

the responsibilities of some other family,

and left the worse than useless old man standing,

till the hideous rot of life should make him easier to harvest.

Why tell the whole?

The blows of the basement hammer every day

grew more and more between;

and each blow every day grew fainter than the last;

the wife sat frozen at the window, with tearless eyes,

glitteringly gazing into the weeping faces of her children;

the bellows fell;

the forge choked up with cinders;

the house was sold;

the mother dived down into the long church-yard grass;

her children twice followed her thither;

and the houseless, familyless old man

staggered off a vagabond in crape;

his every woe unreverenced;

his grey head a scorn to flaxen curls!


The Dying Whale

It was far down the afternoon;

and when all the spearings of the crimson fight were done:

and floating in the lovely sunset sea and sky,

sun and whale both stilly died together;

then, such a sweetness and such plaintiveness,

such inwreathing orisons curled up in that rosy air,

that it almost seemed as if

far over from the deep green convent valleys of the Manilla isles,

the Spanish land-breeze,

wantonly turned sailor,

had gone to sea,

freighted with these vesper hymns.


Ahab’s revengeful desire

For the peculiar snow-white brow of Moby Dick,

and his snow-white hump,

could not but be unmistakable.

And have I not tallied the whale,

Ahab would mutter to himself,

as after poring over his charts till long after midnight

he would throw himself back in reveries

—tallied him, and shall he escape?

His broad fins are bored, and scalloped out like a lost sheep’s ear!

And here, his mad mind would run on in a breathless race;

till a weariness and faintness of pondering came over him;

and in the open air of the deck

he would seek to recover his strength.

Ah, God! what trances of torments

does that man endure

who is consumed

with one unachieved revengeful desire.

He sleeps with clenched hands;

and wakes with his own bloody nails in his palms.


A sea-chapel’s memorials to dead sailors

Oh! ye whose dead lie buried beneath the green grass;

who standing among flowers can say—here, here lies my beloved;

ye know not the desolation that broods in bosoms like these.

What bitter blanks

in those black-bordered marbles which cover no ashes!

What despair in those immovable inscriptions!

What deadly voids and unbidden infidelities

in the lines that seem to gnaw upon all Faith,

and refuse resurrections to the beings

who have placelessly perished without a grave.

As well might those tablets stand in the cave of Elephanta as here.

In what census of living creatures,

the dead of mankind are included;

why it is that a universal proverb says of them,

that they tell no tales,

though containing more secrets than the Goodwin Sands;

how it is that to his name

who yesterday departed for the other world,

we prefix so significant and infidel a word,

and yet do not thus entitle him,

if he but embarks for the remotest Indies of this living earth;

why the Life Insurance Companies pay death-forfeitures upon immortals;

in what eternal, unstirring paralysis,

and deadly, hopeless trance,

yet lies antique Adam who died sixty round centuries ago;

how it is that we still refuse to be comforted

for those who we nevertheless maintain

are dwelling in unspeakable bliss;

why all the living so strive to hush all the dead;

wherefore but the rumor of a knocking in a tomb

will terrify a whole city.

All these things are not without their meanings.

But Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs,

and even from these dead doubts

she gathers her most vital hope.


Ahab shouts to the St. Elmo’s fire illuminating the Pequod

“Oh! thou clear spirit of clear fire,

whom on these seas

I as Persian

once did worship,

till in the sacramental act

so burned by thee,

that to this hour I bear the scar;

I now know thee,

thou clear spirit,

and I now know that thy right worship is defiance.

To neither love nor reverence wilt thou be kind;

and e’en for hate thou canst but kill;

and all are killed.

No fearless fool now fronts thee.

I own thy speechless, placeless power;

but to the last gasp of my earthquake life

will dispute

its unconditional, unintegral mastery in me.

In the midst of the personified impersonal,

a personality stands here.

Though but a point at best;

whencesoe’er I came; wheresoe’er I go;

yet while I earthly live,

the queenly personality lives in me,

and feels her royal rights.

But war is pain, and hate is woe.

Come in thy lowest form of love,

and I will kneel and kiss thee;

but at thy highest,

come as mere supernal power;

and though thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds,

there’s that in here that still remains indifferent.

Oh, thou clear spirit, of thy fire thou madest me,

and like a true child of fire,

I breathe it back to thee.”


Ahab’s harpoon

Look ye, Nantucketer;

here in this hand

I hold his death!

Tempered in blood,

and tempered by lightning

are these barbs;

and I swear to temper them triply

in that hot place behind the fin,

where the White Whale most feels his accursed life!”


The Pequod crew and the chase

The frenzies of the chase

had by this time worked them bubblingly up,

like old wine worked anew.

Whatever pale fears and forebodings

some of them might have felt before;

these were not only now

kept out of sight through the growing awe of Ahab,

but they were broken up,

and on all sides routed,

as timid prairie hares

that scatter before the bounding bison.

The hand of Fate had snatched all their souls;

and by the stirring perils of the previous day;

the rack of the past night’s suspense;

the fixed, unfearing, blind, reckless way

in which their wild craft went plunging towards its flying mark;

by all these things,

their hearts were bowled along.

The wind that made great bellies of their sails,

and rushed the vessel on

by arms invisible as irresistible;

this seemed the symbol of that unseen agency

which so enslaved them to the race.


Call me Ishmael

Call me Ishmael.

Some years ago

—never mind how long precisely—

having little or no money in my purse,

and nothing particular to interest me on shore,

I thought I would sail about a little

and see the watery part of the world.

It is a way I have

of driving off the spleen

and regulating the circulation.

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth;

whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul;

whenever I find myself

involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses,

and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet;

and especially

whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me,

that it requires a strong moral principle

to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street,

and methodically knocking people’s hats off

—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

This is my substitute for pistol and ball.

With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword;

I quietly take to the ship.

There is nothing surprising in this.

If they but knew it,

almost all men in their degree,

some time or other,

cherish very nearly

the same feelings towards the ocean with me.


Patrick T. Reardon


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