Once Upon a Midnight Dreary

The first disastrous attempt to nab a whale causes the mood on the Pequod to sink to new depths. Over days that groan into weeks, the ship sails aimlessly up and down the Atlantic Ocean, past the Azores, the Cape de Verdes, the Rio de la Plata, the House of the Rising Sun. Everybody feels gloomy and really, really cold. Worse, an apparition starts showing up in the water every few nights. Not surprisingly, it looks just like a white whale, and it lures them helplessly forward, like the Ghost of Christmas Future.

The “Spirit-Spout” (the title of chapter 51) first reveals itself on a “serene and moonlight night, when all the waves rolled by like scrolls of silver; and, by their soft, suffusing seethings, made what seemed a silvery silence, not a solitude; on such a silent night a silvery jet was seen.” It’s a wonder that the whale doesn’t drown in the Sea of Alliteration.

It’s not all that unusual to see whales at night, explains Ishmael, but “not one whaleman in a hundred would venture a lowering for them.” But the Spirit-Spout whale casts a spell over the entire crew, stripping them of common sense, rational thought, and standard practices. Every time it’s spotted—at midnight, of course—someone yells, “There she blows!” and the whole gang springs into action. Ahab is the fist to shake a wooden leg. He scuttles around the deck, commanding for “t’gallant sails and royals to be set, and every stun sail spread.”

As suddenly as the ghost whale appears, it vanishes just as quickly. And everyone is left standing around looking ridiculous. Clearly they are being played. Not too swiftly, they begin to catch one. “There was a peculiar sense of dread that this flitting apparition [was] treacherously beckoning us on and on, in order that the monster might turn round upon us, and rend us at last in the remotest and most savage seas.

As darkness gives way to dawn, another bad sign appears, not from below this time, but from above: Ravens, lots of them. It’s as if Edgar Allan Poe himself had let loose his entire aviary. “Every morning, perched on our stays, rows of these birds were seen; and in spite of our hootings, for a long time obstinately clung to the hemp, as though they deemed our ship some drifting uninhabited craft; a thing appointed to isolation, and therefore fit roosting-place for their homeless selves.”

Did the Classics Slacker mention that it’s cold? How cold is it? So cold that one night Starbuck discovers Ahab passed out in his chair, stuck to it like a tongue against a metal pipe in winter. Starbuck had gone to Ahab’s cabin “to mark how the barometer stood.” And there was the captain “with closed eyes sitting straight in his floor-screwed chair; the rain and half-melted sleet of the storm from which he had some time before emerged still slowly dripping from the unremoved hat and coat.”

So it’s all around not a jolly time. Between ghost whales, ravens, and cold, the Pequoders are spooked, stalked, and shivering. They could use a good omen. Finally one appears, a fellow whale ship called, appropriately enough, the Albatross. It’s as if Samuel Taylor Coleridge himself had let loose his favorite bird. Assuming no one shoots it, everything should turn out just fine.

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