Finding Melville’s Whale – Cetology (Chapter 32)

Chapter 32 of Herman Melville’s classic – Moby Dick. Read along with us and discuss this chapter or the book as a whole in the comments. Visit this page for the complete collection to date: Finding Melville’s Whale.


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

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.

          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.


  1. Southern Fried Scientist · November 16, 2010

    The following is my attempt to figure out which whales Melville is describing:

    Sperm Whale – sperm whale

    Right Whale – Right Whale, but probably also many other species such as the grey whale

    Fin Back – Fin Whale, but probably also other large baleen whales like the Sei Whale

    Hump Back – Humpback Whale

    Razor Back – probably also the Fin Whale

    Sulfur Bottom – Blue Whale

    Grampus – this one is weird, Killer whales were commonly called Grampus, but Killer is also on the list, from the description of the oil and the comparisons to the sperm whale, I guess that Melville is talking about Pygmy Sperm Whales

    Black Fish – Pilot Whale

    Narwhal – Narwhal

    Killer – Orca

    Thresher – Probably also an Orca

    • WhySharksMatter · November 16, 2010

      Were pygmy sperm whales hunted? I thought they were too small to be worth the effort.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 16, 2010

      I don’t think they were hunted much, but keep in mind this is a list of all the whales known to Melville, not just those hunted.

      I was surprised to see Humpbacks listed as worthless. It really creates a contrast between the era of whaling for oil and the era of whaling for meat.

    • Chuck · November 16, 2010

      Thresher was a new one for me too. I can’t think of anything other than an orca that would be referring to. Unless thresher sharks got much larger in Melville’s day.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 16, 2010

      It’s possible that one of the ‘killer whales’ could have been the False Killer Whale.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 16, 2010

      Grampus is also the genus name of Risso’s dolphin, although they’re much too small to be Octavo

  2. Namnezia · November 16, 2010

    What about Beluga whales? Or did whalers not go so far north?
    Or were they too small to bother with?

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 16, 2010

      Melville made no mention of the Beluga. They may have been hunted at the time, but not by Nantucket whalers.

    • Namnezia · November 16, 2010

      Have you been to New Bedford? There’s a pretty cool whaling museum, and the whole waterfront is designated a historic site. Since it’s nearby we went recently after having re-read Moby Dick.

    • Southern Fried Scientist · November 16, 2010

      I haven’t had a chance yet, but their Whaling Museum is legendary. Did you get a chance to see the Seaman’s Bethel?

      Or colleague Peter Mello at works with them.

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