It was during the more pleasant weather, that in due rotation with the othe_eamen my first mast-head came round.
In most American whalemen the mast-heads are manned almost simultaneously wit_he vessel’s leaving her port; even though she may have fifteen thousan_iles, and more, to sail ere reaching her proper cruising ground. And if,
after a three, four, or five years’ voyage she is drawing nigh home wit_nything empty in her—say, an empty vial even— then, her mast-heads are kep_anned to the last! and not till her skysail-poles sail in among the spires o_he port, does she altogether relinquish the hope of capturing one whale more.
Now, as the business of standing mast-heads, ashore or afloat, is a ver_ncient and interesting one, let us in some measure expatiate here. I take it,
that the earliest standers of mast-heads were the old Egyptians; because, i_ll my researches, I find none prior to them. For though their progenitors,
the builders of Babel, must doubtless, by their tower, have intended to rea_he loftiest mast-head in all Asia, or Africa either; yet (ere the final truc_as put to it) as that great stone mast of theirs may be said to have gone b_he board, in the dread gale of God’s wrath; therefore, we cannot give thes_abel builders priority over the Egyptians. And that the Egyptians were _ation of mast-head standers, is an assertion based upon the general belie_mong archaeologists, that the first pyramids were founded for astronomica_urposes: a theory singularly supported by the peculiar stairlike formation o_ll four sides of those edifices; whereby, with prodigious long upliftings o_heir legs, those old astronomers were wont to mount to the apex, and sing ou_or new stars; even as the look-outs of a modern ship sing out for a sail, o_ whale just bearing in sight. In Saint Stylites, the famous Christian hermi_f old times, who built him a lofty stone pillar in the desert and spent th_hole latter portion of his life on its summit, hoisting his food from th_round with a tackle; in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntles_tander-of-mast-heads; who was not to be driven from his place by fogs o_rosts, rain, hail, or sleet; but valiantly facing everything out to the last,
literally died at his post. Of modern standers-of-mast-heads we have but _ifeless set; mere stone, iron, and bronze men; who, though well capable o_acing out a stiff gale, are still entirely incompetent to the business o_inging out upon discovering any strange sight. There is Napoleon; who, upo_he top of the column of Vendome stands with arms folded, some one hundred an_ifty feet in the air; careless, now, who rules the decks below, whether Loui_hilippe, Louis Blanc, or Louis the Devil. Great Washington, too, stands hig_loft on his towering main-mast in Baltimore, and like one of Hercules’
pillars, his column marks that point of human grandeur beyond which fe_ortals will go. Admiral Nelson, also, on a capstan of gun-metal, stands hi_ast-head in Trafalgar Square; and even when most obscured by that Londo_moke, token is yet given that a hidden hero is there; for where there i_moke, must be fire. But neither great Washington, nor Napoleon, nor Nelson,
will answer a single hail from below, however madly invoked to befriend b_heir counsels the distracted decks upon which they gaze; however it may b_urmised, that their spirits penetrate through the thick haze of the future,
and descry what shoals and what rocks must be shunned.
It may seem unwarrantable to couple in any respect the mast-head standers o_he land with those of the sea; but that in truth it is not so, is plainl_vinced by an item for which Obed Macy, the sole historian of Nantucket,
stands accountable. The worthy Obed tells us, that in the early times of th_hale fishery, ere ships were regularly launched in pursuit of the game, th_eople of that island erected lofty spars along the seacoast, to which th_ook-outs ascended by means of nailed cleats, something as fowls go upstair_n a hen-house. A few years ago this same plan was adopted by the Bay whaleme_f New Zealand, who, upon descrying the game, gave notice to the ready-manne_oats nigh the beach. But this custom has now become obsolete; turn we then t_he one proper mast-head, that of a whale-ship at sea. The three mast-head_re kept manned from sun-rise to sun-set; the seamen taking their regula_urns (as at the helm), and relieving each other every two hours. In th_erene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly pleasant the mast-head: nay,
to a dreamy meditative man it is delightful. There you stand, a hundred fee_bove the silent decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were giganti_tilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were, swim the huges_onsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed between the boots of the famou_olossus at old Rhodes. There you stand, lost in the infinite series of th_ea, with nothing ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls;
the drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor. For th_ost part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness invests you;
you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras with startling accounts o_ommonplaces never delude you into unnecessary excitements; you hear of n_omestic afflictions; bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never trouble_ith the thought of what you shall have for dinner— for all your meals fo_hree years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your bill of fare i_mmutable.
In one of those southern whalesmen, on a long three or four years’ voyage, a_ften happens, the sum of the various hours you spend at the mast-head woul_mount to several entire months. And it is much to be deplored that the plac_o which you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of you_atural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching to a cos_nhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable localness of feeling, suc_s pertains to a bed, a hammock, a hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, o_ny other of those small and snug contrivances in which men temporaril_solate themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the t’
gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks (almost peculia_o whalemen) called the t’ gallant crosstrees. Here, tossed about by the sea,
the beginner feels about as cosy as he would standing on a bull’s horns. To b_ure, in cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the shape o_ watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest watch-coat is no more of _ouse than the unclad body; for as the soul is glued inside of its flesh_abernacle, and cannot freely move about in it, nor even move out of it,
without running great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing th_nowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house as it is _ere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You cannot put a shelf o_hest of drawers in your body, and no more can you make a convenience close_f your watch-coat.
Concerning all this, it is much to be deplored that the mast-heads of _outhern whale ship are unprovided with those enviable little tents o_ulpits, called crow’s-nests, in which the look-outs of a Greenland whaler ar_rotected from the inclement weather of the frozen seas. In the firesid_arrative of Captain Sleet, entitled “A Voyage among the Icebergs, in quest o_he Greenland Whale, and incidentally for the re-discovery of the Los_celandic Colonies of Old Greenland;” in this admirable volume, all stander_f mast-heads are furnished with a charmingly circumstantial account of th_hen recently invented crow’s-nest of the Glacier, which was the name o_aptain Sleet’s good craft. He called it the Sleet’s crow’s-nest, in honor o_imself; he being the original inventor and patentee, and free from al_idiculous false delicacy, and holding that if we call our own children afte_ur own names (we fathers being the original inventors and patentees), s_ikewise should we denominate after ourselves any other apparatus we ma_eget. In shape, the Sleet’s crow’s-nest is something like a large tierce o_ipe; it is open above, however, where it is furnished with a movabl_idescreen to keep to windward of your head in a hard gale. Being fixed on th_ummit of the mast, you ascend into it through a little trap-hatch in th_ottom. On the after side, or side next the stern of the ship, is _omfortable seat, with a locker underneath for umbrellas, comforters, an_oats. In front is a leather rack, in which to keep your speaking trumpet,
pipe, telescope, and other nautical conveniences. When Captain Sleet in perso_tood his mast-head in this crow’s-nest of his, he tells us that he always ha_ rifle with him (also fixed in the rack), together with a powder flask an_hot, for the purpose of popping off the stray narwhales, or vagrant se_nicorns infesting those waters; for you cannot successfully shoot at the_rom the deck owing to the resistance of the water, but to shoot down upo_hem is a very different thing. Now, it was plainly a labor of love fo_aptain Sleet to describe, as he does, all the little detailed conveniences o_is crow’s-nest; but though he so enlarges upon many of these, and though h_reats us to a very scientific account of his experiments in this crow’s-nest,
with a small compass he kept there for the purpose of counteracting the error_esulting from what is called the “local attraction” of all binnacle magnets;
an error ascribable to the horizontal vicinity of the iron in the ship’_lanks, and in the Glacier’s case, perhaps, to there having been so man_roken-down blacksmiths among her crew; I say, that though the Captain is ver_iscreet and scientific here, yet, for all his learned “binnacle deviations,”
“azimuth compass observations,” and “approximate errors,” he knows very well,
Captain Sleet, that he was not so much immersed in those profound magneti_editations, as to fail being attracted occasionally towards that wel_eplenished little case-bottle, so nicely tucked in on one side of his crow’_est, within easy reach of his hand. Though, upon the whole, I greatly admir_nd even love the brave, the honest, and learned Captain; yet I take it ver_ll of him that he should so utterly ignore that case-bottle, seeing what _aithful friend and comforter it must have been, while with mittened finger_nd hooded head he was studying the mathematics aloft there in that bird’_est within three or four perches of the pole.
But if we Southern whale-fishers are not so snugly housed aloft as Captai_leet and his Greenlandmen were; yet that disadvantage is greatly counter-
balanced by the widely contrasting serenity of those seductive seas in whic_e South fishers mostly float. For one, I used to lounge up the rigging ver_eisurely, resting in the top to have a chat with Queequeg, or any one els_ff duty whom I might find there; then ascending a little way further, an_hrowing a lazy leg over the top-sail yard, take a preliminary view of th_atery pastures, and so at last mount to my ultimate destination.
Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorr_uard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I—bein_eft completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude—how could _ut lightly hold my obligations to observe all whaleships’ standing orders,
“Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.”
And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket!
Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow an_ollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship wit_he Phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an one, I say:
your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed youn_latonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pin_f sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays,
the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, an_bsent-minded young men, disgusted with the corking care of earth, and seekin_entiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himsel_pon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in mood_hrase ejaculates:—
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.”
Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded youn_hilosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient “interest”
in the voyage; half-hinting that they are so hopelessly lost to all honorabl_mbition, as that in their secret souls they would rather not see whales tha_therwise. But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that thei_ision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain th_isual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses at home.
“Why, thou monkey,” said a harpooneer to one of these lads, “we’ve bee_ruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet.
Whales are scarce as hen’s teeth whenever thou art up here.” Perhaps the_ere; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; bu_ulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie i_his absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, tha_t last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for th_isible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind an_ature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing that elude_im; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some undiscernible form, seems t_im the embodiment of those elusive thoughts that only people the soul b_ontinually flitting through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs awa_o whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space; like Crammer’_prinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last a part of every shore the roun_lobe over.
There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gentl_olling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutabl_ides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot o_and an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.
Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at midday, in the faires_eather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent ai_nto the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!