Ahab’s Rolling Sea: A Natural History of Moby-Dick 
by Richard J. King.
Chicago, 430 pp., £23, November 2019, 978 0 226 51496 3
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Complete Poems 
by Herman Melville, edited by Hershel Parker.
Library of America, 990 pp., £37.99, August 2019, 978 1 59853 618 8
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Are you​ a Moby-Dickhead? If so, are you enough of a Moby-Dickhead to have visited the Phallological Museum in Iceland to inspect a sperm whale’s penis? This is one of the many intrepid expeditions undertaken by Richard King in the course of researching Ahab’s Rolling Sea. His book, like Moby-Dick itself, tells you everything you ever wanted to know about whales but were too ashamed to ask. The fact that the sperm whale’s penis, or ‘grandissimus’, is four and a half feet long is just one of its juicier details. All but the truly dedicated cetologist will learn the following from King’s book: that right whales can be identified by the shape of the callosities around their blowholes, which are infested with cyamids, or whale lice; that a whale’s spout or blow contains snot as well as seawater; that ‘belugas have an extraordinary range of sound out of their blowholes – think whoopee cushions and bagpipes’; that a giant squid’s eye can be 11 inches in diameter; that ambergris (which sells for $15,800 a pound) is found in the rectum of only about 1 per cent of sperm whales and is an accretion that builds up around indigestible material such as squid heads.

Herman Melville culled his knowledge of whales from his voyage aboard the whaler Acushnet in 1841-42 and from authoritative texts ranging from William Scoresby’s Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), through encyclopedia entries, to Frederick Bennett’s Narrative of a Whaling Voyage round the Globe (1840). King tests this information against up-to-the-minute data from modern marine science. It turns out that, with due allowance for the state of knowledge in the 1850s, Melville got a surprising amount right about whales: their size, their bone structure, their mass, even their emotional lives. Melville knew that the destruction of the Pequod by the white whale was physically possible, King argues, because in 1820 the Nantucket ship Essex was rammed by a sperm whale and sank. King even cautiously allows, after what one hopes was a carbon-neutral visit to the cetologist Marta Guerra Bobo in New Zealand, that a sperm whale could bear grudges against an Ahab, or can at least in theory recognise individual humans. Anyone who isn’t completely turned off by sea creatures will enjoy surfing the waves of information that roll genially from this book.

Ahab’s Rolling Sea also has a big thesis. King argues that Moby-Dick offers a ‘proto-Darwinian decentring of the human and the elevation of the whale’. Moby-Dick, King claims, is an ecological fiction that not only displays sympathy for whales but sets acquisitive human perspectives against the wide and impersonal horizon of the sea. Melville’s novel can offer ecological counsel for today since it encourages us to think about the violence mankind is doing to the natural world. The statistics support this argument: the global population of North Atlantic right whales, for instance, has dropped from an estimated twenty thousand before industrial-scale hunting in the 19th century to 458 today.

It would be hard to fault either the motives or the facts underlying King’s ecological zeal. But it’s also hard to believe that Moby-Dick belongs near the top of any global list of ecological fictions. Melville does ask ‘whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase … whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and them himself evaporate in the final puff’. But he then contentedly concludes that whales aren’t actually being exterminated as a result of being hunted: they’re just changing their routes to avoid whalers, or are ingeniously hiding beneath the ice caps. ‘Hunted from the savannas and glades of the middle seas, the whale-bone whales can at last resort to their polar citadels, and diving under the ultimate glassy barriers and walls there, come up among icy fields and floes; and in a charmed circle of everlasting December, bid defiance to all pursuit from man.’ King says that ‘Ishmael’s belief that whales can survive the pressure of American hunting in the 1850s reflected the mainstream knowledge of his day.’ Fair enough, but that does nothing to boost his ecowarrior credentials.

It’s possible to filter out the krill from the turbid mass of Moby-Dick and get a nutritious meal of ecological concern, but quite a lot of other stuff gets lost along the way – including, perhaps, the main thing that makes this magnificently self-indulgent cetological feast so delicious. Whaling could produce a great novel because it’s an activity in which a lot of what are now distinct arts and sciences messily converge. Hunting meets marine biology meets global economics meets geography meets healthcare meets carpentry meets ethnography – and one could add politics, since the ship is a micropolitical climate ruled by one man but manned by a hodgepodge of peoples. Melville’s mingling of ecology into those other concerns was both peculiarly mid-19th-century and peculiarly him. He is fascinated by whales and the way they live, but he also can’t stop talking about human ingenuity: the skill required to balance at the front of a harpoon boat on a surging sea while hurling your weapon at the right spot to kill a whale, the power required to peel the blubber in strips from the body of a whale without making your ship capsize, the care required to run a furnace on a wooden ship without turning the whole structure into a flaming hell. The perspective of Moby-Dick is profoundly anthropocentric, and its scientific inwardness with whales is absolutely a byproduct of their destruction, as is apparent from the virtuoso chapter in which Melville invites us literally to get inside a sperm whale’s head:

Let us now with whatever levers and steam-engines we have at hand, cant over the sperm whale’s head, that it may lie bottom up; then, ascending by a ladder to the summit, have a peep down the mouth; and were it not that the body is now completely separated from it, with a lantern we might descend into the great Kentucky Mammoth Cave of his stomach. But let us hold on here by this tooth, and look about us where we are. What a really beautiful and chaste-looking mouth! from floor to ceiling, lined, or rather papered with a glistening white membrane, glossy as bridal satins.

The whale’s body is beautifully open to the human potholer because men have cut its head off.

In the wistful ruthlessness of his anatomical fictions Melville has much in common with one of his main sources, William Scoresby. Scoresby was both a harpoonist and a naturalist. His Account of the Arctic Regions combines tales of derring-do – stories about harpoonists having their legs sliced off by the rope of their own harpoon, of seamen pulled from the icy waves – with exact descriptions of local fauna. Philip Pullman knew what he was doing when he borrowed Scoresby’s surname for the entrepreneurial balloonist Lee Scoresby in His Dark Materials, since both Scoresbys manage to be at once sentimental and dispassionate polar adventurers. The original Scoresby describes how whalers can lure a nursing mother to her death by killing her calf:

She loses all regard for her own safety, in anxiety for the preservation of her young; – dashes through the midst of her enemies; – despises the danger that threatens her; – and even voluntarily remains with her offspring, after various attacks on herself from the harpoons of the fishers … There is something extremely painful in the destruction of a whale, when thus evincing a degree of affectionate regard for its offspring, that would do honour to the superior intelligence of human beings.

From one angle this is ecologically aware and indeed cetocentric. From another it’s the voice of an ultra-efficient killer. Melville is far subtler than Scoresby, but displays a similar mixture of perspectives. His curiosity about nature co-exists with and derives from a ruthless desire to work out how best to exploit it.

So quite a lot of fishful thinking is required to support King’s claim that Moby-Dick is an ecological fable. And when he moves from whales to humans his perspective seems askew. He claims that ‘Ahab on his ivory leg serves as a symbol for modern consumerism, and the trampling of nature that can never curb its sharkish, sea-hawkish appetite. More specifically, Ahab easily stands in for Big Oil, the ceaseless quest for fossil fuels.’ Certainly whale oil was the Big Oil of its day: Scoresby records that it sold for £50 or £60 a ton in 1813 and expresses concern that peak whale might have passed because of the growing use of coal gas for lighting. Identifying Big Oil with a self-destructive headcase like Ahab has instant appeal today, as global mean temperatures continue to rise towards the point at which many kinds of animal, including human ones, will surely die. But reading Ahab as an allegory of self-destructive consumerism risks abstracting from Ahab everything that makes him Ahab. The reason the crew of the Pequod get restive with the captain is not because Ahab risks cracking the ship’s timbers by filling it up with more tons of whale oil than it can support. They – including the super-diligent Starbuck, who much more than Ahab is the Pequod’s conscientious capitalist – are uneasy because Ahab doesn’t care enough about killing whales in general. He only cares about getting revenge on the one particular whale who has cost him his leg.

Moby-Dick is such an extraordinary and impossible success not because it’s a fable about man’s environmental overreach but because it is several distinct things at once, things that at a radical level don’t add up. It displays the fascination of the hunter with the anatomy and habits of the hunted and it does so with such intensity that the fascination turns into something like love. It takes you inside the process of learning things about other species and the process of making money from killing them. Then, stuck right into the middle of that intoxicating brew are huge shards of Hamlet and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in the form of the madly vengeful Ahab. If you were at a creative writing class and said you wanted to write a novel embodying the obsessive imagination of the romantic hero in the captain of a whale ship as a modern Hamlet plonked in the middle of a factory floating on the sea, your instructors would no doubt be encouraging, because that’s their role, but would gently tell you that it wasn’t quite time to give up the day job. But that completely non-viable combination is what gives this infinitely frustrating and ambling novel the propulsive energy of a time bomb, lifting it out of the fishery into the realms of cultural critique. The impersonal violence of energy-seeking capitalism, which boils down distinct entities into a fungible oil, is hijacked by the obsessive energy of a post-romantic individual. This particular man, Ahab, wants this particular whale, Moby-Dick, and will seek it through every possible sea, regardless of all physical or financial risk.

This means that the Satanic obsessive Ahab is not in league with the shipowners and whale-oil burners, nor is he the friend of Victorian ladies with their baleen stays. He’s the arch-enemy of all these. When the whale oil starts to leak into the Pequod’s hold Starbuck says they must ‘up Burtons and break out’ – raise the winches and unpack the hold – because of the lost profit that will result. ‘What will the owners say, sir?’ the deferential Starbuck asks. ‘Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons,’ Ahab replies. ‘What cares Ahab? Owners, owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience.’ If Ahab had, say, proudly worn the badge of WhaleCorpTM embroidered on his bosom and personally sucked the spermacetti from the heads of all the sperm whales in the multitudinous seas, barrelling it up to make his shipowners massively wealthy and provide his crew with their pitiful share of the spoils (in Chapter 16 Ishmael is tricked into signing up for a three hundredth ‘lay’ or share of the profits by two of the owners of the Pequod) there would be no Moby-Dick. It would just be Barrett’s touristic whaling voyage or Scoresby’s Arctic, whaling as industry with a sideline in marine biology. Moby-Dick doesn’t give the last laugh to the ocean or to man or to the environment. It asks how we can marry the obsessions of individuals together with the intrinsically deindividuating industrial-scale processes that melt life down into money. The conclusion – we can’t, or at least not without wrecking the entire ship and killing the crew – is indeed not great news for shareholders in whale boats or for whale-oil futures, but Moby-Dick is probably more on their side than on that of Ahab. The wrecking of the Pequod is the result of human obsession rather than unsustainable fishing practices or ecological collapse. Certainly one can see in Melville’s heirs – notably in the John Steinbeck of Cannery Row – a premonitory recognition of the damage done by human beings to marine ecology, but Melville’s gaze is always that squinting vision of the mid-19th-century adventurer-cum-naturalist-cum-money-maker, for whom a whale is a fascinating creature partly because of what you can get for its blubber, and partly for the beauty you can see inside when you chop off its head.

The mess​ that is Moby-Dick didn’t go down well with its early audiences. Readers who had absorbed Melville’s semi-autobiographical ripping yarns about adventures in the South Seas in Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) just didn’t get it. That’s probably because Moby-Dick’s ambitions are so thoughtfully contradictory, though it may also be because Melville tried so hard to cram all his reading not only of encyclopedias and travel narratives but also of Shakespeare and Coleridge into this overladen sea chest of a book. The commercial failure of Moby-Dick was one reason Melville decided later in life to become a poet. He wrote verses on the American Civil War, which chiefly celebrated victories of the North. These combine incongruous traces of Coleridgean language (‘The moon looked through the trees, and tipped/The scabbards with her elfin beam’) with tub-thumping patriotism (‘Faith in America never dies;/Heaven shall the end ordained fulfil,/We march with Providence cheery still’). Melville then spent years writing what is often said to be the longest poem published by an American. This is Clarel (1876), an 18,000-line epic – almost twice as long as Paradise Lost – about the journey of a young American called Clarel through the Holy Land. Based on Melville’s own journey to Palestine in 1857, it relates Clarel’s meetings with a range of sages, nationalities and religions, and explores in some very long dialogues his religious doubts and those of his fellow travellers.

Like Moby-Dick, Clarel was not a commercial success. Three years after it came out Melville authorised his publisher to destroy the unsold copies. But literary critics can seldom resist the temptation to take a long, failed work by someone who was capable of great writing and find greatness in it. This has led to an uptick in the reputation of Clarel over the past few decades. To give Clarel its due, it is a work of huge ambition, which tries to explore the nature of varying shades of Christianity and other faiths in depth and detail. But it is also, sadly, an outright, relentless, irredeemable stinker of a poem. Its tetrameters feel like tourniquets to thought, making its veins stand out and its circulation fail. There are poets who think in verse, and there are poets for whom verse can generate stresses and forces that make them express things they wouldn’t otherwise have been capable of thinking. Melville thought he was one of these, but he was actually one of the much larger cohort of poets who reckon that poetry will lead them into sublime insights, and maybe fame too, but who tie themselves into knots as they seek to circumvent what are to them – because they aren’t really poets – the unnatural obstacles of rhyme and rhythm. One of Melville’s favourite tricks in Clarel is to use a series of questions to reach out into the ineffable unknowable sublimity of religious belief. It seldom works:

What reveries be in yonder heaven
Whither, if yet faith rule it so,
The tried and ransomed natures flow?
If there peace after strife be given
Shall hearts remember yet and know?
Thy vista, Lord, of havens dear,
May that in such entrancement bind
That never starts a wandering tear
For wail and willow left behind?

That means, roughly: ‘Do dead people remember what it was like to be alive, or is the sight of God so glorious that they don’t look back?’ What instantly marks it as god-awful verse is the way it pairs things together with the conjunction ‘and’. Does it conjoin the unlikely in order silently to advance a thought? No: ‘tried and ransomed’ deals with the judgment of the dead briskly enough, but ‘remember yet and know’ really just is ‘remember’ stretched out so that it rhymes with ‘flow’. And ‘wail and willow’? Puhleease.

The only plausible defence of Clarel is that the difficulty of making sense of what it says a lot of the time creatively mimics the way its hero can’t quite understand himself and his world. That defence, however, is sophistry. Clarel is hard to understand not because it’s profound but because Melville is making himself up as a poet in it. As you read you can see him drowning in ambition and clasping hold of bits of Tennysonian or Keatsian or Coleridgean or Wordsworthian flotsam to keep his poor floundering head above water. It is a mark of Clarel’s complete failure as a narrative poem that several people die in the course of it, including (spoilers, but if any poem deserved to be spoiled it’s this one) the hero’s great love, Ruth, but with most of these deaths you aren’t quite sure who among its large cast of characters has actually sat down to gaze at a tree and succumbed to the whateverness of the vastness and kicked the bucket (or, to translate that into Melvillese, ‘So undisturbed, supine, inert –/The filmed orbs fixed upon the tree’), but you’re quite sure that you don’t care. The journey through the Holy Land has none of the forward motion of a traditional epic quest, let alone the obsessive energy of Ahab. That is part, for its admirers, of the poem’s brilliance: it offers a mental pilgrimage, which circles back on itself to mimic its age of religious doubt. But actually the journey of Clarel through the Holy Land never escapes from the tedious rut of cultural tourism: you go and see the Holy Sepulchre and drink in its awesomeness, then you go on into the desert, and – behold! – it is deserted (sublimely, scarily, profoundly), and then you eventually in a great pointless circle end up back in Jerusalem, largely unchanged by the experience. The moral is: stay at home, folks.

The epic poem, as a genre, encountered profound problems when it began to seem unnatural or politically contentious to found it on a narrative of national or ideological expansion. In Wordsworth’s Prelude you can often hear the strain of developing an alternative to such a story, and in Wordsworth’s narrative of his youthful journey through France and Switzerland in particular there is a risk that the poet’s experience will simply become that of the tourist, sampling the delights of the world and then just moving on. The overarching story of the growth of Wordsworth’s mind and the motions of his memory do just about serve to egotise the epic even in The Prelude’s most touristic moments. In Moby-Dick, Melville produced a different version of the epic of the ego, in which a commercial journey across the sea becomes not an act of heroic nation-building or of capital accumulation but a covert suicide mission. But Clarel doesn’t manage a similar transformation of the genre. Oodles of Miltonic exoticism, ‘Plate of Byzantium, stones and spars,/Urim and Thummin, gold and green;/Music like cymbals clashed in wars/Of great Semiramis the queen’, aren’t enough to give it intellectual colour.

Some of Melville’s shorter poems have tiny flashes of something that might be good. ‘The Ravaged Villa’ offers faint soundings of Eliot in ‘The spider in the laurel spins,/The weed exiles the flower’, until you juxtapose it with Eliot’s ‘Gerontion’ (‘What will the spider do/Suspend its operations, will the weevil/Delay?’) and you realise how lame it is by comparison. I can almost imagine Wallace Stevens enjoying ‘The Aeolian Harp at the Surf Inn’: ‘Listen: Less a strain ideal/Than Ariel’s rendering of the Real’, but then I imagine Stevens switching off as Melville’s fleet-footed muse abandons him in the very next line with ‘What that Real is, let hint/A picture stamped in memory’s mint.’ And the shorter poems do have moments of pure chucklability: ‘Sport ye thus with your spoonies, ye fair,/For your mirth? nor even forbear/To juggle with Nestors your thralls?’ Eh?

‘If a sensuous relish for the harmonious as to numbers and the thoughts they embody and a magic facility in improvising that double harmony makes a poet then Zardi is such,’ Melville writes in one of the uncollected pieces gathered in Hershel Parker’s volume of his poems. According to that definition Melville really should have stuck with prose. The poems are, however, beautifully presented (as always) by the Library of America, though the elegant thinness of the paper on which they are printed will augment the illusion that one has made no real advance, despite all the hours spent reading nigh-on a thousand pages. The edition has a very full timeline of Melville’s life, and useful maps of Clarel’s journey, but if one flicks to the back to consult the rather bony notes, Parker’s decisions as to which phrases and names need a gloss can seem arbitrary. We are told that Phocion is ‘an honourable Athenaeum politician’, which is a little odd but is at least trying to help, but there is no note on (inter alia) ‘oriflamme’, ‘bobolinks’, ‘xebecs’ (a word for the worst possible hand in Scrabble?), in understanding which many readers may feel more at sea than they do with the ship’s parts and whale bones of Moby-Dick.

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Vol. 42 No. 16 · 13 August 2020

Colin Burrow records Herman Melville’s belief that whales weren’t ‘actually being exterminated as a result of being hunted’; they were ‘just changing their routes to avoid whalers, or … ingeniously hiding beneath the ice caps’ (LRB, 4 June). Not so. Annually migrating humpbacks are a feature of both the east and west coasts of Australia. On the east coast, just off Brisbane on Moreton Island, a whaling station operated from 1952 to 1962. It killed six hundred whales in its first year and only 68 in its last. Fewer whales, fewer kills, and so it closed down, with a total tally of 6277 humpbacks and one blue whale. A few years ago, an expert at the Moreton Bay Research Station was asked if the whales ever changed their course, went further out to sea, as a result of the whalers’ depredations. ‘No,’ was the answer, ‘they never did.’ Year after year they would swim the same course north – 80 per cent of them within five kilometres of the shore – to warmer waters to breed or calf, then swim back south exactly the same way.

Now that most whaling has stopped worldwide, the humpbacks have increased from a near extinction level of a few hundred to perhaps sixty thousand. Of these some 25,000 swim up Australia’s east coast, while 35,000 go along the west. The song of the west coast males is different from the easterners’ (only male humpbacks sing). Not so long ago it was noticed that the eastern whales were singing a new song. It turned out to be the west coast song: two west coast lads had turned right rather than left when leaving Antarctic waters and swam with the eastern mob, who liked the new tune and adopted it.

Rob Wills
Brisbane, Australia

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