The real item, please
I would, I think, before very long, like to be awe-struck by the sight of a blue whale (or if the rarity of this most gargantuan of earth's creatures makes the wish problematic, then an ordinary old sperm whale will do very nicely -- just as long as he's a bigm one.) I haven't come across too many whales to date. Possibly this is the result of living in out-of-the-way places like Bingley, Pleasantville or Frimley. But whatever the reason, when it comes to mammals (with or without hind legs) I'd say that hedgehogs have been a more dominant presence than whales.
I am not (I have now decided) going to resign myself to this. Every man should see at least one whale. If nothing else it's sure to be good for his sense of sublimity. There's been altogether too much making-do where whale-seeing is concerned -- or not seeing. The brief Miss Dickinson states, "I never saw a purple moor, I never saw the sea --what a wave must be."
Which is all very well for admirably "abstemious bees" like her, who can make a rose stand in for "an estate in Sicily" and all that -- a microcosm substitute for the cosmos, the front lawn for rolling downs, robin for eagle. But a witch hazel twig is still different, somehow, from a giant redwood, bath water generally incommensurate with the raging deep -- a hedgehog not precisely on a par with a whale.
We've had the moon in our living room, like most people -- whales also. I remember one time a charming school of a smaller kind of whale sporting with an intrepid human swimmer, giving to this odd, pink, two-tailed visitor the kind of ebulliently gentle and playful treatment that only the very big can give. "Come and join us," they mimed, "the water's lovely." But television, thank goodness, fails as a complete alternative to firsthand experience. The armchair moon doesn't make you an astronaut, and nature documentaries scarcely begin to stir the sleeping Captain Ahab in you.
Actually, a reenactment of Moby Dickm wasn't what I had in mind. All I would like to do is give a good, long, harmless look at a live, large whale.By now we owe him admiration of a nonslaughterous kind. He receives today more of this belated praise than ever before, no doubt, but anyone whose tongue alone can weigh as much as an average-size elephant, anyone who can sing piercingly across miles of ocean and still keep in the right key, anyone who shows signs of caring for the weak or sick of its species and not abandoning them with indifferent disgust, is worthy of increasing homage. Besides, I suspect that even a distant glimpse of one would, quite simply, take the breath away.
It is a measure of this extraordinary creature's value, which, naturally, has nothing at all to do with the marketable byproducts of his butchered corpse, whether it is ambergris or margarine, that he has captured the imagination of even writers and poets who couldn't possibly have seen one. (The only great painter I can think of curious enough to try an expedition to see a stranded whale was Albrecht Durer: and he didn't arrive in time.) Writers have seen him vividly in their imagination and caught him magnificently in their words. Melville obviously heads the list, but the whale surfaces in the most unexpected literary places. Spenser, for instance, in his Faerie Queenem speaks of "sea-shouldering whales." Milton manages to bring "Leviathan" into Paradise Lostm -- you might expect him to enjoy the mass and majesty of the whale: There leviathan, hugest of living creatures, in the deep stretched like a promontory sleeps or swims, and seems a moving land -- and at his gills draws in, and at his breath spouts out a sea.m
Nobody has written poetry about cats with more fervor than the 18th-century Christopher Smart, but did he ever see a whale? The little I know of his life suggests he is most unlikely to have done so. Yet he climaxed a stanza with a tribute so aptly phrased that it looks like observation: Strong is the lion -- like a coal his eye-ball -- like a bastion's mole his chest against the foes: strong the gier-eagle on his sail, strong against the tide, th' enormous whale emerges as he goes.m
I still think, though, that the profoundest written tribute to the whale is thundered suddenly at the beginning of Genesis: "And God created great whales, . . ." There is wonder in that statement, with its monumental finality. Ecologists frantic about threats of extinction by insane whaling practices might find in it food for thought.
People complain that modern translations of the Bible sometimes rob it of its richness and sonority. What has been done to this phrase in the "New English" version would indeed be grist to their mill. In this flat, dim prose it reads:
"God then created the great sea monsters. . . ."
Miss Dickinson, looking at nothing more than a carp in a garden pond, would have made an infinitelym better job of it.