51 The Spirit-Spout
The Spirit Spout: In his January 8, 1852, letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia, Melville responds to her earlier letter praising Moby-Dick and offering, among other insights, her interpretation of the spirit spout. The interpretation is not known because Sophia’s letter is lost, but Melville acknowledges her finding “a subtile significance” in the spirit spout, although he “did not, in that case, mean it.” For Melville’s further ruminations on the “allegoricalness of the whole” of Moby-Dick, see NN Correspondence 219.
Days, weeks passed, and under easy sail, the ivory Pequod had slowly swept across four several cruising-grounds; that off the Azores; off the Cape de VerdesCape de Verdes: Now a nation, but at the time Portuguese, the Cabo Verde islands (Cape Verde in English), are located off the west coast of present-day Senegal.; on the Platethe Plate: Maritime cognomen for Rio de la Plata (silver in Spanish), which flows between Argentina and Uruguay into the Atlantic. (so called), being off the mouth of the Rio de la Plata; and the Carroll GroundCarroll Ground: Off the coast of Angola, not south, but east and north of St. Helena., an unstaked, watery locality, southerly from St. HelenaSt. Helena: The British island colony famous for Napoleon Bonapart’s final exile, situated in the middle of the South Atlantic..
It was while gliding through these latter waters that one serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude: on such a silent nighton such a silent night: F. O. Matthiessen in American Renaissance hears in this phrase an echo of the refrain, “in such a night as this,” by two lovers at the end of The Merchant of Venice (5.1.1–25); see also Mansfield and Vincent's edition of Moby-Dick (738). The reference to the moon and Melville’s repeated s-sounds in the passage also recall Shakespeare. a silvery jet was seen far in advance of the white bubbles at the bow. Lit up by the moon, it looked celestial; seemed some plumed and glittering god uprising from the sea. Fedallah first descried this jet. For of these moonlight nights, it was his wont to mount to the main-mast head, and stand a look-out there, with the same precision as if it had been day. And yet, though herds of whales were seen by night, not one whaleman in a hundred would venture a lowering for them. You may think with what emotions, then, the seamen beheld this old Oriental perched aloft at such unusual hours; his turban and the moon, companions in one sky. But when, after spending his uniform interval there for several successive nights without uttering a single sound; when, after all this silence, his unearthly voice was heard announcing that silvery, moon-lit jet, every reclining mariner started to his feet as if some winged spirit had lighted in the rigging, and hailed the mortal crew. “There she blows!” Had the trump of judgment blown, they could not have quivered more; yet still they felt no terror; rather pleasure. For though it was a most unwonted hour, yet so impressive was the cry, and so deliriously exciting, that almost every soul on board instinctively desired a lowering.
Walking the deck with quick, side-lunging strides, Ahab commanded the t’gallant sails and royalst’gallant sails and royals: third and fourth level of sails up from the deck; thus, the highest sails aboard the Pequod to be set, and every stunsailstunsail: short for studdingsail and pronounced STUN suhl. Light sail set out and beyond the ends of the yards in fair weather to increase speed. spread. The best man in the ship must take the helm. Then, with every mast-head manned, the piled-up craft rolled down before the wind. The strange, upheaving, lifting tendency of the taffrail breezetaffrail breeze: breeze coming from the taffrail, the handrail around the open deck area toward the stern of a ship. filling the hollows of so many sails, made the buoyant, hovering deck to feel like air beneath the feet; while still she rushed along, as if two antagonistic influences were struggling in her—one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawinglyyawingly: veering from one side to the other of an intended course. to some horizontal goal. And had you watched Ahab’s face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked. But though the ship so swiftly sped, and though from every eye, like arrows, the eager glances shot, yet the silvery jet was no more seen that night. Every sailor swore he saw it once, but not a second time.
This midnight-spout had almost grown a forgotten thing, when, some days after, lo! at the same silent hour, it was again announced: again it was descried by all; but upon making sail to overtake it, once more it disappeared as if it had never been. And so it served us night after night, till no one heeded it but to wonder at it. Mysteriously jetted into the clear moonlight, or starlight, as the case might be; disappearing again for one whole day, or two days, or three; and somehow seeming at every distinct repetition to be advancing, still further and further in our van, this solitary jet seemed for ever alluring us on.
Nor with the immemorial superstition of their race, and in accordance with the preternaturalness, as it seemed, which in many things invested the Pequod, were there wanting some of the seamen who swore that whenever and wherever descried; at however remote times, or in however far apart latitudes and longitudes, that unnearable spout was cast by one self-same whale; and that whale, Moby Dick. For a time, there reigned, too, a sense of peculiar dread at this flitting apparition, as if it were treacherously beckoning us on and on, in order that the monster might turn round upon us, and rend usturn round upon us, and rend us: According to Parker, Ishmael’s language echoes in part Matthew 7.6: “neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.” at last in the remotest and most savage seas.
These temporary apprehensions, so vague but so awful, derived a wondrous potency from the contrasting serenity of the weather, in which, beneath all its blue blandness, some thought there lurked a devilish charm, as for days and days we voyaged along, through seas so wearily, lonesomely mild, that all space, in repugnance to our vengeful errand, seemed vacating itself of life before our urn-likeurn-like: rounded. prow.
But, at last, when turning to the eastward, the Cape windsthe Cape winds: Having turned eastward from the Atlantic into the Indian Ocean, the Pequod is buffeted by the winds off Africa's Cape of Good Hope. From this point on, the ship sails waters that Melville never witnessed. began howling around us, and we rose and fell upon the long, troubled seas that are there; when the ivory-tusked Pequod sharply bowed to the blast, and gored the dark waves in her madness, till, like showers of silver chips, the foam-flakes flew over her bulwarks; then all this desolate vacuity of life went away, but gave place to sights more dismal than before.
Close to our bows, strange forms in the water darted hither and thither before us; while thick in our rear flew the inscrutable sea-ravenssea-ravens: Cormorants (from medieval Latin corvus marinus, ravens of the sea).. And every morning, perched on our staysstays: ropes used to keep the masts upright, rows of these birds were seen; and spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as though they deemed our ship some drifting, uninhabited craft; a thing appointed to desolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their homeless selves. And heaved and heaved, still unrestingly heaved the black sea, as if its vast tides were a conscience; and the great mundane soul were in anguish and remorse for the long sin and suffering it had bred.
Cape of Good Hope, do they call ye? Rather Cape TormentotoCape Tormentoto: Melville’s “Tormentoto” should be Tormentoso. Bartholomeu Dias, first European to round the tip of Africa, named it “Cabo Tormentoso” (Portuguese for Tempestuous Cape) in 1486, but King João II of Portugal, with an eye on future commerce with India, renamed it Cape of Good Hope (“Cabo da Boa Esperança”). Melville’s misspelling appears in both American and British versions and may be a typo; with that assumption, the NN edition emends to “Cape Tormentoso.” However, the misspelling also evokes a sense of “torment” (as in the following "tormented sea") and may represent an unconscious revision or even an intended “mistake.” Because the error is not likely to confuse readers, MEL registers it through annotation and makes no change to its reading text., as called of yore; for long allured by the perfidious silences that before had attended us, we found ourselves launched into this tormented sea, where guilty beings transformed into those fowls and these fish, seemed condemned to swim on everlastingly without any haven in store, or beat that black air without any horizon. But calm, snow-white, and unvarying; still directing its fountain of feathers to the sky; still beckoning us on from before, the solitary jet would at times be descried.
During all this blackness of the elements, Ahab, though assuming for the time the almost continual command of the drenched and dangerous deck, manifested the gloomiest reserve; and more seldom than ever addressed his mates. In tempestuous times like these, after everything above and aloft has been secured, nothing more can be done but passively to await the issue of the gale. Then Captain and crew become practical fatalists. So, with his ivory leg inserted into its accustomed hole, and with one hand firmly grasping a shroud, Ahab for hours and hours would stand gazing dead to windward, while an occasional squall of sleet or snow would all but congeal his very eyelashes together. Meantime, the crew driven from the forward part of the ship by the perilous seas that burstingly broke over its bows, stood in a line along the bulwarks in the waist; and the better to guard against the leaping waves, each man had slipped himself into a sort of bowlinesort of bowline: fixed loop of rope. secured to the rail, in which he swung as in a loosened belt. Few or no words were spoken; and the silent ship, as if manned by painted sailors in wax, day after day tore on through all the swift madness and gladness of the demoniac waves. By night the same muteness of humanity before the shrieks of the ocean prevailed; still in silence the men swung in the bowlines; still wordless Ahab stood up to the blast. Even when wearied nature seemed demanding repose he would not seek that repose in his hammock. Never could Starbuck forget the old man’s aspect, when one night going down into the cabin to mark how the barometer stood, he saw him with closed eyes sitting straight in his floor-screwed chair; the rain and half-melted sleet of the storm from which he had some time before emerged, still slowly dripping from the unremoved hat and coat. On the table beside him lay unrolled one of those charts of tides and currents which have previously been spoken of. His lantern swung from his tightly clenched hand. Though the body was erect, the head was thrown back so that the closed eyes were pointed towards the needle of the tell-tale that swung from a beam in the ceiling.*
Terrible old man! thought Starbuck with a shudder, sleeping in this gale, still thou steadfastly eyest thy purpose.
* [Melville's Note] The cabin-compass is called the tell-tale, because without going to the compass at the helm, the Captain, while below, can inform himself of the course of the ship.