Chapter 58 Brit

        The Pequod continues her easterly course, "north-eastwards from the Crozetts", on the whaleman's long passage from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the Strait of Sunda, (between the islands of Sumatra and Java), aiming for the South China Sea and the whaling grounds off Japan. The exotic sound of these far-away places makes it easy to understand how a young romantic like H.I.M. (Herman "Ishmael" Melville) would "slip his cable" -- abandoning his anchor on shore to sail the watery world. He is not without misgivings, though.

        They sail through what appears to be vast yellow meadows of brit -- the billions of minute sea creatures that float in certain spots on the surface of the sea, providing the main source of food for the Right Whale (which the Sperm Whaler ignores). The Right Whale ingests this brit by simply swimming through it with his gigantic mouth wide open -- like a mammoth skimmer. The tiny organisms are strained out by means of whale bone -- hairy slats that hang from the roof of the mouth. Such whale bone was the answer for plastic, before plastic was invented, and consequently a valuable commodity to be harvested in the 18th and 19th centuries. [One application for whalebone was for making busks -- long, thin, limber strips used to bolster the fabric used for ladies' corsets. That these are obsolete is evidenced by the absence of the word busk in modern dictionaries, just as hunting the nearly extinct Right Whale is obsolete.]

        The romantic mood evoked by these vast yellow meadows of brit in the loneliness of the landless ocean, and the remarkable swaths cut through them by the hulking whales, prompts another gush of colorful, alliterative poesy: "As morning mowers, side by side, slowly and seethingly advancing their scythes through the long wet grass of marshy meads -- even so these monsters swam, making a strange, grassy, cutting sound -- leaving behind them endless swaths of blue upon the yellow sea."

        But this rapt reverie changes abruptly as dark thoughts of danger cloud the meditational horizon of our narrator: "Though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita, and though by vast odds the most terrific of all mortal disasters have immemorially befallen those tens of thousands who have gone down to the sea in ships -- yet conceited man, however much he may vainly brag of his science and skill -- yet forever and ever, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him. Nevertheless and notwithstanding, man has lost that sense of the full, aboriginal awfulness of the sea. That same ocean which destroyed the world and floated Noah's ark; that same ocean rolls now. Yea, foolish mortals, Noah's flood is not yet subsided! Two thirds of the wide world remains covered by it!"

        "But not only is the sea such a foe to man, who is an alien to it; but it is also a fiend to its own offspring. No mercy, no power but its own controls it. Like a mad battle steed that has lost its rider, the masterless ocean overrruns the globe. Consider the universal cannibalism of the sea; all whose creatures prey upon each other. Consider all this, and consider them both -- the sea and the land. Do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself? For as this appalling ocean surrounds the verdant land, so in the soul of man there lies one insular Tahiti, full of peace and joy, but encompassed by all the horrors of the half-known life. God keep thee! Push not off from that isle! Thou canst never return!" [The romantic poet becomes a ranting preacher. What a change from the ode to the magic of water in Chapter 1!]