Finding Melville’s Whale: Chapter 1 – Loomings

Chapter 1 of the classic Moby Dick by Herman Melville, summarized in verse. Read along with us and discuss this chapter or the book as a whole in the comments.


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.


  1. Southern Fried Scientist · August 26, 2010

    I’m starting with chapter 1, but the Etymology and Extract sections leading up to the first chapter should definitely be read.

    In general, I’ll try to let other participants get the discussion started but to kick off chapter 1, is there really any better answer to the question “Why do you want to be a marine biologist?” than the first five pages of Moby Dick?

  2. Rick MacPherson · August 26, 2010

    i think those lines come close to answering the big “why”… but i still get goosebumps EVERY time i read these:

    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.

    simply LOVE that for melville, the ocean was the cure to malaise (hypos) and thoughts of suicide yet was just as direct a path to ruin as anything found ashore…

    GREAT idea for a year-long series, andrew!

    • Southern Fried Scientist · August 26, 2010

      That whole section sends a chill down my spine, and perfectly frames the whole story.

  3. Southern Fried Scientist · August 26, 2010

    It’s interesting to note that the bloody battle in Afghanistan mention in chapter one probably refers to the Massacre of Elphinstone’s Army during the first Anglo-Afghan War, which occurred in 1842, the same year Melville was working aboard a whaling ship. The Great Game bears a striking similarity to the Cold War and laid the foundation for our modern conflict in Afghanistan.

    To quote Rev. G.H. Gleg, one of the few survivors of the war: “a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated”

  4. Michael Bok · August 26, 2010

    I was recently lambasted by my PI for not having read Moby Dick. I guess this is my chance.

  5. Jason Goldman · August 26, 2010

    I read Moby Dick the first time in 11th grade AP Language. This will be an excellent chance to read it again.

  6. Michael Bok · August 26, 2010

    The first chapter is certainly a nice setup. He captures the intrinsic pull of the ocean very nicely; as well as the allure of its mysteries and monsters.

  7. skott daltonic · September 8, 2010

    i think that the humor in the tale is evident almost immediately, and yet, it’s the most under valued part of his text.

    Moby Dick is VERY funny in parts and it’s very much under the radar when the text is discussed.

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