If you spend enough time with a book, you start to notice things that you would have no reason to notice on a first, or even second, read. These noticings tend to seem like deliberate inclusions by the storyteller, but also tend to have no clear purpose in the story itself. A professor of mine called these “octogenarian” noticings, presumably because they come with time.
I had an octogenarian noticing as I reread Chapter 27, “Knights and Squires.” The chapter — the second of three chapters introducing the mates, harpooneers, and captain of the Pequod — formally introduces us to the Pequod’s second- and third- mates, Stubb and Flask, respectively. In describing Stubb and his squire/harpooneer, Tashtego, Ishmael frequently refers to air — Stubb’s breezy personality, his lightness of spirt, the smoke from his pipe protecting him from a miasma of ponderous thoughts, not to mention a reference to Tashtego as “Prince of the Powers of the Air.” Flask and Daggoo (particularly Daggoo), appear in references to earth — stout, unmovable, like a lion or giraffe. In the next chapter, Ahab comes across strongly as associated with fire, which fits the later introduction of Fedallah (frequently referred to as devilish and smelling of brimstone) as his harpooneer. Flipping back to Chapter 26, Ishmael describes Starbuck, surely enough, with strong water imagery.
I’m not sure what significance we can assign to this choice in Ishmael’s storytelling, if any at all. Does Ishmael seek to lend an elemental mythos to his tale? Is this another attempt to establish a pre-Christian spirituality in the story? Or does Ishmael want to establish himself and Queequeg, members of Starbuck’s crew, as true spirits of water — ponderous, reverent, and observant? Perhaps Ishmael only wants to further his point about American dominance over the world. All of the above? None of the above?
Chapter 27: Knights and Squires
Bumbling nobility paired with strength
Provides a might without right, Oh!
Led underestimating the majesty,
The gravity facing us.
How could I breathe
A little of each nightmare
Sighed in all dying breaths?
God of the air
Medicated with camphor,
Block miasma of empathy.
Stout, Earthly travesty led with ignorance,
The dirt in its fearlessness.
Never to feel the depths, even
Face to face, all sublimity wasted, Oh!
Nothing to move
The mountain of your violence,
Even battering waves!
Man of the world,
Yet braced against the influx
Of our tremulous days.
Rally the backs,
The strength of every island
Pitched at banners of eloquence.
Only the wretch,
The touch of something deeper,
Will be graceful on high.
(c) and (p) 2008 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea October 19, 2008
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea January 9, 2010