Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Joys and complaints in White Jacket

Look at this passage from chapter 19: 
“I am of a meditative humour, and at sea used often to mount aloft at night, and seating myself on one of the upper yards, tuck my jacket about me and give loose to reflection. In some ships in which. I have done this, the sailors used to fancy that I must be studying astronomy—which, indeed, to some extent, was the case—and that my object in mounting aloft was to get a nearer view of the stars, supposing me, of course, to be short-sighted. A very silly conceit of theirs, some may say, but not so silly after all; for surely the advantage of getting nearer an object by two hundred feet is not to be underrated. Then, to study the stars upon the wide, boundless sea, is divine as it was to the Chaldean Magi, who observed their revolutions from the plains.
And it is a very fine feeling, and one that fuses us into the universe of things, and mates us a part of the All, to think that, wherever we ocean-wanderers rove, we have still the same glorious old stars to keep us company; that they still shine onward and on, forever beautiful and bright, and luring us, by every ray, to die and be glorified with them.
Ay, ay! we sailors sail not in vain, We expatriate ourselves to nationalise with the universe; and in all our voyages round the world, we are still accompanied by those old circumnavigators, the stars, who are shipmates and fellow-sailors of ours—sailing in heaven's blue, as we on the azure main. Let genteel generations scoff at our hardened hands, and finger-nails tipped with tar—did they ever clasp truer palms than ours? Let them feel of our sturdy hearts beating like sledge-hammers in those hot smithies, our bosoms; with their amber-headed canes, let them feel of our generous pulses, and swear that they go off like thirty-two-pounders.
Oh, give me again the rover's life—the joy, the thrill, the whirl! Let me feel thee again, old sea! let me leap into thy saddle once more. I am sick of these terra firma toils and cares; sick of the dust and reek of towns. Let me hear the clatter of hailstones on icebergs, and not the dull tramp of these plodders, plodding their dull way from their cradles to their graves. Let me snuff thee up, sea-breeze! and whinny in thy spray. Forbid it, sea-gods! intercede for me with Neptune, O sweet Amphitrite, that no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with Drake, where he sleeps in the sea.” 
Such ecstasy. 
Now White-Jacket writes about his hammock, in chapter 20: 
“Give me plenty of room to swing it in; let me swing it between two date-trees on an Arabian plain; or extend it diagonally from Moorish pillar to pillar, in the open marble Court of the Lions in Granada's Alhambra: let me swing it on a high bluff of the Mississippi—one swing in the pure ether for every swing over the green grass; or let me oscillate in it beneath the cool dome of St. Peter's; or drop me in it, as in a balloon, from the zenith, with the whole firmament to rock and expatiate in; and I would not exchange my coarse canvas hammock for the grand state-bed, like a stately coach-and-four, in which they tuck in a king when he passes a night at Blenheim Castle.
When you have the requisite room, you always have "spreaders" in your hammock; that is, two horizontal sticks, one at each end, which serve to keep the sides apart, and create a wide vacancy between, wherein you can turn over and over—lay on this side or that; on your back, if you please; stretch out your legs; in short, take your ease in your hammock; for of all inns, your bed is the best.” 
Reading White-Jacket reminds me of why I gave up on The Mill on the Floss halfway through and returned to Melville. George Eliot is great, but to me she’s so stiff, so moralistic, so dry, that she seems unable to write about joy and pleasure and passion and bliss and enthusiasm and love of life, which are in abundance in Melville. Melville makes me feel alive, and for a moment, he makes me feel excited and feel at one with him, even though I’m a city person who don’t go to sea and don’t ever look at stars. 


Now on chapter 20, I’ve concluded that White-Jacket is a book about complaints. 
“But when White-Jacket speaks of the rover's life, he means not life in a man-of-war, which, with its martial formalities and thousand vices, stabs to the heart the soul of all free-and-easy honourable rovers.” (ch.19) 
White-Jacket complains about the hard life on the man-of-war; about tyrannical officers; about hierarchies and injustices; about the nonsensical rules for breakfast, dinner, and supper (“all the meals of the twenty-four hours are crowded into a space of less than eight! Sixteen mortal hours elapse between supper and breakfast; including, to one watch, eight hours on deck!”); about thieves and pickpockets; about people who don’t appreciate poetry (or so it appears, in the chapter about his poet friend Lemsford); about grumpy, irritable men on deck; about mobs; about training for war, the general quarters (“Are our officers of the Navy utterly unacquainted with the laws of good health? Do they not know that this violent exercise, taking place just after a hearty dinner, as it generally does, is eminently calculated to breed the dyspepsia? There was no satisfaction in dining; the flavour of every mouthful was destroyed by the thought that the next moment the cannonading drum might be beating to quarters.”), and so on and so forth. 
Now he’s complaining about hammocks. 
“Eighteen inches a man is all they allow you; eighteen inches in width; in that you must swing. Dreadful! they give you more swing than that at the gallows.” 
“During warm nights in the Tropics, your hammock is as a stew-pan; where you stew and stew, till you can almost hear yourself hiss.” 
“One extremely warm night, during a calm, when it was so hot that only a skeleton could keep cool (from the free current of air through its bones), after being drenched in my own perspiration, I managed to wedge myself out of my hammock…” 
“… My luckless hammock was stiff and straight as a board; and there I was—laid out in it, with my nose against the ceiling, like a dead man's against the lid of his coffin.” 
Melville’s hilarious.


  1. i read this until i got to the punishment part and quit. but you're right about the hilarity of it; and the poetic sensations... i like Melville a lot; Omoo and Typee are both a bit different, being autobiographical adventure stories, and quite exciting at times...

    1. i don't like to read about cruelty and sadism; i find it quite upsetting; being old, i much prefer sweetness and light...

    2. Oh.
      Oh well.
      Anyway, do you talk to Fred recently?

    3. Fred's blog is still there, at Fred's Place, but he hasn't posted since Jan 18th of this year... i made some attempts to discover what happened, but had no luck. he was five years older than me and i'm 75, so something terminal might have occurred... i miss his posts, tho, and am sorry he's disappeared... i have my own blog now; it's just ambient reactions to my reading, not technical in any sense of the word... i'd be happy to see any comments you might have, though: mudpuddle soup on wordpress...

    4. I feared that too.
      I wrote some comments but they weren't approved, I also tried to email him and didn't get a reply. Miss his blog.
      You told me about your blog, yeah, I've just been very busy, especially this month, with moving and all.

  2. Hey, interesting comments on White Jacket. You've got my attention, fwiw.