'There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentle rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea, by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.'
From The Mast Head , chapter 35 of the novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
The book itself is epic in scale encompassing a vast array of themes, including Melville’s personal beliefs on the concepts of class and social status, good and evil, man’s place in the natural order of things, religion and the existence of God.
But this strange tale of one man’s vengeful battle against nature can also be viewed as a rather unorthodox whaling manual, with a variety of chapters about different whale species, including an in-depth analysis of the sperm whale and its secretive behaviour.
A sailor on duty at the Mast Head
There are also large sections of the book concerned with shipboard etiquette and the mechanics of the whale hunt. One such chapter is ‘The Mast Head’ which deals with the art of standing atop the ship’s t’gallant-mast on two thin parallel sticks called the t’gallant cross trees, where it was the sailor’s duty to keep a look out for any sign of the whale.
Melville goes on to describe in great detail a romantic history of the Mast Head and the fact that it has been irrevocably altered by the invention of the ‘crow’s nest’ by the Greenland whaler called Captain Sleet - it seems that the author is having fun at the expense of the Greenland whalers and the extreme weather conditions they had to endure, because when he refers to Captain Sleet he is in actual fact talking about the real inventor of the crow’s nest William Scoresby Senior.
Later in the chapter Melville admits to a secret admiration for William Scoresby and his crow’s nest, but still he adheres to the fact that an aspect of seamanship had gone forever. He considers that the endless hours, days and months spend atop the ship’s mast, with nothing but the vast sprawling ocean below and a sailor’s wild romantic thoughts for company, would be all but lost to the poor soul hidden inside the closetted confines of Sleet’s crow’s nest.
'Heed it well, you pantheists!'