The Project Gutenberg ebook of Moby Dick; or The Whale, by Herman Melville

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gravely, returning with a tall and solemn figure.

"'Let me remove my hat. Now, venerable priest, further into the light,

and hold the Holy Book before me that I may touch it.

"'So help me Heaven, and on my honour the story I have told ye,

gentlemen, is in substance and its great items, true. I know it to be

true; it happened on this ball; I trod the ship; I knew the crew; I have

seen and talked with Steelkilt since the death of Radney.'"

CHAPTER 55. Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales.

I shall ere long paint to you as well as one can without canvas,

something like the true form of the whale as he actually appears to the

eye of the whaleman when in his own absolute body the whale is moored

alongside the whale-ship so that he can be fairly stepped upon there.

It may be worth while, therefore, previously to advert to those

curious imaginary portraits of him which even down to the present day

confidently challenge the faith of the landsman. It is time to set the

world right in this matter, by proving such pictures of the whale all

It may be that the primal source of all those pictorial delusions will

be found among the oldest Hindoo, Egyptian, and Grecian sculptures. For

ever since those inventive but unscrupulous times when on the marble

panellings of temples, the pedestals of statues, and on shields,

medallions, cups, and coins, the dolphin was drawn in scales of

chain-armor like Saladin's, and a helmeted head like St. George's; ever

since then has something of the same sort of license prevailed, not

only in most popular pictures of the whale, but in many scientific

presentations of him.
Now, by all odds, the most ancient extant portrait anyways purporting to

be the whale's, is to be found in the famous cavern-pagoda of Elephanta,

in India. The Brahmins maintain that in the almost endless sculptures of

that immemorial pagoda, all the trades and pursuits, every conceivable

avocation of man, were prefigured ages before any of them actually came

into being. No wonder then, that in some sort our noble profession of

whaling should have been there shadowed forth. The Hindoo whale

referred to, occurs in a separate department of the wall, depicting the

incarnation of Vishnu in the form of leviathan, learnedly known as the

Matse Avatar. But though this sculpture is half man and half whale, so

as only to give the tail of the latter, yet that small section of him is

all wrong. It looks more like the tapering tail of an anaconda, than the

broad palms of the true whale's majestic flukes.
But go to the old Galleries, and look now at a great Christian painter's

portrait of this fish; for he succeeds no better than the antediluvian

Hindoo. It is Guido's picture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from the

sea-monster or whale. Where did Guido get the model of such a strange

creature as that? Nor does Hogarth, in painting the same scene in his

own "Perseus Descending," make out one whit better. The huge corpulence

of that Hogarthian monster undulates on the surface, scarcely drawing

one inch of water. It has a sort of howdah on its back, and its

distended tusked mouth into which the billows are rolling, might be

taken for the Traitors' Gate leading from the Thames by water into the

Tower. Then, there are the Prodromus whales of old Scotch Sibbald, and

Jonah's whale, as depicted in the prints of old Bibles and the cuts of

old primers. What shall be said of these? As for the book-binder's whale

winding like a vine-stalk round the stock of a descending anchor--as

stamped and gilded on the backs and title-pages of many books both

old and new--that is a very picturesque but purely fabulous creature,

imitated, I take it, from the like figures on antique vases.

Though universally denominated a dolphin, I nevertheless call this

book-binder's fish an attempt at a whale; because it was so intended

when the device was first introduced. It was introduced by an old

Italian publisher somewhere about the 15th century, during the Revival

of Learning; and in those days, and even down to a comparatively

late period, dolphins were popularly supposed to be a species of the


In the vignettes and other embellishments of some ancient books you will

at times meet with very curious touches at the whale, where all manner

of spouts, jets d'eau, hot springs and cold, Saratoga and Baden-Baden,

come bubbling up from his unexhausted brain. In the title-page of the

original edition of the "Advancement of Learning" you will find some

curious whales.

But quitting all these unprofessional attempts, let us glance at those

pictures of leviathan purporting to be sober, scientific delineations,

by those who know. In old Harris's collection of voyages there are some

plates of whales extracted from a Dutch book of voyages, A.D. 1671,

entitled "A Whaling Voyage to Spitzbergen in the ship Jonas in the

Whale, Peter Peterson of Friesland, master." In one of those plates the

whales, like great rafts of logs, are represented lying among ice-isles,

with white bears running over their living backs. In another plate, the

prodigious blunder is made of representing the whale with perpendicular

Then again, there is an imposing quarto, written by one Captain Colnett,

a Post Captain in the English navy, entitled "A Voyage round Cape Horn

into the South Seas, for the purpose of extending the Spermaceti Whale

Fisheries." In this book is an outline purporting to be a "Picture of

a Physeter or Spermaceti whale, drawn by scale from one killed on the

coast of Mexico, August, 1793, and hoisted on deck." I doubt not the

captain had this veracious picture taken for the benefit of his marines.

To mention but one thing about it, let me say that it has an eye which

applied, according to the accompanying scale, to a full grown sperm

whale, would make the eye of that whale a bow-window some five feet

long. Ah, my gallant captain, why did ye not give us Jonah looking out

of that eye!
Nor are the most conscientious compilations of Natural History for

the benefit of the young and tender, free from the same heinousness of

mistake. Look at that popular work "Goldsmith's Animated Nature." In the

abridged London edition of 1807, there are plates of an alleged "whale"

and a "narwhale." I do not wish to seem inelegant, but this unsightly

whale looks much like an amputated sow; and, as for the narwhale, one

glimpse at it is enough to amaze one, that in this nineteenth century

such a hippogriff could be palmed for genuine upon any intelligent

public of schoolboys.
Then, again, in 1825, Bernard Germain, Count de Lacepede, a great

naturalist, published a scientific systemized whale book, wherein are

several pictures of the different species of the Leviathan. All these

are not only incorrect, but the picture of the Mysticetus or Greenland

whale (that is to say, the Right whale), even Scoresby, a long

experienced man as touching that species, declares not to have its

counterpart in nature.
But the placing of the cap-sheaf to all this blundering business was

reserved for the scientific Frederick Cuvier, brother to the famous

Baron. In 1836, he published a Natural History of Whales, in which he

gives what he calls a picture of the Sperm Whale. Before showing that

picture to any Nantucketer, you had best provide for your summary

retreat from Nantucket. In a word, Frederick Cuvier's Sperm Whale is not

a Sperm Whale, but a squash. Of course, he never had the benefit of

a whaling voyage (such men seldom have), but whence he derived that

picture, who can tell? Perhaps he got it as his scientific predecessor

in the same field, Desmarest, got one of his authentic abortions; that

is, from a Chinese drawing. And what sort of lively lads with the pencil

those Chinese are, many queer cups and saucers inform us.

As for the sign-painters' whales seen in the streets hanging over the

shops of oil-dealers, what shall be said of them? They are generally

Richard III. whales, with dromedary humps, and very savage; breakfasting

on three or four sailor tarts, that is whaleboats full of mariners:

their deformities floundering in seas of blood and blue paint.
But these manifold mistakes in depicting the whale are not so very

surprising after all. Consider! Most of the scientific drawings have

been taken from the stranded fish; and these are about as correct as a

drawing of a wrecked ship, with broken back, would correctly represent

the noble animal itself in all its undashed pride of hull and spars.

Though elephants have stood for their full-lengths, the living Leviathan

has never yet fairly floated himself for his portrait. The living whale,

in his full majesty and significance, is only to be seen at sea in

unfathomable waters; and afloat the vast bulk of him is out of sight,

like a launched line-of-battle ship; and out of that element it is a

thing eternally impossible for mortal man to hoist him bodily into the

air, so as to preserve all his mighty swells and undulations. And, not

to speak of the highly presumable difference of contour between a young

sucking whale and a full-grown Platonian Leviathan; yet, even in the

case of one of those young sucking whales hoisted to a ship's deck, such

is then the outlandish, eel-like, limbered, varying shape of him, that

his precise expression the devil himself could not catch.
But it may be fancied, that from the naked skeleton of the stranded

whale, accurate hints may be derived touching his true form. Not at all.

For it is one of the more curious things about this Leviathan, that

his skeleton gives very little idea of his general shape. Though Jeremy

Bentham's skeleton, which hangs for candelabra in the library of one of

his executors, correctly conveys the idea of a burly-browed utilitarian

old gentleman, with all Jeremy's other leading personal characteristics;

yet nothing of this kind could be inferred from any leviathan's

articulated bones. In fact, as the great Hunter says, the mere skeleton

of the whale bears the same relation to the fully invested and padded

animal as the insect does to the chrysalis that so roundingly envelopes

it. This peculiarity is strikingly evinced in the head, as in some

part of this book will be incidentally shown. It is also very curiously

displayed in the side fin, the bones of which almost exactly answer to

the bones of the human hand, minus only the thumb. This fin has four

regular bone-fingers, the index, middle, ring, and little finger. But

all these are permanently lodged in their fleshy covering, as the human

fingers in an artificial covering. "However recklessly the whale may

sometimes serve us," said humorous Stubb one day, "he can never be truly

said to handle us without mittens."

For all these reasons, then, any way you may look at it, you must needs

conclude that the great Leviathan is that one creature in the world

which must remain unpainted to the last. True, one portrait may hit

the mark much nearer than another, but none can hit it with any very

considerable degree of exactness. So there is no earthly way of finding

out precisely what the whale really looks like. And the only mode in

which you can derive even a tolerable idea of his living contour, is

by going a whaling yourself; but by so doing, you run no small risk of

being eternally stove and sunk by him. Wherefore, it seems to me you had

best not be too fastidious in your curiosity touching this Leviathan.

CHAPTER 56. Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the True

Pictures of Whaling Scenes.

In connexion with the monstrous pictures of whales, I am strongly

tempted here to enter upon those still more monstrous stories of

them which are to be found in certain books, both ancient and modern,

especially in Pliny, Purchas, Hackluyt, Harris, Cuvier, etc. But I pass

that matter by.

I know of only four published outlines of the great Sperm Whale;

Colnett's, Huggins's, Frederick Cuvier's, and Beale's. In the previous

chapter Colnett and Cuvier have been referred to. Huggins's is far

better than theirs; but, by great odds, Beale's is the best. All Beale's

drawings of this whale are good, excepting the middle figure in the

picture of three whales in various attitudes, capping his second

chapter. His frontispiece, boats attacking Sperm Whales, though no

doubt calculated to excite the civil scepticism of some parlor men, is

admirably correct and life-like in its general effect. Some of the Sperm

Whale drawings in J. Ross Browne are pretty correct in contour; but they

are wretchedly engraved. That is not his fault though.
Of the Right Whale, the best outline pictures are in Scoresby; but they

are drawn on too small a scale to convey a desirable impression. He has

but one picture of whaling scenes, and this is a sad deficiency, because

it is by such pictures only, when at all well done, that you can derive

anything like a truthful idea of the living whale as seen by his living

But, taken for all in all, by far the finest, though in some details

not the most correct, presentations of whales and whaling scenes to

be anywhere found, are two large French engravings, well executed,

and taken from paintings by one Garnery. Respectively, they represent

attacks on the Sperm and Right Whale. In the first engraving a noble

Sperm Whale is depicted in full majesty of might, just risen beneath

the boat from the profundities of the ocean, and bearing high in the air

upon his back the terrific wreck of the stoven planks. The prow of

the boat is partially unbroken, and is drawn just balancing upon

the monster's spine; and standing in that prow, for that one single

incomputable flash of time, you behold an oarsman, half shrouded by the

incensed boiling spout of the whale, and in the act of leaping, as if

from a precipice. The action of the whole thing is wonderfully good and

true. The half-emptied line-tub floats on the whitened sea; the wooden

poles of the spilled harpoons obliquely bob in it; the heads of the

swimming crew are scattered about the whale in contrasting expressions

of affright; while in the black stormy distance the ship is bearing down

upon the scene. Serious fault might be found with the anatomical details

of this whale, but let that pass; since, for the life of me, I could not

draw so good a one.
In the second engraving, the boat is in the act of drawing alongside

the barnacled flank of a large running Right Whale, that rolls his black

weedy bulk in the sea like some mossy rock-slide from the Patagonian

cliffs. His jets are erect, full, and black like soot; so that from so

abounding a smoke in the chimney, you would think there must be a brave

supper cooking in the great bowels below. Sea fowls are pecking at the

small crabs, shell-fish, and other sea candies and maccaroni, which the

Right Whale sometimes carries on his pestilent back. And all the while

the thick-lipped leviathan is rushing through the deep, leaving tons of

tumultuous white curds in his wake, and causing the slight boat to rock

in the swells like a skiff caught nigh the paddle-wheels of an ocean

steamer. Thus, the foreground is all raging commotion; but behind, in

admirable artistic contrast, is the glassy level of a sea becalmed, the

drooping unstarched sails of the powerless ship, and the inert mass of

a dead whale, a conquered fortress, with the flag of capture lazily

hanging from the whale-pole inserted into his spout-hole.

Who Garnery the painter is, or was, I know not. But my life for it he

was either practically conversant with his subject, or else marvellously

tutored by some experienced whaleman. The French are the lads for

painting action. Go and gaze upon all the paintings of Europe, and

where will you find such a gallery of living and breathing commotion

on canvas, as in that triumphal hall at Versailles; where the beholder

fights his way, pell-mell, through the consecutive great battles of

France; where every sword seems a flash of the Northern Lights, and the

successive armed kings and Emperors dash by, like a charge of crowned

centaurs? Not wholly unworthy of a place in that gallery, are these sea

battle-pieces of Garnery.
The natural aptitude of the French for seizing the picturesqueness of

things seems to be peculiarly evinced in what paintings and engravings

they have of their whaling scenes. With not one tenth of England's

experience in the fishery, and not the thousandth part of that of the

Americans, they have nevertheless furnished both nations with the only

finished sketches at all capable of conveying the real spirit of

the whale hunt. For the most part, the English and American whale

draughtsmen seem entirely content with presenting the mechanical outline

of things, such as the vacant profile of the whale; which, so far as

picturesqueness of effect is concerned, is about tantamount to sketching

the profile of a pyramid. Even Scoresby, the justly renowned Right

whaleman, after giving us a stiff full length of the Greenland whale,

and three or four delicate miniatures of narwhales and porpoises, treats

us to a series of classical engravings of boat hooks, chopping knives,

and grapnels; and with the microscopic diligence of a Leuwenhoeck

submits to the inspection of a shivering world ninety-six fac-similes of

magnified Arctic snow crystals. I mean no disparagement to the excellent

voyager (I honour him for a veteran), but in so important a matter it

was certainly an oversight not to have procured for every crystal a

sworn affidavit taken before a Greenland Justice of the Peace.

In addition to those fine engravings from Garnery, there are two other

French engravings worthy of note, by some one who subscribes himself

"H. Durand." One of them, though not precisely adapted to our present

purpose, nevertheless deserves mention on other accounts. It is a quiet

noon-scene among the isles of the Pacific; a French whaler anchored,

inshore, in a calm, and lazily taking water on board; the loosened sails

of the ship, and the long leaves of the palms in the background, both

drooping together in the breezeless air. The effect is very fine, when

considered with reference to its presenting the hardy fishermen under

one of their few aspects of oriental repose. The other engraving is

quite a different affair: the ship hove-to upon the open sea, and in the

very heart of the Leviathanic life, with a Right Whale alongside; the

vessel (in the act of cutting-in) hove over to the monster as if to a

quay; and a boat, hurriedly pushing off from this scene of activity, is

about giving chase to whales in the distance. The harpoons and lances

lie levelled for use; three oarsmen are just setting the mast in its

hole; while from a sudden roll of the sea, the little craft stands

half-erect out of the water, like a rearing horse. From the ship, the

smoke of the torments of the boiling whale is going up like the smoke

over a village of smithies; and to windward, a black cloud, rising up

with earnest of squalls and rains, seems to quicken the activity of the

excited seamen.

CHAPTER 57. Of Whales in Paint; in Teeth; in Wood; in Sheet-Iron; in

Stone; in Mountains; in Stars.

On Tower-hill, as you go down to the London docks, you may have seen a

crippled beggar (or KEDGER, as the sailors say) holding a painted board

before him, representing the tragic scene in which he lost his leg.

There are three whales and three boats; and one of the boats (presumed

to contain the missing leg in all its original integrity) is being

crunched by the jaws of the foremost whale. Any time these ten years,

they tell me, has that man held up that picture, and exhibited that

stump to an incredulous world. But the time of his justification has

now come. His three whales are as good whales as were ever published in

Wapping, at any rate; and his stump as unquestionable a stump as any you

will find in the western clearings. But, though for ever mounted on

that stump, never a stump-speech does the poor whaleman make; but, with

downcast eyes, stands ruefully contemplating his own amputation.

Throughout the Pacific, and also in Nantucket, and New Bedford, and

Sag Harbor, you will come across lively sketches of whales and

whaling-scenes, graven by the fishermen themselves on Sperm Whale-teeth,

or ladies' busks wrought out of the Right Whale-bone, and other

like skrimshander articles, as the whalemen call the numerous little

ingenious contrivances they elaborately carve out of the rough material,

in their hours of ocean leisure. Some of them have little boxes

of dentistical-looking implements, specially intended for the

skrimshandering business. But, in general, they toil with their

jack-knives alone; and, with that almost omnipotent tool of the sailor,

they will turn you out anything you please, in the way of a mariner's

Long exile from Christendom and civilization inevitably restores a man

to that condition in which God placed him, i.e. what is called savagery.

Your true whale-hunter is as much a savage as an Iroquois. I myself am a

savage, owning no allegiance but to the King of the Cannibals; and ready

at any moment to rebel against him.

Now, one of the peculiar characteristics of the savage in his domestic

hours, is his wonderful patience of industry. An ancient Hawaiian

war-club or spear-paddle, in its full multiplicity and elaboration of

carving, is as great a trophy of human perseverance as a Latin lexicon.

For, with but a bit of broken sea-shell or a shark's tooth, that

miraculous intricacy of wooden net-work has been achieved; and it has

cost steady years of steady application.
As with the Hawaiian savage, so with the white sailor-savage. With the

same marvellous patience, and with the same single shark's tooth, of

his one poor jack-knife, he will carve you a bit of bone sculpture, not

quite as workmanlike, but as close packed in its maziness of design,

as the Greek savage, Achilles's shield; and full of barbaric spirit

and suggestiveness, as the prints of that fine old Dutch savage, Albert

Wooden whales, or whales cut in profile out of the small dark slabs of

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