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Beautiful Phrases

Hi everyone, I’m Joan and I’m returning to the Zombies fold after almost totally folding on 2666!  I first read Moby-Dick as an adult and I’m really glad that it was never required reading for me.  I approached it the first time with open arms and I fell in love.  It was the pick of the reading group I was in at the time in Brooklyn, and although we extended the time-frame by a month I was the only one to finish it.  So I had only myself to discuss it with.  Now, around 12 years later, I’m already way ahead in terms of discussion and analysis and it’s only week 1!

This time around I’m doing side reading, working my way through a number of the books Daryl reviewed here, particularly Hoare’s The Whale, Delbanco’s Melville, and soon Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary which should arrive today.  Additionally I’m dipping into Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan.  I feel as though I’m completely immersing myself in Moby-Dick and what a rich world it is.

In what is looking like a bit of a theme for the first week here, I’m going to touch on one of the elements of the work that I truly love.  I’m a total sucker for beautifully crafted phrases, the ones that take your breath away and make your heart sing, the ones that you stop, read again, underline and star in the margins, the ones that can in just a few words speak a universal truth.  Many years and so many wonderful books have come and gone since my first time with Moby-Dick I had almost forgotten just how poetic and beautiful Melville could be.  Sure, it’s an adventure story, and there are so many styles and tones woven together, but it’s those beautiful phrases that keep me coming back.  Here are just a few of my favorites so far.

Chapter 12, regarding Queequeg’s native land:

It is not down in any map; true places never are.


Chapter 14, right at the end regarding Nantucketers:

For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman.  With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.


Chapter 16, regarding the Pequod, the well known but still wonderful to me, and beautifully illustrated by Matt:

She was a thing of trophies.  A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies


Which ones are moving you?

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  1. May 26, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Joan, too many move me to post them. I find that when I’m reading Melville, I write differently myself, more fancifully; it’s hard not to sneak in the odd thee or thy, almost. He crafts these beautifully lyrical, soaring sentences, but then he complements them with peaceful offerings like the the one you quote about the walruses and whales. Oh boy, and then the really fiery stuff that’s coming up in next week’s reading (which I couldn’t keep myself from finishing last night) and of which we got a preview in some of Peleg’s antics.

  2. Joan
    May 26, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Exactly! I love how he mixes it all together – the beautiful poetry, the comedic set pieces, the Shakespearean (to me at least) passages, the fascinating technical detail we’ll come to later – and it all works.

  3. Christina Wilson
    May 26, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    The sheer lyrical quality of Melville’s writing is one of the aspects that appeals to me, too. I can’t wait to get home to my self-annotated edition and fish out a few of my favorites in the first 18 chapters to comment upon. More anon!

  4. mattkish87
    May 26, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    As Daryl wrote, there are almost too many to even attempt to put some of them down. I think that for me, more than beauty, I have always responded to the sometimes outrageous humor in Melville’s writing. Lines such as “whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off” are bitingly funny. And “For my part, I abominate all honorable respectable toils, trials, and tribulations of every kind whatsoever. It is quite as much as I can do to take care of myself, without taking care of ships, barques, brigs, schooners, and what not,” also from the first chapter.

    I should stop there. I apologize, I don’t mean to derail these comments. It’s just that I have always felt that there doesn’t seem to be much awareness about just how funny “Moby-Dick” is, in addition to it also being powerful, thrilling, terrifying, beautiful, and so on.

    • May 26, 2010 at 4:01 pm

      Totally agree, Matt. It’s a very funny book. That was one of the things that most surprised and delighted me about it the first time I read it.

  5. Jimmy
    May 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    I’ve read more than half the book now (couldn’t slow down and stay on schedule), so some of these quotes may be from beyond the assigned reading. I love how much humor he sprinkles in there, but usually the humor isn’t totally captured in a short phrase. When they are, I try to tweet them… here are some:

    “He was nothing but a humbug, trying to be a bugbear.”

    “More than once did he put forth the faint blossom of a look, which, in any other man, would have soon flowered out in a smile.”

    And this one was just a hauntingly apt description: “While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap.”

    This one is classic: “All loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low power of enjoyment.”

    Of course, there is much more, but those are the ones short enough to share.

  6. Jimmy
    May 26, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    PS – has anybody else noticed that Melville uses semicolons in a different way from the traditional usage of them? He seems to use them almost like super-commas. His semicolons break incomplete phrases up in a list; traditionally semi-colons are used to set two contrasting and complete sentences together (as in this sentence).

  7. May 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Jimmy, I’ve seen semi-colons used as super-commas before (and have used them that way; maybe I got this from Melville, though?).

    I couldn’t help thinking, as I read the quote about the dead limb sounding like a coffin-tap (in next week’s milestone), of Poe’s (Melville’s approximate contemporary, though I think he died around 1849, just before the publication of Moby-Dick) telltale heart story, with its madness and its concealment (about which I can say nothing more just yet!).

  8. May 26, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Also: what’s your twitter handle?

  9. Jimmy
    May 27, 2010 at 4:20 am


  10. Joan
    May 27, 2010 at 7:31 am

    I’m so glad folks have picked up on the humor too – it’s a surprisingly funny book. And Daryl I really love that connection to Poe – I’ll look forward to hearing more about that!

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