MARDI: AND A VOYAGE THITHER. By HERMAN MELVILLE, Author of “Typee,” and “Omoo.” 3 vols. London: Bentley.
THREE volumes of Midsummer madness. The author wrote “Typee” because he had something to write about. He has written “Mardi” because he had nothing to write about, and excessively wished that he had. The story, so far as it has any story, is this. The author professes to be a sailor on board a whaler in the South sea, in quest of the cachelot or spermaceti whale. After three years’ voyage without taking a fin, a pretty tolerable time, the captain resolves to make for the north-west coast of America, and in the bay of Kamschatska, to try for the true whale. Here the sailor-author demurs, declares that is not in the bond, and desires the captain to put him ashore. Where? Anywhere. The captain tells him to get ashore as he can; a comfortable speech, as the nearest land is a thousand miles off, and that a chain of islands, of which all that he knew was that they included those loosely known as Ellice’s group; then the Kingsmill isles; then the Radock and Mulgrave clusters. They were represented as low and fertile, and abounding in a variety of fruits. That the language of the people was said to be very similar to that of the Navigator’s islands, from which their ancestors are supposed to have emigrated. The author, however, takes the skipper at his word, and engaging an old Isle of Skyeman, of the name of Jarl to accompany him, they manage to get off one night with a boat and provisions, on pretence of a man having gone overboard. With a month’s voyage before them they make off, and the best, we should say the only good part of the book, is this voyage and its adventures. One of these is that they fall in with a ship of which the crew all to two islanders, a man and his wife, have been wheedled ashore at one of the islands and murdered. They secure this ship, make friends of the Indian and his wife, and sail on. But they are not destined to reach land in her. A storm overtakes them, the vessel is wrecked; and they with the Indian are again in an open boat. The Indian’s wife is lost in the wreck. In this boat, as they near the islands, they encounter another boat, in which are an old priest and his fifteen sons. They are going from one island to another for the purpose of sacrificing a beautiful maiden by drowning her in a certain cave.
On hearing of this maiden, who is concealed in a sort of hut on deck, and that she is beautiful as the morning, our hero, of course, becomes a champion. They very unjustifiably attack and murder the old man and some of his sons, and carry off the maiden. This maiden, whose name is Zillah [Yillah], and who is white, and with blue eyes, and a mystery, it being dimly meant to be inferred that she is of European origin, is, of course, amazingly beautiful. They carry her with them to land, where they are received as demigods come from the sun, which our hero fully assents to.
This our readers will think pretty wild, but it is nothing to the remainder. The beautiful Zillah is mysteriously stolen away from our enamoured sailor, sun-descended demigod, and he is, moreover, warmly beset by a commission of three damsels, who come with messages in the flower-language from one Queen Hautia, a queen-sorceress of a neighbour-island. The two volumes out of the three are occupied by the voyage all amongst these islands in quest of the lost Zillah. All the islands and their people are described—imaginary people, imaginary manners, in an imaginary peregrination. We have seldom read anything more wild, unreal, unsatisfactory, and tedious. It is like a story which some one and not a very wise one neither, traces in the clouds as he lies on his back in the grass on a fine summer’s day. The lost Zillah is found to have been carried off by this queen Hautia, and drowned, and the sorceress makes advances from which our demigod flies. He pushes off to sea again in an open boat, pursued by three of the murdered priest’s sons; and if any one wishes to judge further of the sanity of the author, or the satisfactory conclusion of the story, he has it in the last sentences:—“Churned in foam, that outer ocean lashed the clouds; and straight in my white wake, headlong dashed a shallop, three fixed spectres leaning on its prow; three arrows poising.“And thus pursuers and pursued flew on, over an endless sea!”
Such is the story—the style in which it is written is still worse. It is a bad case of contagion from the Carlyle idiomatic disease. Every age has its author, who infects all the smaller fry with a furor of mad English, which lasts until it has worn out both its novelty and the public patience. But the Carlyle verbal vaccination is here mingled with other corruptions. Sometimes you fancy you have got into Ossian—sometimes into the song of Ragnar Lodbrog. You are sickened with a terrific dose of sing-song prose, or prosy sing-song.
And yet there are things in the first volume that show with a fitting subject what the writer could do. The voyage in the open boat, as we have said, is beautiful. You are introduced into a world of wonderful fishes, swimming and streaming along with the voyagers in myriads, and in a truly oriental magnificence. The account of the sharks is striking: “We saw them,” he says “not by units, nor by tens, nor by hundreds, but by thousands and by myriads. Trust me, there are more sharks in the sea than morals on earth.” But we like better the following:—This, and the discovery and boarding the Indian ship, are proofs that with a better judgment the author could have written a book as interesting as this is absurd in more than the better half.MY LORD SHARK AND HIS PAGES. [from Mardi volume 1 chapter 18]
“THERE is a fish in the sea that evermore, like a surly lord, only goes abroad attended by his suite. It is the shovel-nosed Shark. A clumsy lethargic monster, unshapely as his name, and the last species of his kind, one would think, to be so bravely waited upon, as he is. His suite is composed of those dainty little creatures called pilot fish by sailors. But by night his retinue is frequently increased by the presence of several small luminous fish, running in advance, and flourishing their flambeaux like link-boy's lighting the monster's way. Pity there were no ray-fish in rear, page-like, to carry his caudal train.
"Now the relation subsisting between the pilot fish above mentioned and their huge ungainly lord, seems one of the most inscrutable things in nature. At any rate, it poses poor me to comprehend. That a monster so ferocious, should suffer five or six little sparks, hardly fourteen inches long, to gambol about his grim hull with the utmost impunity, is of itself something strange. But when it is considered, that by a reciprocal understanding, the pilot fish seem to act as scouts to the shark, warning him of danger, and apprising him of the vicinity of prey; and moreover, in case of his being killed, evincing their anguish by certain agitations, otherwise inexplicable; the whole thing becomes a mystery unfathomable. Truly marvels abound. It needs no dead man to be raised, to convince us of some things. Even my Viking marvelled full as much at those pilot fish as he would have marvelled at the Pentecost.
"But, perhaps, a little incident, occurring about this period, will best illustrate the matter in hand.
"We were gliding along, hardly three knots an hour, when my comrade, who had been dozing over the gunwale, suddenly started to his feet, and pointed out an immense shovel-nosed shark, less than a boat's length distant, and about half a fathom beneath the surface. A lance was at once snatched from its place; and true to his calling, Jarl was about to dart it at the fish, when, interested by the sight of its radient little scouts, I begged him to desist.
"One of them was right under the shark, nibbling at his ventral fin; another above, hovering about his dorsal appurtenance; one on each flank ; and a frisking fifth pranking about his nose, seemingly having to say something of a confidential nature. They were of a bright, steel-blue colour, alternated with jet black stripes; with glistening bellies of a silver-white. Clinging to the back of the shark, were four or five remoras, or sucking-fish; snaky parasites, impossible to remove from whatever they adhere to, without destroying their lives. The Remora has little power in swimming; hence its sole locomotion is on the backs of larger fish. Leech-like, it sticketh closer than a false brother in prosperity; closer than a beggar to the benevolent; closer than Webster to the constitution. But it feeds upon what it clings to; its feelers having a direct communication with the œsophagus.
"The shark swam sluggishly; creating no sign of a ripple but ever and anon shaking his Medusa locks, writhing and curling with horrible life. Now and then, the nimble Pilot fish darted from his side—this way and that—mostly toward our boat; but previous to taking a fresh start ever returning to their liege lord to report progress.
"A thought struck me. Baiting a rope's end with a morsel of our almost useless salt beef, I suffered it to trail in the sea. Instantly the foremost scout swam toward it; hesitated; paused; but at last advancing, briskly snuffed at the sea. line, and taking one finical little nibble, retreated toward the shark. Another moment, and the great tamerlane himself turned heavily about; pointing his black, cannon-like nose directly toward our broadside. Meanwhile, the little Pilot fish darted hither and thither; keeping up a mighty fidgetting, like men of small minds in a state of nervous agitation.
"Presently, tamerlane swam nearer and nearer, all the while lazily eyeing the chamois, as a wild boar a kid. Suddenly making a rush for it, in the foam he made away with the bait. But the next instant the uplifted lance sped at his skull; and thrashing his requiem with his sinewy tail, he sunk slowly, through his own blood, out of sight. Down with him swam the terrified pilot fish; but soon after, three of them were observed close to the boat, gliding along at a uniform pace; one an each side, and one in advance; even as they had attended their lord. Doubtless, one was under our keel.
“ 'A good omen,' said Jarl; 'no harm will befall us so long as they stay.'
"But however that might be, follow us they did, for many days after; until an event occurred, which necessitated their withdrawal."
-- The Standard of Freedom (London, England), 31 March 1849.
"These attacks are matters of course, and are essential to the building up of any permanent reputation — if such should ever prove to be mine. — "There's nothing in it!" cried the dunce, when he threw down the 47th problem of the 1st Book of Euclid — "There's nothing in it! — " — Thus with the posed critic. But Time, which is the solver of all riddles, will solve "Mardi."
-- Herman Melville, letter to Lemuel Shaw on April 23, 1849; quoted in Jay Leyda, The Melville Log (Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1951) volume 1, page 300.