Sunday, December 25, 2011


Merry Christmas from Herman Melville

Thanks to Robert J. O'Hara for what follows.

It was on a Christmas afternoon, "some years ago — never mind how long precisely," that the ill-fated Pequod set sail from Nantucket. In the paratactic style he learned from Homer and the Old Testament, here's how Ishmael recalled it:
At last the anchor was up, the sails were set, and off we glided. It was a short, cold Christmas; and as the short northern day merged into night, we found ourselves almost broad upon the wintry ocean, whose freezing spray cased us in ice, as in polished armor. The long rows of teeth on the bulwarks glistened in the moonlight; and like the white ivory tusks of some huge elephant, vast curving icicles depended from the bows.

Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft deep dived into the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his
steady notes were heard,—
“Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green.
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.”
Never did those sweet words sound more sweetly to me than then. They were full of hope and fruition. Spite of this frigid winter night in the boisterous Atlantic, spite of my wet feet and wetter jacket, there was yet, it then seemed to me, many a pleasant haven in store; and meads and glades so eternally vernal, that the grass shot up by the spring, untrodden, unwilted, remains at midsummer.
And courtesy of the Eugene Sacred Harp Singers (mediated by YouTube) we can hear the tune "Jordan" by William Billings that Capt. Bildad was singing that Christmas — the tune Melville's readers would have had in their ears as they read:

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