the Maldive Shark

May 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

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 flank
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

The awful, oafish Maldive shark is not the poem’s centerpiece, nor its most frightful creature. I am more wary of the silent pilot-fish that do the shark’s bidding and, being so close to the creature, fail to see its evil.

Melville uses dense, polysyllabic adjectives to describe the shark — “phlegmatical”, “Gorgonian”, “lethargic” — that slow the lines and cast a sense of dread. “Phlegmatical” sounds and looks horrible. In contrast, the pilot-fish are qualified by short adjectives like “sleek”, “slim”, “azure”, and “little” that sound rather pleasing and beautiful.

Not quite Moby Dick in miniature, but “the Maldive Shark” samples the novel’s multivalent linguistic structures, style, and darkness.

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