Chapter 86: The Tail

Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I celebrate a tail.

Ishmael begins “The Tail” with a statement of dedication worthy of an epic poem. He sings of a tail, and as we see in the pages that follow, that tail is worthy of song.

Much of Ishmael’s fascination with the whale’s tail lies in his belief that the tail represents the greater form of a whale, inner and outer, in much the same way that a human face represents the greater human. Therefore, what he sees in this tail — indomitability, power, grace, playfulness, and a delicate sensitivity — all serve to illuminate the hidden and mysterious aspect of the whale.

However, always sensitive to narrative bias, Ishmael recognizes that his interpretation of the whale’s form and movement illuminate more about himself than the whale, and even then only in a static moment of time: “But gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels.” Even the destruction of boats, the death of men, the broken ribs, the bloody and desperate fight between hunter and hunted — all these terrible things Ishmael describes with wonder and poesy rather than horror and stark description.

Ishmael’s bias makes sense, given what we know of him. Many, perhaps most, people would carry a good deal of trauma from being the lone survivor of a ship demolished by a fierce, white whale. But although some chapters in Moby-Dick tend to darkness (to say the very least), Ishmael comes out of this awfully harrowing experience telling the ultimate story of whales with beauty and strength and power and above all a delicate sensitivity to both sorrow and joy.

Chapter 86: The Tail

Fishes and worms, wriggle at my feet;
Never the whale, oh no!,
His body won’t allow a gesture meek —
And wriggling means you’re weak!
Wriggling means you’re weak!

Think of the greatest forms of beauty that we seek;
Marbles of demigods —
Hercules, shaped to the last oblique!
Strength and beauty meet!
Strength and beauty meet!

And, hey, what’s the difference?
With no lost significance
You turn the implications meant
Into the world’s disease,
And its betterment?:
Your social ease.

God in the Sistene seems a Minotaur of Crete
Next the the Christ, his son,
Always painted just a tad effete —
The beauty’s in His speech!
The beauty’s in His speech!

So take a cue, my child, watching from your seat,
Letting the world sink in
Before you stand to act or stand to preach —
Wriggling means you’re weak!
Wriggling means you’re weak!

(c) and (p) 2010 Patrick Shea
Words and music written by Patrick Shea July 9, 2010
All parts performed, arranged, and recorded by Patrick Shea December 4, 2010

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 10:55 am  Comments (2)  
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