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Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Maldive Shark - Herman Melville

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,
Pale sot of the Maldive sea,
The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,
How alert in attendance be.
From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw
They have nothing of harm to dread,
But liquidly glide on his ghastly flnak
Or before his Gorgonian head;
Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth
In white triple tiers of glittering gates,
And there find a haven when peril's abroad,
An asylum in jaws of the Fates!
They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,
Yet never partake of the treat-
Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,
Pale ravener of horrible meat.


Herman Melville, of Moby Dick fame, was also a poet of considerable talent.  I admire this poem because it does not try to moralize nature, making it into some human thing.  The shark, though described in terrifying language, is not evil.  It's unemotional, "phlegmatical" and "dull."  There is no moral imperative in the shark's teeth, no malice, just raw alien animal instinct.  Its foreignness is what attracts us to it.  The descriptions are phenomenal.  The shark has a "Gorgonian head" with "white triple tiers of glittering gates."  Melville focuses on the wondrous nature of the creature, and the symbiotic relationship between the pilot fish and the shark.

The pilot fish is the brains of the operation, so to speak.  It leads the shark to food (though doesn't partake of the spoils) and finds safe haven in its jaws during times of trouble.  It is the "eyes and brains to the dotard" that is the shark.  No positive or negative aspect is given to the relationship, Melville merely describes what is.  I like that.  It's easy to become preachy and unbearable in describing nature, particularly if animals are assigned with human traits.  How boring this would be if the shark was a menacing evil killer instead of a "pale ravener of horrible meat."

1 comment:

  1. I think you missed Melville's intention. If you read more of Melville, you would know what he means in this poem.

    The shark and the pilot fish are a parable, an analogy: The church is the shark, and the pilot fish are the churchmen that lead the pale sot to his victims. Gee, who could the poor victims of the church be? You get one guess.

    So, to recap: The pilot fish represent the clergy in leading man and woman to the alter of faith in the church -- and whatever that particular church is selling.

    So God, and also the church, are the raveners of horrible meat.

    The upside? The Maldive Shark, as you suggest, is innocent.

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