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"Loomings" in Redburn:
Melville's "Prince of W[h]ales" and the Point Lynas Lighthouse
David Ketterer
University of Liverpool

In his journal entry for 22 November 1849, Melville describes a day excursion from London to Windsor Castle and his fortuitous encounter there with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Melville and an Englishman he had met at the castle both bowed when the Queen and the Prince passed by in their carriage, a bow that Queen Victoria (but not the Prince) acknowledged. Thus it was that Melville, to whom one critic applies the term "majestic reverence," momentarily connected with the British monarch and ruler of the still vast British empire (Hardwick 27). None of the Melville biographies I have consulted considers this "meeting" of sufficient interest to include. Melville remarks on the Queen's flawed complexion, but "God bless her, say I, & long live the 'prince of whales'" (NN Journals 24), the Prince of Wales (not the Prince Consort Albert) then being an eight year old who would become Edward VII in 1901. The surprising ramifications of the pun-based analogy between the official title "Prince of Wales" and the description "prince of whales" tempt me to imitate something of Melville's own practice. He often reasons by way of "linked analogies" (NN MD 312), and the analogy with which I am concerned contains a potential equation between the British monarch and the white whale Moby Dick.

Lamb's "PRINCE OF WHALES" and Melville's

When I read the journal passage, with its Wales/whales pun, to my wife Suzette (middle name Victoria), who takes an interest in the history of the British monarchy, she was reminded of Charles Lamb's March 1812 satiric poem about the Prince of Wales who became King George IV. Titled "The Triumph of the Whale," its concluding and shorter second stanza reads as follows:

Name or title what has he?
Is he Regent of the Sea?
From this difficulty free us, [End Page 31]
Buffon, Banks or sage Linnæus,
With his wondrous attributes
Say what appellation suits
By his bulk, and by his size,
By his oily qualities,
This (or else my eyesight fails),
This should be the PRINCE OF WHALES.

Since Melville, in his journal entry, puts his "prince of whales" between quotation marks (although not in capitals), we might assume that he is quoting from the last line of Lamb's 42 line poem. The fact that, some months later, he quotes the first six lines of the same poem in the "Extracts" section of Moby-Dick seems to confirm the assumption. It is, therefore, odd that editors Howard C. Horsford and Lynn Horth do not provide a discussion keyed to "prince of whales" in the generally very thorough "Discussions" section of their authoritative 1989 edition of Melville's Journals.

I soon discovered that Ben J. Rogers had published an ANQ note titled "A Pun from Charles Lamb in Moby Dick" in 2000. In his "Works Cited," Rogers lists both the Horsford/Horth edition and Eleanor Metcalf's 1948 edition of Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent by Herman Melville, but he does not indicate in his note which edition he is quoting from. Rogers's quote—"and long live the prince of whales" (Rogers 42)—spells out the Melville ampersand that is reproduced in both editions and omits the quotation marks around "prince of whales" that appear in both editions. And, of course, those marks imply that Melville was either quoting from another writer or signaling his own joke. The Wales/whales pun is an obvious one (and especially inevitable for Melville), and he need not have been indebted to Charles Lamb for it. But given the references to Lamb in Melville's journal entries for the two preceding days, the likelihood is that he had Lamb in mind and was indeed quoting from Lamb's poem.

Rogers mentions Melville's visiting Lamb's publisher, Edward Moxon, on 20 November 1849 and Moxon's promise to send Melville copies of Lamb's works. Melville records their arrival the next day. Melville's later list, in his 1849-50 journal notebook B, of "Books obtained in London 1849" brackets "Charles Lamb's works (octavo)" and "Final Memorials of Lamb" as "From Mr Moxon" (NN Journals 144). The present location of the "works" is not known, but they were probably the five-volume 1840 Works of Charles Lamb: A New Edition that Moxon had reprinted in 1848 (Sealts, Melville's Reading 316). Although "The Triumph of the Whale" is not listed in the table of contents, it appears on pages 247-48 of the first volume of the Works. Melville's copy of [End Page 32] Thomas Noon Talfourd's 1848 two volume Final Memorials of Charles Lamb (Sealts 317), which includes Melville's annotations but not "The Triumph of the Whale," survives in the Princeton University Library.

Rogers argues, reasonably enough, that Melville did not read, for the first time, "The Triumph of the Whale" in The Works of Charles Lamb an hour or so before setting off for Windsor—for one thing, he was hung over from his drinking of the night before—but had read that edition of Lamb's works aboard the Southampton, the ship that had brought him to London between 11 October and 5 November 1849. Rogers assumes it was part of the ship's library. After returning to America on the Independence, Melville, in a 1 May 1850 letter, told Richard Henry Dana, Jr. that on board the Southampton he had "found a copy of Lamb . . . not having previously read him much, I dived into him, & was delighted. . . . so I was very sincere with Moxon, being fresh from Lamb" (NN Corres 161). Of course, that copy might or might not have been Final Memorials or The Works of Charles Lamb: A New Edition. The ship's library might also have included the volume that reprinted "The Triumph of the Whale" for the first time: John Thelwall's collection of The Poetical Recreations of The Champion (1822). Rogers does not mention Thelwall's collection in his note. His "Works Cited" includes only the 1967 Norton Critical Edition of Moby-Dick. Perhaps he did not consult the 1988 Northwestern-Newberry discussion of Moby-Dick's "Extracts" passage from "The Triumph of the Whale," which notes that the quoted lines "correspond in wording to the text as first published" and as reprinted in 1822 (NN MD 824). One must conclude that, although Melville could have read "The Triumph of the Whale" in The Poetical Recreations or the 1840 Works aboard the Southampton, he could also or alternatively have come across traveler-imported copies of both before his voyage.

Rogers also omits all mention of the relatively well-known satirical cartoon based on "The Triumph of the Whale" that George Cruikshank had M. Jones publish a month and a half after the poem's first publication: "The Prince of Whales or the Fisherman at Anchor" (1812). The original hand colored etching belongs to the British Museum but copies can, of course, now be Googled. The most extreme right figure in the etching is Lord Melville wearing a tam o'shanter.

Rogers goes most seriously astray when he implies by his note title ("A Pun from Charles Lamb in Moby Dick" instead of something neutral like "A Pun in Charles Lamb's 'Triumph of the Whale' and in Moby-Dick") that the two instances of the Wales/whales pun in Moby-Dick must have derived from Lamb's poem.1 The first occurs in Chapter 12. Ishmael notes of Queequeg, "the son of a king" of the island of Kokovoko, that "this sea Prince of Wales, never saw the captain's cabin. They put him down among the sailors, and made a [End Page 33] whaleman of him" (NN MD 56). The Longman Critical Edition of Moby-Dick includes an explanatory note for "Prince of Wales" here that is quite accurate: "Title of the male heir to the British throne; hence an acknowledgment of Queequeg's royal rights, as well as a pun" (LCE MD 506). The word "whaleman" in the next sentence activates and legitimates the pun. Quite rightly, the Longman note does not add that Melville's pun is in any way an allusion to Lamb's "The Triumph of the Whale." It might, however, have added that Lamb had used the same pun in the last line of "The Triumph of the Whale," of which only the first six lines appear in "Extracts." All we can be certain of is that Lamb and Melville both used the same obvious pun, a pun that would readily have occurred to Melville because of his whaling background. All we can assert as a fact is that, like Lamb (and perhaps with Lamb in mind, given "Extracts"), Melville punned on "Wales" and "whales." The same applies to Ishmael's later dubious reference to "Perseus, the prince of whalemen" (NN MD 361), albeit the Wales/whales pun is here only subliminally active.

Ishmael surmises an association between British royalty and sperm in "Postscript" (Ch. 25). He notes that a British monarch, at her or his coronation, is anointed "even as a head of salad" (NN MD 113). He speculates that the oil used must be "sperm oil in its unmanufactured, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils" (114). It is usually supposed that this four-paragraph chapter was dropped from the first British edition of Moby-Dick because its humor was taken as disrespectful. But Ishmael's jocular surmise is incorrect. The oil used at British coronations is not sperm oil. That could well have been the reason (or one reason) why a well-informed British editor, lacking a sense of humor, eliminated the chapter. However, beginning with Charles I, a bit of a sperm whale does make its way into the oil recipe. We can do what Melville could not and Google "British coronation anointing oil" and quickly learn that Queen Victoria, like her predecessors and successors, was anointed with an oil that consisted of a mix of orange, roses, cinnamon, musk, civit, and ambergris.2 Had Melville been aware of his error, he might have embedded a corrected version of the essence of Chapter 25 in Chapter 92, "Ambergris," which delights in the irony that this perfume is "found in the inglorious bowels of a sick [sperm] whale!" (NN MD 408).

The real point about Melville's association of the British monarchy with sperm whales is that Melville could not think of "Wales" without thinking also of "whales"; equally, he could not write or mention Wales without automatically thinking of "whales." The association is from "Wales" to "whales," not the reverse. As it happens, the most relevant reference is not in Moby-Dick but in Redburn (1849), the semi-autobiographical novel based on Melville's first sea voyage in 1839, when he traveled as a greenhorn to Liverpool aboard [End Page 34] the St. Lawrence. Melville's glimpses of Ireland and Wales and his time docked at Liverpool (4 July-14 August 1839) would have been his first experience of "abroad" and his second new world, his first being that of the Atlantic ocean. Wellingborough Redburn's account of his transatlantic crossing to Liverpool aboard the Highlander was based on nineteen-year-old Melville's crossing. The title of Chapter 27, "He gets a Peep at Ireland, and at Last Arrives at Liverpool," omits reference to Redburn's intervening five-paragraph peep at Wales. After passing south of Ireland:

The next land we saw was Wales. It was high noon, and a long line of purple mountains lay like banks of clouds against the east.

Could this be really Wales?—Wales?—and I thought of the Prince of Wales.

And did a real queen with a diadem reign over that very land I was looking at, with the identical eyes in my own head?—And then I thought of a grandfather of mine, who had fought against the ancestor of this queen at Bunker Hill.

(NN Redburn 125)

"Wales" is here mentioned four times. But is Melville talking only about a cloud-like Wales? The two question marks after Wales raise doubts. Melville would, of course, have been familiar with Hamlet's taunting exchange with Polonius about the shape of a cloud. Hamlet's final parallel is "back'd . . . like a whale?" "Very like a whale" is Polonius's accommodating response (Hamlet 3.2.370-72). Very like a regal whale if the cloud was purple like the cloudlike mountains of Wales. Melville would have known about the association of purple and royalty in the Bible and elsewhere. After the long transatlantic crossing, there is a wondrous unreality, something mirage-like, about the sight of looming land, whether Ireland or Wales. And a pod of whales was often exaggeratedly represented by writers as resembling a land mass. The "high noon" midpoint prepares for the fusion of the substantial and the insubstantial mountains and clouds. In such circumstances, a whaleman on masthead duty might well call out, "Whales! Whales! Whales! Whales!" Because of Melville's whaling experience, the Prince of Wales/Prince of whales pun would in all likelihood have been in his mind, and thus we can see inklings of the white whale of "Loomings," the first chapter of Moby-Dick, in what may be understood as the prefigured Prince of whales in the paragraphs below that I quote from Redburn. In the near future, Melville will present the monstrous Moby Dick as the king of whales. But that portentous beast with which Ahab will quarrel is finally more god-like than king-like.

Like Redburn, Melville had a grandfather—Major Thomas Melvill—who fought against King George III's soldiers (including the Welsh Fusiliers) at the Revolutionary War battle of Bunker Hill (NN Redburn 125). Melville's maternal [End Page 35] grandfather, Colonel Peter Gansevoort, defended Fort Stanwix against the British and became known as the "hero of Fort Stanwix." Melville would name his second son Stanwix. Major Melvill and Colonel Gansevoort might be paralleled by Ishmael's supporting role in relation to Ahab's conflict with Moby Dick. It should be remembered that from 1815 to 1914 Great Britain was the foremost global power and at the head, for most of that time, of the largest empire in history. All of which is to say that many of the larger thematic, allegorical, satiric, political, and prophetic implications of Moby-Dick are present in the third Redburn Wales paragraph. They might be superimposed as three parallel conflicts: Major Thomas Melvill versus King George III's empire; Ahab versus Moby Dick; and the United States versus its ideological rivals. Moby Dick, the Prince and future King of whales, survives because he, like imperial powers, takes on successive meanings or forms.

In the fourth Wales paragraph in Redburn, Melville melds the new world and the old, the cloud-like purple mountains of Wales with the mountains of New York State, and in the fifth and final Wales paragraph, he describes an ambiguous white object:

But, after all, the general effect of these mountains was mortifyingly like the general effect of the Kaatskill Mountains on the Hudson River.

With a light breeze, we sailed on till next day, when we made Holyhead and Anglesea [sic]. Then it fell almost calm, and what little wind we had, was ahead; so we kept tacking to and fro, just gliding through the water, and always hovering in sight of a snow-white tower in the distance, which might have been a fort, or a light-house. I lost myself in conjectures as to what sort of people might be tenanting that lonely edifice, and whether they knew anything about us.

(NN Redburn 126)

The word "hovering" in the passage above must necessarily be understood as implying "in the air" or, to move from fact to simile, "as if in the air." Holyhead is a port on Holy Island, and part of the county of Anglesey in North Wales. Anglesey is itself an island. Note the ambiguous placement of the word "hovering," syntactically related to the Highlander but more clearly understood as a displacement from "a hovering snow-white tower in the distance" or "a snow-white hovering tower in the distance" or "a snow-white tower hovering in the distance." The effect of this deliberate or accidental grammatical aberration is to emphasize perception by blurring subject and object and associating Melville/Redburn with the white tower in a way that anticipates the links in Moby-Dick between Ahab and Ishmael and the White Whale. The isolated white edifice, not like a white cloud but like the white whale, is a mysterious manifestation of prodigious and seemingly impregnable phallic power, and a [End Page 36] source of illumination. Like Melville's white whale, that edifice embodies an unknown (possibly indifferent, possibly hostile) intelligence.

The five Wales paragraphs in Redburn prefigure the opening "Loomings" chapter of Moby-Dick. But instead of New Yorkers looking out over the Hudson from the Battery (once the site of a fort), the American sailors aboard the Highlander (or the St. Lawrence) are looking from water toward a strange land. Ishmael explains that he is drawn to going to sea by "the overwhelming idea of the great whale himself" and "his island bulk" and that "such a portentous and mysterious monster aroused my curiosity" (NN MD 7). But it is in the next and last paragraph of "Loomings" that the snow-white edifice associated with Wales becomes the white whale:

By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome, the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and midmost of them all, one grand hooded phantom like a snow hill in the air.


Those flood-gates first opened briefly in Redburn. By way of an incipient pun on Wales and whales, in the five-paragraph peep at Wales, written in May or June, 1849, Moby-Dick (probably begun the following February) looms for the first time as a central hovering or floating ungraspable phantom (like a hovering or floating cloud).

And, of course, both the hovering white edifice and the snow hill in the air give rise to the same urgent question: What is it?

The substantial "Explanatory Notes" in Luther Mansfield and Howard Vincent's edition of Moby-Dick include one note for "a snow hill in the air," but its focus is on "hill" not "snow" (Mansfield and Vincent 603). Consequently, the parallel with Redburn's "a snow-white tower in the distance" is overlooked. Instead, Mansfield and Vincent quote this parallel: Redburn's expectation that whales "would look like mountains on the sea; hills and valleys of flesh!" (NN Redburn 96). Mansfield and Vincent are careful to note almost all the connections between Moby-Dick and Melville's preceding novels. Their Redburn citations (43) exceed the number made to Typee (6), Omoo (8), Mardi (40), and White-Jacket (24). The almost-as-large number of Mardi connections is not surprising given that Mardi's allegorical and metaphysical ambitions anticipate Moby-Dick. Some of the important ways in which Redburn prefigures Moby-Dick are discussed below.

In the context of Redburn, the sights of Ireland and then of Wales are suggestive of Thomas Hobbes's defense of Great Britain and its secular monarchy in Leviathan, or the Matter, Form, and Power of a Commonwealth, Ecclesiastical [End Page 37] and Civil (1651). Redburn encounters a new reality, the powerful and dangerous leviathan that is the British state (as represented primarily by Liverpool and London, its two major cities). His first sight of Ireland is accompanied by an encounter with an Irish trickster (the first such in Melville's work and a foretaste of his 1857 novel The Confidence-Man) who draws alongside in his boat and swindles the Highlander out of a length of rope. This comic episode, which immediately precedes the sighting of Wales, should be understood as a first warning (preceding what might be a fort or a lighthouse, a second warning, or, if both fort and lighthouse, second and third warnings). Would Melville have expected Redburn himself and at least some of the novel's readers to make the Wales, whales, Leviathan connections? The words "whales" "whale," "whaler," "whaling," "whaleman," and "whalemen" appear with sufficient frequency earlier in the novel to make the expectation likely.

In the first chapter, Redburn explains how he acquired his taste for the sea. Among his father's pictures, "above all there was a picture of a great whale, as big as a ship, stuck full of harpoons, and three boats sailing after it as fast as they could fly" (NN Redburn 6-7). Noting Redburn's upper-class buttoned coat, a sailor jokes "'that chap ain't going to sea in a merchantman, he's going to shoot whales'" (19). Chapter 21 introduces "a whaleman" among the Highlander's crew named Larry. The word "whales" crops up three times in the chapter's first three paragraphs, one instance in each of them, beginning with "The sight of the whales mentioned in the preceding chapter was the bringing out of Larry" (99). In the preceding Chapter 20, Redburn reports:

presently some one cried out—"There she blows! whales! whales close alongside!"

A whale! Think of it! Whales close to me, Wellingborough;—would my own brother believe it? I . . . rushed to the side; and there, dimly floating, lay four or five, long, black snaky-looking shapes, only a few inches out of the water.

Can these be whales? Monstrous whales, such as I had heard of? I thought they would look like mountains on the sea; hills and valleys of flesh!


The "whales! whales" repetition will, six short chapters later, be echoed but questioned by "Wales?—Wales?" (125). Following the first three "whales" in Chapter 21, is one more, then mentions of "a whaler" (99), "whalemen," "those who hunt for leviathan," and "whaling voyages" (100). The word "leviathan" might remind educated readers of Hobbes's work and set them up to appreciate the political import of Melville's latent "Prince of Wales" pun.

In Chapter 27, a few paragraphs after the five Wales paragraphs, "Larry the whaleman" returns (NN Redburn 127) in a manner that links his introduction in Chapter 21 with the loomings of Wales (and England). In Chapter [End Page 38] 21, Larry is presented as a "reserved" and "singular" man who knows all about every kind of sea creature and talks about how impressed he was by the natural, primitive way of life in Madagascar: "none o' them kings there gets their big toes pinched by the gout" (100). But in Chapter 27, Larry is so taken by the city of Liverpool that "Instead of holding Queen Victoria on a par with the Queen of Madagascar, as he had been accustomed to do; he ever after alluded to that lady with feeling and respect" (128). Redburn had previously alluded to Victoria, "a real queen with a diadem," and George III, "the ancestor of this queen," in the third of the Wales paragraphs (125). And thus Melville subtly, in a book he considered hackwork, weaves the connections in a tapestry that includes whales, Wales, Hobbes's Leviathan, and the British monarchy.

The pun-triggering association between the words "Prince of Wales" and the word "whaleman" in Chapter 12 of Moby-Dick is, then, anticipated by the same association between the same words in Chapter 27 of Redburn. Queequeg is a "whaleman" and so is Larry. The words "Prince of Wales" appear nowhere else in Melville's fiction or poetry.

In the last chapter of Redburn, the narrator, back in New York, learns that the landlady of his shipmate and friend Harry Bolton "feared he had gone on a whaling voyage (NN Redburn 311). A concluding "years after" postscript reveals that Harry died "jammed between the ship and a whale . . . But yet, I, Wellingborough Redburn, chance to survive, after having passed through far more perilous scenes than any narrated in this, My First Voyage—which here I end" (312). The loomings of Wales/whales eventuate in Ishmael's lonely survival. Redburn concludes with a real and deadly whale and a metaphorical "gam" between that novel and a phantom Moby-Dick. The notion that Redburn, "a sort of Ishmael in the ship" (62), prefigures Ishmael was first argued by John J. Gross in 1951. Jackson, a repellent fellow sailor aboard the Highlander, and a man about whom there "seemed more woe than wickedness" (105), anticipates aspects of Ahab (Gilman 286, 272-73).

The Point Lynas Lighthouse and Pilot Station

We might reasonably assume that the unidentified "snow-white" "lonely edifice" that Redburn had seen was also seen by Melville in 1839. What exactly was it? Was it a fort or was it a lighthouse? Neither mentioned by William Gilman in his Melville's Early Life and Redburn nor glossed by Harold Beaver in the notes to his edition of Redburn, it must have been the Point Lynas Lighthouse designed by the Liverpool engineer Jesse Hartley (1780-1860), built in 1835, and still functional today (see Figs. 1 and 2). [End Page 39]

"A snow-white tower in the distance": The Point Lynas Lighthouse, built in 1835. Image copyright "Row17" courtesy of Geograph® Britain and Ireland.
Click for larger view

"A snow-white tower in the distance": The Point Lynas Lighthouse, built in 1835. Image copyright "Row17" courtesy of Geograph® Britain and Ireland.

The Point Lynas Lighthouse stands on a prominent headland of the northeast coast of Anglesey. Because of its castellated appearance, it was known as Hartley's Castle. Its light is not at the top of the central front tower but at ground floor level within a bulbous projection below the tower.3 Hence, Melville's and Redburn's confusion between fort and lighthouse.

It was from Point Lynas that a pilot would convey any Liverpool-bound ship. Accordingly, the one-sentence paragraph that immediately follows that three-sentence paragraph containing Redburn's single reference to the mysterious white tower is as follows: "The third day, with a good wind over the taffrail, we arrived so near our destination, that we took a pilot at dusk" (NN Redburn 126). The next dawn, the Highlander approaches a fog-bound, "mysterious" Liverpool (127). But why did Melville/Redburn not, in the sentence above, specifically identify the Point Lynas Lighthouse with its unusual ground level lamp and its battlements? As crew members, both Melville and Redburn would surely have learned the answer to the previous mystery. If Melville, who had recalled Holyhead and Anglesey, had simply forgotten the name Point Lynas, he could have checked it on a map. We might speculate that Melville did not want [End Page 40] to explain and thereby eliminate the white symbol's dramatic ambiguity that he might have perceived in 1839 and did create in 1849 in Redburn. Perhaps he wanted to preserve its mystery. The presence of the pilot seems to disconnect rather than connect the one-sentence paragraph from the location of the previously mentioned "white . . . edifice."

The Point Lynas beacon. Image copyright "Anonymous" courtesy of Geograph® Britain and Ireland.
Click for larger view

The Point Lynas beacon. Image copyright "Anonymous" courtesy of Geograph® Britain and Ireland.

The Point Lynas Lighthouse was also known as Liverpool's Pilots Lighthouse because of the Pilot Station located (since 1781) on Point Lynas. The English pilot who takes command of the Highlander (presumably like the one Melville encountered aboard the St. Lawrence) "soon fell to ordering us here and there" (126). Lighthouse and Pilot Station both exist to ensure the safe entry of ships, but the associations in Redburn are with foreign power and control.

The way in which Melville un-anchors the white edifice from its specific locality, leaves the recognition of its reality hanging, and then disassociates it from the Pilot Station, allowing it to drift free as a symbol "hovering" in the air and eventually to become Moby-Dick's floating (or hovering) "snow hill in the air." The up-in-the-air placement of both Redburn's "snow-white tower" and Moby-Dick's "snow hill" imparts to both objects the numinous shimmer of a dream or vision that solicits interpretation. Thus, the last paragraph of "Loomings" can be regarded as a revision of the Redburn passage. This argument may be understood as a version of what John Bryant might call a "revision narrative." [End Page 41] Because the lighthouse's "snow-white tower in the distance" (recently painted a dazzling white like the rest of the structure) likely became the "snow hill in the air" white whale, the Point Lynas Lighthouse should be recognized and celebrated for its Moby-Dick association.

The pilot met with off Point Lynas in 1839 might well be the one Melville recalls in "House of the Tragic Poet," a pencil-drafted introduction, supposedly by an unidentified editor, to an unpublished, variously revised, prose and verse mixture first identified by Merton M. Sealts, Jr., as the "Burgundy Club" sketches. Melville's own "1878 or 1879" working title, Parthenope (Parker 2.834), indicates the relevance of the name of a siren who committed suicide after her failure to seduce Ulysses (and provided an alternative name for Naples where her drowned body washed up) to the ironic design of the overall collection and, perhaps more directly, to the second of its two long narrative poems, "At the Hostelry" and "Naples in the Time of Bomba." (Parthenope's fate may be related to that of Melville's first son, Malcolm, who died of a self-inflicted gunshot in 1867.) Probably drafted in 1890, the year before Melville's death, the introductory "House of the Tragic Poet" quotes as its title the antiquarian designation for the remains of a house with elaborate frescos and mosaics that survived the volcanic destruction of Pompeii in 79 AD and that was excavated in 1824. The prose introduction was first described in print by Sealts in 1958 as "a prefatory note to the poems . . . drafted in pencil" (Sealts, "Burgundy Club Sketches" 253) and transcribed by Robert A. Sandberg in 1989. (Melville had visited Pompeii and climbed Vesuvius on 18 February 1857.) As an alternative to the house's mythological mosaic, which accounts for the theory of a "tragic poet" as the long dead occupant of the house, the poet/editor proposes, on the basis of a vestibule mosaic, his theory about a hard-nosed publisher occupant whose straining fearsome black dog, pictured in the mosaic along with the inscription, "CAVE CANEM," warns off importuning authors. In this introduction, the "Publisher" "pilot" guides the unidentified poet/editor towards a fearsome "Public" figured as a looming ambiguous, possibly threatening object like the fort/lighthouse in Redburn:

The shattered tyro [poet/editor] is in the predicament of the rural actor who even previous to facing the foot-light is struck with stage fright. The Public, to whom the Publisher is the immediate pilot[,] looms ahead like an unknown island at the ends of the earth to the navigator in darkness seeking a hospitable harbor. Who habits yon shore? Best stand boldly in for it. Ah, the temerarious Captain Cook was cooked and served up in his own cocked hat at a clam-bake of the tattooed savages!

(Melville, "House" 5)

A parallel speculation of Redburn's will here be recalled: "what sort of people might be tenanting that lonely edifice" (NN Redburn 126).4 Melville, in "House [End Page 42] of the Tragic Poet," combines elements from Redburn and Typee to create the third in a series of portentous "looming" scenarios: Redburn confronting a distant looming white object; Ishmael inspired and awed, internally "in my inmost soul" (and externally) by a looming "snow hill in the air," and the dependent novice poet/editor submitting to a looming "Public" (imaged as an island possibly inhabited by the unknown intelligence of cannibals). In the third instance, the structure of the "looming" scenario is analogous, the details of its content less so.

The looming unknown is both spatial and temporal; it lies ahead and beyond in space and time. Given the resonance of Moby-Dick in the twenty-first century, the "snow hill" that is the White Whale continues to loom for us today. In "House of the Tragic Poet," Melville, of course, is confronting his own obscurity and looming death. We are aware that what awaited him in the next century was literary triumph. But at the end of his life, he could only be grimly apprehensive that his Muse might have been merely a seductive Siren like Parthenope.

Melville based Redburn's transatlantic voyage on his own of 1839. Redburn's voyage, like Melville's, takes "about thirty" days (NN Redburn 124); the Highlander arrives in Liverpool at "the beginning of July" (198). According to William Gilman, "on the second of July, after a passage of twenty-seven days, the 'St. Lawrence' worked her way up the Mersey River and into Prince's Dock" (Gilman 134). His related endnote attributes this information to The Times of 3 July 1839 (Gilman 334n48). Two days after first seeing the unidentified fort or lighthouse, Redburn reaches Liverpool. Assuming the same two-day interval before Melville, age 19, reached Liverpool, I propose that the important "snow-white" seed for Moby-Dick described ten years later in Redburn may have been planted in his mind on Sunday, 30 June 1939. Almost eleven years later, he began writing Moby-Dick in 1850 (after the Independence had returned him to New York on 1 February).

As is well known, Moby Dick was based, in part, on an actual albino sperm whale named Mocha Dick, first encountered in 1810 near the off-Chile island of Mocha, which often destroyed ships, boats, and men before, old and damaged, it was killed in 1859 (Vincent 163-77). In my view, Redburn's "snow-white tower in the distance" combined in Melville's imagination with Mocha Dick to become the "snow hill in the air" named Moby Dick. Melville may have been aware of Mocha Dick before his voyage on the St. Lawrence. The best-known account of Mocha Dick is an article of that title by J. N. Reynolds, which appeared in the influential New York Knickerbocker Magazine for May 1839, the May preceding Melville's first sea voyage. Melville's first publication, the two-part "Fragments from A Writing Desk," had appeared in the Democratic Press and Lansingburgh Advertiser on the fourth and eighteenth of that same [End Page 43] May. The following June, Melville originally had in mind employment aboard a whaling, rather than a merchant, ship. Given these two circumstances, we might surmise that his attention would have been drawn to Reynolds's article at the time of its publication.

The obvious analogy between snow and the whiteness of Mocha Dick features in Reynolds's article. Descending from a breach, "That falling mass was white as a snow-drift! (Reynolds 559). The same analogy, used by Melville in Redburn and Moby-Dick, occurs in Moby-Dick at both the conclusion of "Loomings" and the beginning and end of "The Whiteness of the Whale" (Ch. 42). In that chapter, Ishmael refers to national representations of a "snow-white quadruped" (an elephant) and "a snow-white charger" (NN MD 188) and "a wide landscape of snows" (195). Over a period from 30 June 1839 through 1850— whether Melville knew about Mocha Dick before or after 30 June 1839—three seeds combined to influence his conception of Moby Dick: the notion of a Prince (and King-to-be) of whales, Mocha Dick, and that indeterminate "snow-white" fort or lighthouse—actually the Point Lynas Lighthouse—on a portion of the Welsh coast. The fort-lighthouse analogy with its suggestions of mystery, authority, power, danger, alien intelligence, and illumination (ideally, and actually at times, from the pure light of a sperm-whale-oil-based lamp) encouraged a more metaphysical, symbolic, and allegorical understanding of the White Whale. Thus, an image of impregnability impregnated the imagination of a great writer and helped shape its greatest issue.5


1. Rogers qualifies his assertions about "the problems of delineating Melville's sources": "Many of the corollaries between Melville's writing and reading may stem from the finite number of obvious analogies and adjectives rather than borrowing" (Rogers 44n4). This observation relates to the penultimate paragraph of his note in which he adds to the "Prince of Whales" pun three somewhat strained parallels between Lamb's poem and Melville's novel.

2. This correction does not appear in the copious notes to the Mansfield/Vincent and Beaver editions of Moby-Dick.

3. Jesse Hartley also designed the similarly white and fortress-like-with-ground-floor-lamp Great Orme Lighthouse on the Welsh coast to the east of the Point Lynas Lighthouse. It was built by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, but not until 1862.

4. Mrs. Elizabeth Pritchard was the lighthouse keeper from 1832, when her husband Robert had died, until her own death in 1848. According to the 1842 Census, Mrs. Pritchard, age 67 (although she claimed to be 55), had one male assistant and three female servants.

5. I owe a version of this sentence and two layers of revision to Richard Kopley. I am also grateful to Leviathan's readers for suggesting additional improvements.

Works Cited

Bryant, John. The Fluid Text: A Theory of Revision and Editing for Book and Screen. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2002. [End Page 44]
Cruikshank, George. "The Prince of Whales or the Fisherman at Anchor" [a plate derived from a hand-colored etching]. In The Scourge: or, Monthly Expositor of Imposture and Folly 3 (1 May 1812): 345.
Gilman, William H. Melville's Early Life and Redburn. New York: New York UP, 1951.
Gross, John J. "The Rehearsal of Ishmael: Melville's Redburn." Virginia Quarterly Review 27 (Fall 1951): 581-600.
Hardwick, Elizabeth. Herman Melville. New York: Viking Penguin, 2000.
Lamb, Charles. Final Memorials of Charles Lamb. Ed. Thomas Noon Talfourd. London: Edward Moxon, 1848.
———. "The Triumph of the Whale." The Examiner, no. 220 (15 March 1812): 173.
———. "The Triumph of the Whale." In The Poetical Recreations of The Champion. Ed. John Thelwall. London: The Champion Press, 1822). 197.
———. "The Triumph of the Whale." In The Works of Charles Lamb: A New Edition. 5 vols. 1840; rpt. London: Edward Moxon, 1848. 1: 85-86.
Melville, Herman. Correspondence. Ed. Lynn Horth. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern UP and The Newberry Library, 1993; cited as NN Corres.
———. "'The House of the Tragic Poet': Melville's Draft of a Preface to His Unfinished Burgundy Club Book." Ed. and introd. Robert A. Sandberg. Melville Society Extracts 79 (1989): 1, 4-7.
———. Journals. Ed. Howard C. Horsford with Lynn Horth. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern UP and The Newberry Library, 1989; cited as NN Journals.
———. Moby-Dick. Ed. John Bryant and Haskell Springer. A Longman Critical Edition. New York: Longman, 2007; cited as LCE MD.
———. Moby-Dick or The Whale. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern UP and The Newberry Library, 1988; cited as NN MD.
———. Moby-Dick or, The Whale. Ed. Luther S. Mansfield and Howard Vincent. New York: Hendricks House, 1952.
———. Redburn. Ed. Harold Beaver. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976.
———. Redburn. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston and Chicago. Northwestern UP and The Newberry Library, 1969; cited as NN Redburn.
Metcalf, Eleanor Melville, ed. Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent by Herman Melville, 1849-1850. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1948.
Parker, Hershel. Herman Melville, A Biography: Volume 2, 1851-1891. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 2002.
Reynolds, J. N. "Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific: A Leaf from a Manuscript Journal." The Knickerbocker Magazine 12 (May 1839): 377-92. Rpt. in Moby-Dick. Ed. Harrison Hayford and Hershel Parker. 2nd ed. New York, Norton, 2002. 549-65.
Rogers, Ben J. "A Pun from Charles Lamb in Moby Dick." ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 13 (January 2000): 41-44.
Sandberg, Robert A. "Melville's Unfinished Burgundy Club Book: A Reading Edition, edited from manuscripts with Introduction and Notes." Ph.D. diss., Northwestern, 1989.
Sealts, Merton M., Jr. "Melville's Burgundy Club Sketches." Harvard Library Bulletin 12 (Spring 1958): 253-67. Rpt. with revisions in Sealts, Pursuing Melville, 1940-1980. Madison: U of Madison P, 1982. 78-90.
———. Melville's Reading: A Check-List of Books Owned and Borrowed. Rev. and enl. ed. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1988.
Vincent, Howard P. The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1949. [End Page 45]

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Subject Headings

  • Novelists, American -- 19th century -- Biography.
  • Melville, Herman, -- 1819-1891.
  • Melville, Herman, -- 1819-1891 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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