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What We’re Reading: “Drink, ye harpooneers!”

Among the world’s literature of set-piece oratory in fiction, poem or drama, the American could do far worse than to assert his own pride of place, on the basis of Captain Ahab’s oathbearing flourishes when, having revealed to his crew the true purpose of their voyage, he swears them to “this indissoluble league” of vengeance against the White Whale.

“Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis.” So saying, with extended arm he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed center; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them; meanwhile glancing intently from Starbuck to Stubb; from Stubb to Flask. It seemed as though by some nameless interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life. The three mates quailed before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect. Stubb and Flask looked sideways from him; the honest eye of Starbuck fell downright.

“In vain!” cried Ahab; “but, maybe, ‘tis well. For did ye three but once take the full forced shock, then mine own electric thing, that had perhaps expired from out me. Perchance, too, it would have dropped ye dead. Perchance ye need it not. Down lances! And now, ye mates, I do appoint ye three cup-bearers to my three pagan kinsmen there — yon three most honorable gentlemen and noblemen, my valiant harpooneers. Disdain the task? What, when the great Pope washes the feet of beggars using his tiara for ewer? Oh my sweet cardinals! your own condescension, that shall bend ye to it. I do not order ye; ye will it. Cut your seizings and draw the poles ye harpooneers!”

Silently obeying the order, the three harpooners now stood with the detached iron part of their harpoons some three feet long held barbs up before him.

“Stab me not with that keen steel! Cant them; cant them over! know ye not the goblet end? Turn up the socket! So, so; now, ye cup-bearers, advance. The irons! take them; hold them while I fill!” Forthwith slowly going from one officer to the other he brimmed the harpoon sockets with the fiery waters from the pewter.

“Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices*! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this indissoluble league. Ha! Starbuck! but the deed is done! Yon ratifying sun now waits to sit upon it. Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat's bow — Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!”

Moby Dick is a famously undisciplined work, full of all manner of literary diversions and larks that appear to detract from the pacing of the story itself. A chapter in the latter half of the book announces this outright: “There are some enterprises in which a careful disorderliness is the true method.” Some of this may be ascribed to an intense desire to convey, as best as human writing can, the true experience of whaling, which project could not possibly be attempted without supplying some real feeling of monotony, repetition, even boredom. We cannot suppose men who, in the infancy of industrial development, departed from little Nantucket for the hunting grounds of the hugest game, compassing every sea on earth, on multiple expeditions a single one of which consumed a twentieth of their earthly lives — we cannot suppose such men would tell tales noteworthy for their brevity, or for their alacrity in getting to the conclusion. Thus Melville’s great novel has turned off many a reader with its detailed discursions into everything from the natural history of the whales to the technical methods, circa the mid-19th century, of skinning and processing a slain leviathan.

Another source of the discursiveness lies in what might be called Melville’s efflorescence of imitation. For instance, the following few chapters after this very speech by Ahab openly emulate Shakespearean forms, with stage direction, formal soliloquys and all. Starbuck’s sad lament provides a taste:

Horrible old man! Who’s over him, he cries; — aye, he would be a democrat to all above; look, how he lords it over all below! Oh! I plainly see my miserable office, — to obey, rebelling; and worse yet, to hate with touch of pity! For in his eyes I read some lurid woe would shrivel me up, had I it.

[ . . .]

Oh, God! to sail with such a heathen crew that have small touch of human mothers in them! Whelped somewhere by the sharkish sea. The white whale is their demigorgon. Hark! the infernal orgies! that revelry is forward! mark the unfaltering silence aft! Methinks it pictures life. Foremost through the sparkling sea shoots on the gay, embattled, bantering bow, but only to drag dark Ahab after it, where he broods within his sternward cabin, builded over the dead water of the wake, and further on, hunted by its wolfish gurglings.

But before the playful theater emulations and all the discursions that follow, there is Ahab’s unforgettable speech and the fire that undergirds. This is the center of the book. Here there few no digressions; all is concentrated, galvanizing disclosure; dialogue and mostly sparse description, owing more to density of meaning than ornateness of elaboration.

It is, as I say, perhaps America’s highest achievement in the category Oratory in Fiction. Readers may now commence to offer their own nominees, or belittle mine.


* Some texts render it as “Command the murderous chalices!” and I cannot say which version I prefer, though I should like to know which version is the true one from Melville’s hand.

Comments (9)

Unlike those who know and teach about literature, I can never distinguish between oratory that I find worthwhile and oratory that really is good. I know what I like, but I can never pin-point what it is that makes it good. Or 'good, objectively' rather than good merely in my mind.

I am more patient than many with literary diversions or side-essays on a multitude of theories in a novel, so coming across them in Moby Dick didn't actually bother me. But since this is a rather common thing in other novelists of the time, particularly Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and a few others I could name, I thought perhaps that it was a particular STYLE of writing rather than a conscious device in Moby Dick.

Two excellent points, Tony.

I agree that the objective/subjective estimate of literary quality is a treacherous and forbidding question. Still, I would venture at least a few points of objective quality available to the careful reader's eye.

Leaving Ahab's quoted words aside, just for the moment, there is the quality of the sparse but arresting descriptions surrounding the speech. The ingenuous innovation in converting parts of speech: Here Ahab "brimmed the harpoon sockets" -- a noun becomes a very vivid verb. (Elsewhere, Melville writes that the ship's night watch "sentinelled the slumbers of the band below.") Within Ahab's own lines, there is a diligence in rendering a peculiar accent, which we might for our own amusement just call piratese, that compels attention and is at once playful and formidable. Just memorize a bunch of Captain Ahab lines for the most felicitous Talk Like a Pirate Day ever. Next there is the imagery of Papism, if you'll forgive me -- old man Ahab referring to "the great Pope" who "washes the feet of beggars" and to "my three pagan kinsmen" as cardinals. Of course a New Englander would conflate Rome with brute paganism.

And you're right: style of digression may well constitute the key Moby Dick character.

Thanks for this post, Paul!

I don't know how ashamed I should be to admit that I have never read _Moby Dick_.

As for candidates for great oratory, I was surprised to discover how few candidates I have. It seems that great oratory has not been something I have focused on in my own study of literature. But, if I may be permitted to bring in English as opposed to American literature, I would back Tennyson's Ulysses:

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.


My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

I would say that part of the greatness of the passage from Moby Dick is its sheer creepiness. It's not inspiring, but it does send some chills down the spine, because Captain Ahab is obviously "round the bend." That, I realize, is hardly high literary analysis, however!

That's a fine entry, Lydia.

The thing is that you had to be a touch "round the bend" yourself, to sign up for one of these whalers. So even the sound wisdom of Starbuck, who instantly perceives the folly of Ahab's vow, and works hard to counter it, even unto the edge of dishonor, is overwhelmed by the necessities of sailing those hunter ships: the Captain's word is law, and he cannot gainsay it. Hierarchy, change of command, the commander is absolute dictator on a ship. Which is another reason why it is astonishing to think that other proud men willingly signed up to be under the absolute dictatorship of aged men still guiding these expeditions -- aged magnetic men like Ahab.

Here, in the Speech on Conciliation, is Burke's studied estimate of what the Nantucket whalers had accomplished.

Pass by the other parts, and look at the manner in which the people of New England have of late carried on the Whale Fishery. Whilst we follow them among the tumbling mountains of ice, and behold them penetrating into the deepest frozen recesses of Hudson’s Bay and Davis’s Straits, whilst we are looking for them beneath the Arctic Circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold, that they are at the antipodes, and engaged under the frozen Serpent of the south. Falkland Island, which seemed too remote and romantic an object for the grasp of national ambition, is but a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry. Nor is the equinoctial heat more discouraging to them, than the accumulated winter of both the poles. We know that whilst some of them draw the line and strike the harpoon on the coast of Africa, others run the longitude, and pursue their gigantic game along the coast of Brazil. No sea but what is vexed by their fisheries. No climate that is not witness to their toils. Neither the perseverance of Holland, nor the activity of France, nor the dexterous and firm sagacity of English enterprize, ever carried this most perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been pushed by this recent people; a people who are still, as it were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of manhood. When I contemplate these things; when I know that the Colonies in general owe little or nothing to any care of ours, and that they are not squeezed into this happy form by the constraints of watchful and suspicious government, but that, through a wise and salutary neglect, a generous nature has been suffered to take her own way to perfection; when I reflect upon these effects, when I see how profitable they have been to us, I feel all the pride of power sink, and all presumption in the wisdom of human contrivances melt and die away within me. My rigour relents. I pardon something to the spirit of liberty.

Paul, after that comment, I have to give you this poem, which I'll bet you've never heard of. I ran across it in a literature anthology we use for home schooling:

Square-Toed Princes

by Robert P. Tristram Coffin

My ancestors were fine, long men,
Their hands were like square sails,
They ran the lengths of longitudes,
Harpooning spouting whales.

Men to put a twinkle in
The proud eyes of their Maker,
Standing up against the winds
On the square toes of a Quaker.

From Baffin’s Bay and Davis Strait
To the Serpent of the South,
They had the whale-gaff in the fist
And Scripture in the mouth.

Fingers like belaying pins,
A heart like an iron bucket,
Humble servants of the Lord,
Princes of Nantucket.

The wallowing mammoths of the sea
Felt their ruddy will
And quaked along the Torrid Line
From Gold Coast to Brazil.

In notches on the mizzen-mast
These men kept the tally;
Their hearts were the Rose of Sharon
And the Lily of the Valley.

The Yankee grit was in the spines,
Their voices were like guns;
They yearned to breed a nation up,
They manned their ships with sons.

They brought home ambergris and oil
In hogsheads and in tierces
And knelt down on their pineboard floors
To thank God for his mercies.

Square-riggers were their trundle-beds,
And they found their graves
In the sea or nigh the sea,
Within the sound of waves.

They wrapped the ocean like a cloak
And the shifting dunes above them;
They lie in peace till the Judgment Day
When the Lord will rise and love them.

How about Aragorn's battle speech at the Gates of Mordor?

Hold your ground! Hold your ground!
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers,
I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails,
when we forsake our friends
and break all bonds of fellowship,
but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
when the age of men comes crashing down,
but it is not this day!
This day we fight!!
By all that you hold dear on this good Earth,
I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!

That's from the movie! Hence, unreal. :-)

What about John Galt's speech in 'Atlas Shrugged'?

Kidding, kidding!!

I think the whole "a day may come" motif is actually not very great oratory. It looks good on an Internet meme, and it can be part of something that sounds good in a movie if delivered by a good actor, but as real oratory I think it falls down. If one analyzes it, it's not very inspiring. We shouldn't be telling our _friends_ that "a day may come when" our courage will fail, etc.! That's not what one wants to be making them think of in the day of battle! What it's really better for is chest-beating as spoken to one's enemies: "The day may come when you will defeat me, Evil Villain, but that day is not this day." Even there, it's rather second-rate oratory.

Now here's an inspiring speech before battle. The St. Crispin's Day speech from Henry v:

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb'red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

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