My first read through Moby-Dick, I entirely missed one of Ahab’s most brilliant moves as captain — he gets his men good and drunk while telling them of the doomed quest they will take on in lieu of their regular voyage. As we see in “Midnight, Forecastle,” in the otherwise tenuous private moments after such weighty news, the heavy drinking puts half the crew to sleep and inspires the other half of the crew to dance to night away. In other words, Ahab prevents anyone the chance to think about the reality of his speech, in those moments when their thoughts would most be influenced by emotion.
More brilliant still, Ahab chooses the hours before a coming storm to do all of this. By the time the drunk wears off among the crew, just as a few of the men start to think about Moby Dick and Ahab, the storm hits, and the men are thrown into a night of urgent and difficult work.
The men will have to process Ahab’s speech at some point, but by delaying their thoughts, Ahab avoids a panicked, emotional response from the crew. By the next morning, having lived a while with their new purpose, Ahab’s change of plans are almost status quo — like it or not, the time to object passed long ago.
Chapter 40: Midnight, Forecastle
As the drunk wore off,
Found ourselves face to face with nature, crossed,
Found ourselves reckoning with peace, not lost
But conceded by the crew.
As the ballroom lee
Closed with an echoing finality,
And every dream of women chased recedes,
We brace up to meet the storm!
Of all things, great and small,
It’s the bending that relieves
The strain of pitch and yaw,
It’s the ultimate belief
In nothing, not all all,
That engenders our survival, oh!
Reef the topsails now,
And reef your hearts, and steer your steady prow,
And kneel to thunder, and to lightning, bow,
With a kind felicity!
(c) and (p) 2009 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea September 6, 2009
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea October 30, 2010