1592 words • 7~12 min read

Finding Melville’s Whale: The first 16 chapters

Thanks to everyone who’s followed along with us on our journey through the maritime classic – Moby Dick. I hope the pace is not too slow or too fast for anyone.

For those just joining us, we’re reading through Moby Dick a few chapters a week. You can follow along with your own copy or use the excellent Power Moby Dick website, complete will full text and annotations. Updates are posted every Tuesday and Thursday, with occasional Sundays. Each update includes a short summary (in verse) of the chapter. Reproduced below are the entries from chapters 1 through 16:

Loomings

To rise and fall, as the sea does, the will
of a man who chooses death by water.
This is the only story left to tell.

Journeys always begin where the shore ends.
All footsteps flow forwards towards the sea
but this journey’s end is the ocean’s will.

No passenger may be carried along
on their own journey, nor may the glory
of command distract from the reverence

of toil, of drudgery, of service
to the ship, to the sea, and to the voice,
our narrator, who calls himself Ishmael.

The Carpet Bag

South he journeys, to the island from which
the new world whaling ships unfurled their sails
and raised anchor, but the ferry has left.

Instead he seeks lodging in this Carthage,
where the taverns howl with joy. But he seeks
quieter, cheaper defense from the cold.

The wind, when it howls, is comfort or curse.
From a warm bed, comfort. From the street, curse.
The wind that howls within cannot be stilled

by a well-built wall. Those that endure it
must always endure. But perhaps some calm
can be procured within the Spouter-Inn.

The Spouter-Inn

The tavern heaves as if it were a sloop
battered by too many waves, too much drink,
as three years afloat celebrates the shore.

But revelry is for those coming in,
not those going out. Ishmael wants only
a bed. None can be had but one, to share

with the harpooner, a man peddling
in shrunken heads by lamplight and darkness.
Hesitantly, he enters the room, lies

until there stands Queequeg, wrapped in tattoos,
ax in hand, startled but sober. Ishmael,
and the harpooner, will share fouler sheets.

The Counterpain

He awoke to find the great harpooner’s
arm draped over him. The patchwork tattoos
became his comfort. Not wanting to rouse

the sleeping Queequeq, Ishmael remained still.
As a child, his mother would punish him
by forcing him to bed while still daylight.

With no such embargo, he nudged the man
awake. The cannibal rose and began
to dress, as if unaccustomed to clothes

and unused to strange customs, manners which
seem sensible to us. He soaps his face,
and smooths his beard with a harpoon’s steel edge.

Breakfast

In good spirits Ishmael seeks his breakfast.
The bar room filled with whalers, tired from
their night ashore, cheerful and bountiful.

Shore-leave echoes in the whalers faces.
Each man bore the mark of their miseries.
The youth, burned red, smelling of wet lashings,

could be no more than three days from the sea.
While older men are bleached by weeks away.
But Queequeg’s face was a map of the world,

Mountains lined his brow, parallel ridges
latitudes of life. He sat down, ate, then
lit his tomahawk pipe, and smoked, calmly.

The Street

Walking the streets of New Bedford, Ishmael
stumbles among the vast sea of seamen,
harpooners traveling across the world

to hunt the giant, legend of the deep.
And joined in this hunt are men of the wood,
hardened from felling trees. And the bumpkins,

unsuited to the waves, their trip will be short.
Many die at sea, some are killed by it,
still fewer are made rich by the waters.

Upon this gold their town was built, oil.
light of New Bedford and heart of whaling.
What good is gold that burns and seeps away.

The Chapel

Few are the fishermen who fail to pray
on the eve of their voyage. The chapel,
built for the whalemen, the wives, and widows,

bears marble tributes to their history.
One boy lost overboard, six towed away
by the whale they hunted, Captain Hardy

Killed by a sperm whale. Ishmael finds Queequeg.
They sit solemnly, pondering the mass.
Why, in the resurrection, can the dead

tell no tales, the immortal soul so feared?
“Faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs”,
like an oyster gazing through Snell’s window.

The Pulpit

The preacher, Father Mapple, emerges.
A whaleman grown old, now a minister
in oilskins, weighed heavy with water.

The pulpit towers over this congress.
No stairway can reach it an fit within
the church walls. Mapple climbs a ladder.

The ladder swung as if it were at sea,
for men to pull themselves from the waters
or climb from small craft into greater ships.

He climbs the pulpit as a mariner
would, hand-over-hand,but confidently,
and then raises the ladder behind him.

The Sermon

And now the captain begins his sermon,
A psalm to all sailors and a warning
to those who would mark their path by moonlight.

Jonah, condemned by god, seeks passage
to the edge of the world, beyond
god’s sight, god’s will, and god’s wrath
but no such edge exists.
Wickedness abides
within. He must
be swallowed
in his
sin.
But who,
by virtue
of repentance,
is again made free.
Not by the defiance
but rather the acceptance
of his punishment, thankfulness
for god’s lesson and for god’s mercy.

The lesson belongs not just to Jonah
but to any crew that would sail with such
a sinner among them. Be vigilant.

A Bosom Friend

Returning from the sermon, Ishmael finds
Queequeg sitting alone, soul unhidden.
A philosopher in savage trappings.

A
pagan
wise, serene,
comtemplative,
whom companion ship
is all he requires
whose kindness is genuine
not the hollow courtesy of
a christian seeking to serve himself
and win salvation by service
to rote of word, devotion,
not actions in kindness
nor spirit of book.
Thus, the pagan
will make a
truer
friend

And so Ishmael kneels with Queequeg, worships
his ebony idols, to do the will
of god – to do right by his fellow man.

Nightgown

Beneath the sheets of a shared bed, Queequeg
and Ishmael, now bonded in brotherhood,
share in the warmth of the other’s bodies.

With eyes closed a man can experience
who he really is. The darkness light your
inner self, while the light disguises it.

And so Ishmael awakes and takes a light
to Queequeg’s tomahawk pipe. When last night
he opposed the smoke, he now welcomes it

from a friend. Over their shared tobacco,
he encourages Queequeg to tell his
story. And so the savage tale begins.

Biographical

His island
uncharted
does not exist
on any map
true places
never do.

Son of a chief
he sought passage
by whale ship
and whale men
to a new world
and Christiandom.

To return
to his home
with the knowledge
and religion
of the west
civilized.

But whalers
and Christians
were no better
the world, wicked
he’d rather
live his life

and die pagan
harpoon in hand.

Wheelbarrow

The morning comes and Ishmael and Queequeg
purchase passage to Nantucket, from where
they will embark on their whale adventure.

Aboard The Moss a bumpkin finds Queequeg’s
appearance unacceptable, Queequeg
tosses him across the deck. The captain

is displeased. That same foolish vagabond
fails in his footing and falls overboard.
It is Queequeg who leaps into the sea,

swims out and down, finds the limp body, pulls
the man to safety. Few doubt that Queequeg
will bring salvation, least of all Ishmael.

Nantucket

At last the two arrive in Nantucket.
Nothing but sand and the whalers’ resolve.
No timber nor weeds, everything that built

this island was brought by men that hunted
whales. From the first natives who chased a child
carried away in an eagle’s talons

to the modern whalers, growing bolder,
who have declared an everlasting war
against the whale, monstrous and mountainous.

These are their oceans. They are privateers
who have conquered all seas. To live among
the waves, empire of the unfathomed deep.

Chowder

Cod or clam chowder, these were the choices
at the Try Pots, the inn recommended
by Peter Coffin at the Spouter-Inn.

So Ishmael and Queequeg ordered chowder.
First the clam, by merit of questioning
its hardiness. Finding it delicious,

they next tried the cod. Now sated and quite
chowder-headed, they retired to their

room. But before they slept, Queequeg revealed
that his idols had decreed that Ishmael
alone would choose their captain and vessel.

Queequeg would spend the next day in fasting.

The Ship

Pequod, the ship Ishmael has selected
garnished in the bones of the whales she’s killed.
A skeletal tent rises from her deck.

And within, one third the Pequod’s captains,
Peleg. He questions Ishmael’s intentions
and experience, of which he has none.

And then Bildad, a captain and a quaker,
who, though he has sworn no harm to fellow man,
will gladly spill whale blood upon the sea.

The true captain remains ashore, Ahab.
Who will guide the Pequod to whaling ground.
This will be Ishmael and Queequeg’s voyage.

~Southern Fried Scientist

Deep-sea biologist, population/conservation geneticist, backyard farm advocate. The deep sea is Earth's last great wilderness.


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