A young reader writes to report he has overcome his fear and is reading Moby-Dick for the first time. Critics and even misguided common readers have mythologized Melville’s book into a fearsome monolith, not unlike the harpoon-acupunctured White Whale himself. Moby-Dick is what used to be known as a “rollicking good read.” (The OED suggests “rollicking” may derive from a blend of “romp” and “frolic.”) Constance Rourke in American Humor: A Study of the National Character (1931) says “comedy mapped the outlines of Moby-Dick and shaped its forms. Passages of comic fantasy are strewn through the narrative.” Consider the meeting of Ishmael and Queequeg. Consider the fart and penis jokes. Consider Ishmael, the voice of the novel. Consider a sonnet by David Levin, “To a Moral Navigator, Observed on His Way to Class,” written “For Yvor Winters” and included in Poems in Memory of Yvor Winters on the Centenary of his Birth (edited and published by R.L. Barth, 2000):
“Solemn as Queequeg, porting an old harpoon,
You march in sunshine, stepping forth to teach
Young navigators how to haul, to reach
The mystery of Melville, whale, typhoon.
You have not flung your quadrant at the moon,
Or thrown away your pipe, or scorned the beach,
Or, with some captains of demonic speech,
Followed dumb feeling to a blind lagoon.
“Yet reason must be brought to your defense.
You reach a faith too brave for dogmatists.
Unable to receive the Holy Ghost,
And knowing what your unbelief has cost,
You use dead reckoning, and meet white mists
In the pure style of grave intelligence.”
Levin likens Winters to Queequeg, the master harpooner, not mad Ahab. In “The Quadrant,” Chapter 118 of Moby-Dick, Ahab curses the navigational instrument and smashes it on the deck, vowing to navigate the Pequod with “the level ship's compass, and the level deadreckoning, by log and by line” -- typical self-destructive bravado. Instead, Winters shares with Queequeg “the pure style of grave intelligence.”
In 1978, ten years after Winters’ death, Levin published a remembrance of his teacher, “Yvor Winters at Stanford,” in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Levin confirms that Winters each year carried a harpoon to his lecture on Moby-Dick. He writes: “Just as the intensity of his passion must sometimes have moved his fingers over keys that expressed more anger than the occasion deserved, so his perfect ear for the language and his scorn of circumlocution must occasionally have brought reasonable indignation closer to the sound of fury.” The title of Levin’s poem alludes to the title of Winters’ “Herman Melville or the Problems of Moral Navigation” in Maule’s Curse (1938), republished in In Defense of Reason (1947). In it, Winters refers to the novel as “essentially a poetic performance.”
[See the late Turner Cassity’s reference to Ahab and Moby Dick in “Energy Crises” (Devils & Islands: Poems, 2007).]