Chapter 23: The Lee Shore

I remember taking a course in college (Grinnell) about Joyce’s Ulysses. The class was like three visits to the bar per week, minus the beer — it was a rollicking good time, and a good time I try to revisit every Bloomsday with my friend Sean and whoever else will join in. My point in saying all this here is that reading Moby Dick is much of the same kind of rollicking good time — the book is absolutely hilarious. So let’s lighten it up a bit this week, shall we? I present you with a song about death. The song doubles as the next dance sensation to sweep the nation, “The Lee Shore.” And yes, yeah, well, whatever, fine — this is not the most cheery song to ever pass my lips and fingertips, but I like it a lot and I want to share it with you this week because it’s been dancing in my head lately.

“The Lee Shore” is a weirdly beautiful chapter of Moby Dick.  There’s a man named Bulkington that Ishmael meets early in the book (Ch 2-ish), and we hear nothing more of him until Ch 23 when he falls overboard and dies.  In a very short (“6 in.”) chapter, Melville manages to pack in a lot of very important and very recurring extended metaphors: 1) there’s definitely a land/ocean dichotomy throughout the book that takes on various forms in various chapters (sanity/madness, conservatism/progressivism, status quo/revolution (or paradigm shift)), 2) throughout the book we often see voyages to sea being presented as the physical equivalent of deep, ponderous soul-searching.  “The Lee Shore” refers to a ship’s habit of staying within sight of the shore when possible because solid ground is safe.  But nothing, says Ishmael, is more dangerous than hugging to the lee shore in turbulent weather — one is more likely dashed against the rocks at shore than whelmed in the middle of the ocean.  Push out then, Ishmael advises, into freedom of thought and being when the going gets rough.  You can connect the spiritual dots from here.

Distilled to a pop song, I think this is all a way of saying enjoy the fair weather but let it go when you need to.  Don’t be tethered by the familiar — if you find yourself in turbulent times, the familiar is obviously not working out for you. If you have been reading along, some of this will sound a lot like what we hear from Ishmael in “Loomings.” Anyway, how better to enjoy good times than to dance?  How better to dance than to dance “The Lee Shore”?

Chapter 23: The Lee Shore

Your solemn eyes survive
As howled lullabies
By the hearthstone, in its comfort.
A ground to firmly stand.

There’s nothing to it!
It’s a safety dance.
When the weather’s fair,
Do the Lee Shore!

But when the storm arrives,
Turn your keel to sea.
The immensity is your safest bet
To find a better way.

There’s nothing to it!
Preconception’s fine.
When the sky is bright,
Do the Lee Shore!

There’s nothing to it!
When the tempest comes
Let your soul roam free.
From the Lee Shore!

There’s nothing to it!
There’s a higher truth.
If you break the chains
Of the Lee Shore!

(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 4, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 18, 2008

Published in: on October 26, 2008 at 9:07 am  Comments (6)  
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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The Lee Shore = awesome

  2. i am about to do the lee shore

  3. I hate reading moby dick

  4. I’m sorry to hear that, Jo! Give it a few years and try again. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have had a similar experience and ended up being huge Moby-Dick fans later in life. And best of luck with your current read, nevertheless.

  5. I don’t think you quite get it. Ships don’t have “the habit of staying within sight of the shore when possible because solid ground is safe.” (Maybe landlubbers do.)

    A “lee shore” very literally is land toward which the wind is blowing the ship, and if the ship runs aground it will sink, so the ship must therefore tack against the wind for dear life to stay afloat.

    Ishmael is first surprised to meet Bulkington, who has just finished a long voyage, signing aboard another one almost immediately, and then sees that the “shore is scorching to his feet”–meaning that the man feels alive when afloat and dead when ashore.

    But of course Bulkington, like the other sailors in the Pequod aside from Ishmael, will never see shore again. So Ishmael gives him his epitaph in advance: that it is “better to perish in that howling infinite” of the sea than to be blown onto a lee shore.

    (By the way, he doesn’t “fall overboard” in Chapter 23. Ishmael foreshadows the fate of the Pequod using this six inch chapter. And some Melville scholars think–I’m not sure on what evidence–that the two evocations of Bulkington are remnants of an early version of the novel in which he was to be a major character.)

  6. I really don’t think this has anything to do with someone not getting it. You’re right that whale boats wouldn’t be in the habit of staying in sight of the shore, they would have no reason to. However, merchant ships, military ships, fishing boats, and pirates would have good reason to stay within sight of land; that is, unless they got caught by a storm out of port, at which point they would head farther out to sea so as not to be run aground. Ishmael spends various chunks of his story talking about the differences between whalers and other kinds of ships, as well as speaking of the different breed of man that ships on whalers, so your comments about Bulkington still ring true in the context of this wider view of the chapter.

    Although the lee shore is “land toward which the wind is blowing the ship,” that is only one relevant meaning in this context. To be in the lee of something is to be sheltered, calm, and safe. The lee shore is safety. Ishmael is pointing out that safety can turn sour in turbulent times, literally and figuratively.

    In one sense, the chapter certainly serves as an early epitaph for the entire crew; Ishmael even outright says just this; so yes, there is some foreshadowing going on here. However, given the chapter’s placement in the book (being very early in the story, and also being the first chapter of the actual voyage), I think the chapter works more importantly as an echo of Ishmael’s thoughts in “Loomings,” and other early chapters; which thoughts again follow with much of what you say about Bulkinton. So we don’t really disagree here.

    I do disagree, however, with your thought that Bulkinton doesn’t fall overboard and die in this chapter, mostly because Ishmael speaks of “the spray of thy ocean-perishing” and “the stoneless grave of Bulkington,” but also because his death is exactly the foreshadowing that you’re talking about in your comment. Why would Ishmael suddenly give an out-of-the-blue figurative epitaph with no literal epitaph to match? Even more importantly, perhaps, I’m not aware of any evidence in the text that Bulkington is still around after this chapter. Either way, I’m not sure it really matters in terms of understanding the chapter or the chapter’s purpose in the larger narrative.


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