Chapter 98: Stowing Down and Clearing Up

“Stowing Down and Clearing Up” reminds me of those obligatory party episodes of ’80’s sitcoms — their parents being away, the kids decide to have a party; more people come than are invited, and the party gets out of hand; the house gets trashed, and the next morning the kids have to make the house look as if nothing happened; often the parents decide to come back early, which only aggravates the situation (and theoretically makes it more funny).

There are two major differences between the chapter and the sitcom. First, there is no glued-together table lamp to break at the last second and give the whole thing away. In fact, there is no secrecy involved at all — the men are doing a job, which is hard and dirty and dangerous, and destroys both the ship and their bodies in the process. The men need to clean themselves and their ship up after their labor to become men again, and to not remain perpetual beasts of burden. They need to sing, they need to promenade, and they need to drink tea in the moonlight. The labor of whaling strips men of the refinements we often associate with being human, and it’s important for them to reclaim their rightful humanity when the work is over.

Second, the sitcom party at least is fun, and you get the sense that in their cleaning the kids are merely paying up for their good time. On the other hand, whaling work is brutal, as Ishmael reminds us with images of “enormous masses of the whale’s head” which are “profanely piled” on the quarter deck, or chunks of the whales back that stick to the deck, or the soot from the try-works that soils up the bulwarks and riggings. At the end of all this, the men get to “cleanse” themselves of the “defilements” of labor, and emerge once again as refined human beings.

In one last terrible twist, Ishmael reminds us that the work can start anew at a moment’s notice, that sometimes just as the men are “buttoning the necks of their clean frocks,” a new whale is cried, and they have to jump to their tasks anew, without a moment of rest. As Ishmael aptly exclaims: “Oh! my friends, but this is man-killing! Yet this is life.”

Chapter 98: Stowing Down and Clearing Up

We walk in twos and threes:
How we promenade the well-trod boards,
As dainty Lords, immaculate.
Though oft maligned, we’re oft refined
By the guts and grime we scrub away.

Bring us midnight tea:
And the forecastle will be transformed
By highest born nobility.
We work and slave, and earn our days
To dab with napkins, so effete!

Sing-out, mast-head, sing!:
Aristocracy in truest form
Is never worn in apathy.
In weary pacts, we break our backs,
Then birth, as phoenix, from the lye.

We walk in twos and threes:
How we promenade the well-trod boards,
As dainty Lords, immaculate.
Though oft maligned, we’re oft refined
By the guts and grime we scrub away.

(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea August 24, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea September 18, 2010

Published in: on October 24, 2010 at 10:42 am  Leave a Comment  
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