1838 words • 8~13 min read

Finding Melville’s Whale: Chapters 17-33

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 17 through 33:

The Ramadan

No peace for pagans nor god-fearing men,
they are all broken. So, without judgement,
He leaves Queequeg to his tribal sabbath.

At the end of the day, Ishmael returns
to find the door locked and the room silent.
For all his banging, nothing stirs within.

Ishmael grabs the ax from the wall, charges
and is stopped by the landlady who will
have none wreck her inn for any reason.

She gets a key. Inside, Queequeg is still,
silently praying to his idols, gods
as much as Ishmael’s. He rises and eats.

His Mark

And so Ishmael and Queequeg board their ship
and meet their three-fold captain, but one third
of their holy host is missing, the ghost.

The captains demand a statement of faith.
Ishmael steps forward to testify that
Queequeg is of the brotherhood of man.

On the Pequod’s deck, Peleg examines
Queequeg, challenges the harpooner’s arm.
Leaping into a whaleboat, Queequeg hurls

his massive harpoon and strikes a tar spot
across the deck. Peleg needs nothing more.
So, in the register, he makes his mark.

The Prophet

“Shipmates have yea shipped?” the poxed old man asked
Ishmael and Queequeg as they disembarked
from the Pequod. Yes, their papers are signed.

Then so are your souls, if you have any,
is the shabby prophet’s accusation.
Most whalers do not, it’s wasted on them.

But Old Thunder has enough soul to spare.
Obey him, for he lay dead for three days
before rising, his leg lost to the beast.

The prophet looks upon them with pity.
Turning to leave, Ishmael asks for his name.
Elijah, the lonely prophet replied.

All Astir

The day after the prophet’s pronouncement
the Pequod’s crew were made to load their chests
and be ready at any time to sail.

A three year cruise demands three year’s ration.
The Pequod was stocked with all the supplies
essential to a whaling crew’s comfort

and spares of all gear, save captain and crew.
Bildad’s sister, kindly Aunt Charity
took care to stock the ship with niceties.

Yet still, no sign of the ghostly Ahab,
a captain whose presence is faith alone.
Queequeg and Ishmael would sail the next morn.

Going Aboard

“Avast!” cries the prophet as Queequeg and
Ishmael, make their way towards the Pequod.
“Go with those grim ghosts aboard that vessel,

I shall see you soon enough, when at last
the Grand Jury convenes.” On board, stillness
as both timber and crew rest at the dock.

Finding a crew member sleeping in his bunk,
Queequeg sits upon him and lights his pipe.
A convenient use for a lesser man.

And still, in the quiet of the cabin,
among exile, savage, and sleeping man,
none have lain eyes on the ghostly Ahab.

Merry Christmas

Starbuck, the chief mate, and Stubb, the second mate,
rush to fill the threefold captain’s orders.
With the anchor raised, the sails filled with wind,

and Ishmael brimming with doubt, the Pequod
departs Nantucket Harbor, with Bildad,
the pilot, driving her into the sea.

Free of the harbor, Bildad and Peleg
linger aboard, jealous of the journey,
then depart, leaving the unseen captain,

Ahab, The lone Atlantic reaches out
and pulls them in. An unseen hand, for an
unseen captain commands and unseen fate.

The Lee Shore

Bulkington, this book is his epitaph.
A man so driven that he spent no more
than four days ashore before the mast called

him back to take the helm of the Pequod.
The truth of ships and men who crave the sea
is that the coastline is their darkest foe

and the howling wind a cruel tormentress.
The sea, wide and deep, is sanctuary.
The earth, hateful rocks to crack head and hull.

The Advocate

Poetry is ill suited for whaling.
Society burns on the blood of whales
yet spurns the butchers. We are all butchers.

Look across the pages of history,
rejoice! The glory of harpoon and man,
in chasing the whale we swallowed the world

as Jonah, by that first leviathan.
The wealth of nations from that royal fish.
Legacy of kings and kindred nobles.

For the whale itself is the dignity
of the southern sky, Cetus. Let no man
have honor lest he kneel before Queequeg.

Postscript

In the casting of their coronation,
kings and queens are baptized in the oil
of the richest whale. Their blood moves nations.

Knights and Squires

A fearless man is far more dangerous,
and the first mate, Starbuck, will take no man
into his boat that does not fear the whale.
For his harpooner, he choses Queequeg.
The knight, Starbuck, with Queequeg’s spear.

To be so comfortable with destruction
that danger is met with indifference
is to be the second mate, careless Stubb.
For his harpooner, tawny Tashtego.
Sir Stubb with Tashtego’s arrows.

Last is a man fashioned of wrought iron,
hunting for fun, no reverence for whales.
Flask, third among the crew, built to endure.
For his harpooner, the giant Daggoo.
The empty Flask with Daggoo’s arms.

These were the knights, the whaling men,
and their squires, their harpooners.
Each stands alone on their island,
Together on the Pequod’s deck.

Ahab

It was the nights that ran the ship in those
first many days, well-suited to the task.
Even at sea, no phantom captain seen.

And the, one morning with the changing shift,
Captain Ahab appeared upon the deck,
a sea-foam scar racing across his face

His leg, the polished jaw of a sperm whale,
taken from him off the coast of Japan,
Yet more solid than a sailor’s sea legs.

Into the deck of the Pequod were bored
Slots for his peg to fit, Captain and ship,
had become one in their infernal fate.

Enter Ahab; to him, Stubb

Greybeards – for those who walk the deck at night,
the sky is the solitude, by Ahab,
fragmented, broken, scarred, is ill at ease.

Below, only death, the creaking coffin
of the Pequod’s hull, darkness. Ahab’s tomb
lies beneath the deck, and so he paces.

A peg is not a prop to pace at night.
Each step echoes against the planks, haunting
the dreams of men that are buried below.

Thus emerges Stubb, to beg the Captain
to muffle his post. rage flashes acoss
Ahab’s furrowed brow.

No man of dog would dare to deliver
such a foolish plea.

To a man such as he, Ahab’s Fury
takes root.

The Pipe

This is the rage of the Captain, the king,
no more can he find solace in smoke,
the serenity of the pipe
no longer his, he toils
forcing the fog the soothes
angry minds and stills
unquiet men.
He casts it
into
the sea.

Queen Mab

There is wisdom yet in the dreams of fools
who question their master, wrathful Ahab
and take to heart a blow by ivory leg.

In the fragile heart of Stubb’s fitful sleep
to be struck by Ahab is an insult
and great honor, no finer man could strike.

“Wise Stubb,” cries the marlin-spiked old humpback
rising from the sea, a royal blessing
in the poor sailor’s tormented slumber.

To Flask, the dream is nothing but foolish.
The Captain will not be challenged. He calls
“keep watch for a white whale and follow me!”

into madness.

Cetology

Let this be the book of the whale,
chronicle of tortured naturalists.
For who could fathom those great depths
and plum the drum of waves on hull
without a loyal oath, Leviathan!
Lord tyrant of the sea, Sperm Whale!
and this is his kingdom, his loyal court.

Let it first be said, before numbering
the pages of his family
that as certain as they swim in the sea,
the whale is no more than a fish.
A fish remarkable in its warm blood
and lungs, that drive it to the surface,
but, Linnaeus be damned, it is a fish!

These are the three books of the whales’ novel.
Each divided again into
a bookbinder’s twisted taxonomy.
The largest of all, Folios,
those of middling magnitude, Octavoes,
the smallest, Duodecimo.
Beyond them, the whales of myth and fable.

FOLIO, Chapter 1, Sperm Whale
Most formidable of all whales
and most valuable.
Within his head, spermaceti,
the richest oil.

FOLIO, Chapter 2, Right Whale
The bearer of whalebone, baleen.
First to be hunted.
Its tortured taxonomy lies
entangled with doubt.

FOLIO, Chapter 3, Fin Back
This solitary, curse-ed Cain,
swims always alone.
The whales, in all their forms, deny
classification.

FOLIO, Chapter 4, Hump Back
Joyful, but worthless.

FOLIO, Chapter 5, Razor Back
Unknown to Melville
and an enigma to modern
cetologists, none
have seen anything but his back.

FOLIO, Chapter 6, Sulfur Bottom
The Blue Whale, never
chased by whale men of Nantucket.

OCTAVO, Chapter 1, Grampus
Small in stature, rich in oil.
His arrival heralds the sperm,
His larger twin.

OCTAVO, Chapter 2, Black Fish
Fine oil for a smaller whale.
He approaches as a pilot
over the shoals.

OCTAVO, Chapter 3, Narwhal
The polar beast bears a lone horn
to split the icy northern sea.
Curious beast.

OCTAVO, Chapter 4, Killer
“The killer is never hunted.”
It is a poor choice for a name,
for at sea, we are all killers.

OCTAVO, Chapter 5, Thresher
A flogger of beasts,
the leviathans’ task-master.

DOUDECIMOES – Porpoises
The great whale in miniature.
Some come rich in oil and meat,
but of their families, nothing
is certain.

This is but a poor system for naming
and many whales are yet to be counted,
nor will they ever be.

We shall number them as we boil them
and know them only by lamplight
and the stains left in our try-pots.

The Specksynder

Such it is on a whale ship that officers,
even captains, serve at the harpoons’ will.
And though the captain is the lord of his ship,

the harpooner is its only master.
And so, while the crew sleeps before the mast,
harpooner and officer dwell astern.

It must always be, on such a journey,
that the savage seamen of lesser rank
reside apart from their superiors.

A disinterested Ahab regards
this distinction as a formality.
He demands obedience, not manners.


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


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