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Chapter 35 The Mast-Head

  • 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!