Thursday, 29 September 2016

XXXIX Articles: A Partial Treatment of the Concordances with Dante’s Commedia in the Narrative Structure of Moby Dick by Herman Melville


The narrative structure of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick is largely informed by its references to Dante’s Commedia. Now, read on.


"I was riding on the Mayflower, when I thought I spied some land,
I yelled for Captain Arab, I have ya understand.
Who came running to the deck, said, “Boys, forget the whale
Look on over yonder. Cut the engines. Change the sail.
Haul on the bowline.” We sang that melody
Like all tough sailors do when they are far away at sea."
                                                            Bob Dylan's 115th Dream[1]

In writing Moby Dick, its author, Herman Melville, wove in material from myriad sources. The references to many of these sources are well documented. There are the biblical allusions to Jonah, Job, King Ahab, and Father Abraham. There are the Shakespearian set pieces, where Captain Ahab becomes King Lear in full "blow winds and crack your cheeks" rage,[2] with a retinue of supporting characters to match. There are also nods to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, a major influence in Melville’s decision to write his masterpiece,[3] as well as to the Greek myth of Narcissus, upon whose tale the entire story is hung: Not to mention Melville's own experiences[4] and the 1001 fishermen's tales that he must have been told during those long voyages at sea.

What are less well documented in Moby Dick (less well known at the very least) are its  many and varied references to the 14th century epic religious poem, Commedia (The Divine Comedy[5]), by Dante Alighieri. Yet as this essay will show, the architecture of Melville’s novel is built upon Dante’s vision of the afterlife. Only by referring to the Commedia can answers be found to such curious questions as: why, in the second chapter, are we given no details of Ishmael’s journey from Manhattan to New Bedford?; why is the Roman philosopher, Cato, mentioned in the opening paragraph?; and why does Moby Dick contain 135 numbered chapters? All this I can truly deliver.

The thesis of this essay is summarised as follows: Ishmael is Dante the Pilgrim, Queequeg his Virgil, and many (though by no means all) of the features of Moby Dick have their parallels in the Commedia. These parallels are reinforced by Melville's sub-textual use of the number 9 and its indices. It is with the number 9 that we begin.


"The number three is the root of nine, because, independent of any other number, multiplied by itself alone, it makes nine, as we plainly see when we say three threes are nine; therefore if three is the sole factor of nine, and the sole factor of miracles is three, that is Father, Son and Holy Ghost, who are three and one, then this lady was accompanied by the number nine to convey that she was nine."
                                    Dante, Vita Nuova[6]

The pantheon of poetic and prose works based on the number 9 has an ancient lineage in western literary tradition. From Homer's Iliad, set in the ninth year of the siege of Troy, to James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, with its 36 lines per full page of text (see the Conclusion), taking in Virgil, Dante, and Melville along the way, the fixation with 9 has a well established pedigree.

To reference 9 in the classical world was to invoke the 9 heavenly muses. Virgil invokes the 9 and their chief, Calliope ('lovely voiced'), muse of epic poetry, in Book IX of the Aeneid:

"Calliope, begin! Ye sacred Nine,
Inspire your poet in his high design[.]"
                                                Book IX[7]

An invocation matched by Dante in line 9 of the opening Canto of Purgatory:

"And let Calliope rise up and play
Her sweet accompaniment in the same strain."[8]

The 9 in Book IX is not an isolated incident. 9s are lightly sprinkled around the rest of the Aeneid:

"Where, rolling down the steep, Timavus raves
And thro' nine channels disembogues his waves."
                                                                        Book I[9]

"Besides, if, nine days hence, the rosy morn
Shall with unclouded light the skies adorn[.]"
                                                                Book V[10]

"Nine days they pass in feasts, their temples crown'd;
And fumes of incense in the fanes abound."
                                                            Book V[11]

"Here his gigantic limbs, with large embrace,
Infold nine acres of infernal space."
                                                Book VI[12]

"Nine brothers in a goodly band there stood,
Born of Arcadian mix'd with Tuscan blood[.]"
                                                            Book XII[13]

The works attributed to Homer were probably written by collectives of poets rather than by a single individual. The Iliad begins with an invocation only to a goddess, which legend has it is Calliope.[14] The Odyssey invokes only a single, nameless, muse.[15] The Homeric contemporary, Hesiod, is the first surviving written source to state that there are 9 Muses. Before this time, the number fluctuates.[16] By the time of Virgil, in the 1st century CE, the number of Muses was well established as 9.

By taking place during the ninth year, the Iliad is also a portrayal of the inertia and futility of siege warfare. The ninth year finds the Greeks at their nadir, reduced to squabbling over which of the local girls they can safely abuse without offending the gods and committing acts of increasingly bloody vengeance. Nothing is resolved at poem's end. The siege goes on. Not even a Trojan Horse to relieve the monotony.

As well as classical tradition, part of Dante's fascination with 9 may have come from the simple recognition, conscious or otherwise, that the Old Testament is made up of 39 books and the New Testament of 27 books[17]:

3 x 9 = 27.

The Romans recast the Bible for their own ends, so it is hard to know how much this configuration of books is coincidence, pre-Christian mysticism, or numerical representation of the perfection of God's creation. Certainly the geometric expansion from Holy Trinity (3), to Universe (9), culminating in the 27 books of the New Testament and the one true Christian  faith (27), has been there to see, if only unconsciously, by any reasonably well educated person in the last thousand years.

Within the 27 books of the New Testament (27) is contained the Universe (9), as with all multiples of 9:

2 + 7 = 9.

To the faithful it is mathematical proof that God created the Universe for the sole adoration of Christ.

Dante was well educated for his time. One has only to read the works of his that survive to appreciate this fact. Quite how religious he was is open to a large amount of conjecture. Some of Dante's ideas are closer to blasphemy than piety, an idea to which I will return in the following section. Yet he had recognised the significance of the number 9 and its associations with heavenly perfection long before writing a word of his Commedia. To Dante, this perfection was personified by the lady known as Beatrice.

As he tells it in Vita Nuova, Dante first saw Beatrice when they were both around the age of 9. She was the sister of a boyhood friend. For Dante, it was love at first sight.[18] The next time that he encounters her, 9 years later, she is walking between "two other women of distinguished bearing."[19] Beatrice greets him, which Dante claims to happen at exactly 9 in the morning.[20] That night, he has a dream in which God flies into his bedroom, carrying a naked Beatrice, "wrapped lightly in crimson cloth."[21] Upon waking, Dante, not for the last time, employs some dubious mathematics to make the dream fit his theory of numerical perfection:

"On reflecting, I realised at once that the vision had appeared to me in the fourth hour of the night, that is, the first of the last nine hours of the night."[22]

Answers on a postcard.

Beatrice is married off to a Florentine merchant. Dante sees her only a handful more times before she dies in 1290, in which Dante again finds great significance. By using the Arabian calendar, he is able to show that she died "in the ninth hour of the ninth day."[23] Moreover, "according to the Syrian method, she died in the ninth month of the year."[24] rather than October, as according to the Gregorian calendar.

Dante concludes Vita Nuova stating that if God will "continue my life for a few years, I hope to compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman."[25] This desire became his Commedia.

It is worth noting at this point that the Holy Trinity is a Christian modification of the Triple Goddess, once worshiped across much of the Mediterranean.[26]  That is to say that Dante's fixation with 9 and its associate numbers is as much the artefact of a wider literary tradition of appropriation and adaptation of previous writers' tropes as it is anything else.

Thus, Virgil takes the basic plotlines of the Iliad and Odyssey, reverses their order and makes them one book. The Iliad is a book of the land, the Odyssey a book of the sea. The first 6 books of the Aeneid take place during a series of sea voyages, the last 6 on land.

To the Romans, imitation was the highest form of flattery (and the quickest method of appropriation). As Odysseus must travel down into the underworld in the Odyssey, so Aeneas must travel below in the Aeneid. As the Iliad contains the Catalogue of Ships, that lists all of the Greek nations and their numbers that came to lay waste to Troy, so the Aeneid contains the Catalogue of Warriors of the tribes that were pitted against Aeneas and his men in Latium. As Aeneas is a son of Troy, the Aeneid furnishes Rome with a foundation myth forged in antiquity. The source material is modified and improved upon. It is only in the Aeneid that we actually get to see the Trojan Horse.

Dante does much the same with Virgil as Virgil does with Homer. Like the Bible, the Commedia is infused with characters and features of the classical underworld to pad out the paucity of the Christian material. On his journey into the underworld, Dante is ferried across the River Acheron by Charon,[27] confronted by 3-headed Cerberus,[28] and passes down The Well of the Giants, where the Titans that fought against Zeus are imprisoned.[29]

Dante takes the five rivers of the classical underworld, four of which he cites in his Inferno. The Lethe, river of oblivion, he makes flow from the Garden of Eden, replacing the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris, and Euphrates, cited as flowing from Eden in Genesis.[30] Even the journey that Dante's replicates is a late pagan addition to the myth of Christos. The Harrowing of Hell, where Jesus is said to have travelled into hell and opened the way to paradise during the 3 days after he was crucified,[31] was only adopted after Rome became a Christian Empire in the 4th century. It owes many of its features to similar journeys undertaken by Aeneas, Odysseus, Orpheus, Hercules, and the goddess, Demeter (one of the forms of the Triple Goddess).

When Virgil goes down to the shores of Purgatory to pluck a reed to tie around the waist of Dante, which will allow him entry through the Gate of Purgatory,[32] it is a retelling of Aeneas's journey into the underworld. In order to gain entry to hell, Aeneas must first break off a branch of the sacred Golden Bough. The Sibyl who is his guide takes the bough to present to Charon in the underworld.[33] As Aeneas breaks off the bough, another grows instantly in its place. Likewise, as Virgil snaps off the reed on the banks of Purgatory, "immediately a second humble plant sprang up from where the first one had been picked."[34]

The only major difference between the journeys of Aeneas and Dante is that they are moving in opposite directions. Let us choose the ascending path and join Dante.


"Was the descent of Orpheus, Ulysses, or Dante into Hell, one whit more hardy and sublime than the first navigator's weathering of that terrible Cape?"
                                                                        Herman Melville, White Jacket[35]

Having spent some time looking at the history of the number 9, we can now move through the Commedia fairly rapidly. There are many references to 9 in the structure of both the poem and the afterlife which it describes. I will deal with these briefly in this section and look at the Commedia in more detail when turning to Moby Dick.

The Commedia is split into 100 Cantos (verses). Dante sets the action during the Easter weekend of 1300, when he was 35 years old.[36] 100 + 35 = 135; 1 + 3 + 5 = 9.

The opening Canto takes place in a dark forest or wood ("selva oscura"[37]), where Dante is rescued by Virgil and escorted down into hell. From there, the next 33 Cantos take place in the Inferno, followed by 33 in Purgatory and the final 33 in Paradise. 3 x 3 = 9. But also 33 (3 x 3 x 3) = 27. Each of these 3 sections is known as a Canticle.

There are 9 circles of hell, 9 levels to the island of Purgatory, and 9 heavenly spheres on the journey towards the Empyrean and the Holy Trinity. 3 x 9 = 27.

As we saw in the previous section, the multiplying of 3 and 9 in the Commedia is meant to represent the profundity of God's creation. From the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost (3) comes the Universe entire (9) in perfect geometric expansion. Yet Dante presents the reader with a number of alternatives to the Holy Trinity, some in opposition, some in service to the divine light.

First among these anti-Trinities is Satan himself. Encased in ice at the very depths of hell, the 3 faces of Satan chew upon the bodies of Judas, Brutus, and Cassius, all fellow traitors to their lord.[38] The 3 parts of God are complimentary and one in perfect harmony. The 3 faces of Satan stare away from each other and personify deceit.

In the opening Canto, Dante awakes in the forest and tries to make his way up a hill. His path is blocked by 3 animals, a leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. The opening Canto is really an Overture, the whole poem told in microcosm, and the hill represents the journey that Dante will make up through the 9 stages of Purgatory towards Paradise and redemption. Before Purgatory though, he must brave the Inferno and the 3 animals which arrest his upwards movement represent the 3 categories of sin that are punished in hell (the sins of fraud, violence, and incontinence). The wolf which Dante encounters is specifically a she-wolf to reference the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus in Roman tradition: An event foreshown to Aeneas in Book VIII of the Aeneid.[39]

In rescuing Dante, Virgil tells how he came to be his guide.[40] The Virgin Mary, witnessing Dante's plight from high heaven, sent Saint Lucia to the Lady Beatrice and told her to go down into hell and send Virgil out into the wood to rescue Dante. The Holy Trinity pays no attention to his distress. It is a trinity of women that rescue Dante the Pilgrim, in opposition to the leopard, lion and she-wolf. God in the Commedia is truly the father, remote and uncommunicative.  It is left to the women to get things moving along ("in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!"[41]).

One recalls that Dante the Poet had committed himself, "to compose concerning her what has never been written in rhyme of any woman." For all that the Commedia is meant to be a journey towards Christian redemption and the greater glory of God, it is Beatrice who is really being worshiped here. Dante saw in her natural perfection, as to him 9 was enmeshed in her very being.

That said, God is represented and given his fair share. To all of the 3s, 9s, and 27s that are found in the Commedia, Dante adds one more to each for God, producing decimal numbers as a result. Before the Inferno proper, before Charon's ferry across the River Acheron, Dante and Virgil come to the Vestibule, an anti-circle of hell where atheists and undecided souls shuffle around like zombies. At the summit of Purgatory is found the Garden of Eden. Beyond the 9 heavenly spheres is the Empyrean, where the Holy Trinity resides. 9 becomes 10. 27 becomes 30.

Each Canto is split into 3 line sections of verse called tercets. The rhyming structure is such that over 2 tercets, or 6 lines of verse, the rhyming scheme is ababcb, such that the 2nd, 4th and 6th lines rhyme with each other, creating a triple (3) rhyme. The penultimate line (c) rhymes with the 1st line of the next set of 6. Dante concludes each Canto with a separate line of verse that rhymes with the penultimate line of the previous tercet to once again personify the oneness and aloofness of God.

God is also represented by the opening Canto, which exists outside of the underworld, adding to the 99 other Cantos to make a perfect 100, and telling the Commedia in Overture, as if divining future events. God may be aloof, but he still seems to know everything.

Reflecting upon everything discussed up till now, we are almost ready to set sail for Nantucket, the Pequod, and Captain Ahab.  Yet before we can cross the threshold of the sea, we must first find our pagan guide, our Virgil: Queequeg.

Ishmael Alighieri

"Shall I send you a fin of the 'Whale' by way of a specimen mouthful? The tail is not yet cooked - though the hellfire in which the whole book is broiled might not unreasonably have cooked it all ere this. This is the book's motto (the secret one), Ego non baptizo te in nomine - but make out the rest yourself."
                                    Herman Melville, letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, 29 June 1851[42]

"'Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diabolis[43]!' deliriously howled Ahab, as the malignant iron scorchingly devoured the baptisimal blood."
                                                                                    Moby Dick, CXIII: The Forge[44]

As previously noted, the opening Canto of the Commedia serves as an Overture to the rest of the poem and Dante cannot cross the threshold of hell, or begin his upwards trajectory towards redemption, without the assistance of his pagan guide, the Roman poet, Virgil.

In Moby Dick, the opening 3 chapters will serve as an introduction, with chapter 3, The Spouter-Inn, being the novel's true Overture. The threshold in Moby Dick is the sea itself. Until Ishmael encounters his pagan guide, Queequeg, the reader is permitted to know nothing of travel by water. To demonstrate how Melville achieves this effect, we can answer the first question posed in the introduction: Why, in the second chapter, are we given no details of Ishmael’s journey from Manhattan to New Bedford?

An answer starts to emerge when considering what Ishmael tells us at the beginning of the opening chapter, Loomings:

"Some years ago... having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."[45]

Yet far from their being "nothing particular to interest me on shore" the following 3 paragraphs concern Manhattan, on which island the novels opens.[46] The inhabitants come down to the dock to board boats and look out at the waters, but no-one sets sail.

The remainder of Loomings is then removed to some pastoral glade, far away from any seaside scene. Here we hear the tale of Narcissus, who "because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned."[47] The "tormenting, mild image" being the beauty of his own reflection.

In opposition, the loss of Ahab's leg to the White Whale breaks the natural symmetry on which standards of human beauty are based. The shimmering reflection of Narcissus is mildly tormenting when compared to Ahab's rage at the sight of his own ugliness: A rage which expands to encompass all the seas and oceans in all the world entire.[48]

At the start of Chapter 2, The Capet-Bag, Ishmael narrates:

"Quitting the good city of old Manhatto, I duly arrived in New Bedford. It was on a Saturday in December."[49]

Having claimed to want to "see the watery part of the world" with "nothing particular to interest" him on shore, Ishmael dispenses with the 200 mile journey in a single sentence, despite it presumably being made partly, if not wholly, over water. The opening paragraph alludes to it being November, but Ishmael doesn't arrive in New Bedford until December. He tells us nothing of what happens in between.

Arriving late in the evening, Ishmael misses the ferry to Nantucket and has until Monday to kill in New Bedford. The Carpet Bag ends:

"But no more of this blubbering now, we are going a-whaling, and there is plenty of that yet to come."[50]

The next chapter, The Spouter-Inn, is then nearly twice as long as the first 2 chapters combined. It takes more than 100 pages for the Pequod to even set sail.

Now, I must confess to making an error when I first started looking at the opening chapters of Moby Dick. I thought Melville had used a quasi-geometric expansion to open his novel, i.e. the first paragraph claims no interest in the land, followed by 3 paragraphs about Manhattan, followed by 9 paragraphs around Narcissus. 1→3→9. However, I had referred to text in a non-standard edition that had omitted a paragraph indentation. There are actually 10 paragraphs in the Narcissus section, not 9. I now only refer to the Penguin Classics edition, which uses the approved text. It is a cautionary tale against being too eager to make the facts fit your theory.

Yet an expert, to paraphrase Niels Bohr, is someone that has made all the mistakes that it is possible to make in a very narrow field of research. In following this false trail, I found something far more intriguing. Loomings contains 1 + 3 + 10 = 14 paragraphs. The Carpet-Bag is 12 paragraphs long:

14 + 12 = 26

Meaning that chapter 3, The Spouter-Inn, begins on the twenty-seventh paragraph. I make The Spouter-Inn to be 74 paragraphs long (where individual lines of dialogue are considered to be separate paragraphs), giving a grand total for the opening 3 chapters as:

14 + 12 + 74 =100

The same as the number of Cantos in the Commedia. In the Penguin text, Loomings begins on page 3 and The Spouter-Inn ends on page 27, although this is certainly a coincidence (albeit a pleasing one).

In Moby Dick, the White Whale is constantly referred to, but doesn't make his first appearance until 30 pages from the end of a novel 630 pages in length.[51] In the Overture that is The Spouter-Inn, Queequeg is the mock whale,[52] spoken of with awe throughout the chapter, but not seen for the first time until near the chapter’s end. Days, weeks of travel to New Bedford are dispensed with in a single sentence. A few hours spent in anticipation in The Spouter-Inn last an age by comparison, during which time the thing unseen is mythologised out of all recognition. In reverence to the Commedia, the plot of Moby Dick is first acted out in microcosm on the land, before transferring to the high seas for the tragedy to play out for real.

Before deciding to stay at The Spouter-Inn, Ishmael considers 3 other possible lodging houses on his way. First are The Crossed-Harpoons and Swordfish-Inn. Ishmael judges them both too expensive without entering. The Trap he does enter, which turns out to be an African-American church. These 3 locations are analogues to the 3 creatures at the beginning of the Commedia, arresting Dante's upward journey and forcing him in the direction of his pagan guide.

Melville draws frequently from this triple well. Loomings opens 3 times, each way more expansive than the last ("Call Me Ishmael."[53] "There is now your insular city of the Manhattoes[.]"[54] "Once more."[55]). The opening 3 chapters correspond to the opening Canto of the Commedia, and the 3 alternate lodging houses correspond to the lion, leopard and she-wolf in the opening Canto. 3 x 3 x 3.

This repetition of 3s is again employed when we first encounter the Pequod in Chapter 16, The Ship. Queequeg is fasting ("I never could master his liturgies and XXXIX Articles[.]"[56]). Ishmael goes out to look for a ship on his own. He learns that there are, "three ships up for three-years' voyages - The Devil-dam, the Tit-bit, and the Pequod[.]"[57] Ishmael names each of the 3 ships in the same order 3 times before boarding the Pequod. Once there, the other 2 vessels receive no further mention. The Pequod is mentioned a further 10 times by name during the remainder of the chapter. Moreover, both Queequeg and his god, Yojo, are mentioned 9 times each by name before Ishmael leaves for the waterfront. Queequeg and Yojo both receive one additional mention at the end of the chapter.

The Pequot,[58] as Ishmael reminds us, "was the name of a celebrated tribe of Massachusetts Indians, now as extinct as the Medes."[59] The historian Howard Zinn, in, A People's History of the United States, is less euphemistic about the events of 1636:

"The English developed a tactic of warfare used earlier by Cortes and later, in the twentieth century, even more systematically: deliberate attacks on non-combatants for the purpose of terrorizing the enemy."[60]

Captain John Mason waited for the men to go out hunting, "which would have over taxed his unseasoned, unreliable troops."[61] Then he ordered his men to attack the village, setting fire to wigwams full of women, children, and the old and infirmed, running any and all survivors through with the sword:

"As Dr. Cotton Mather, Puritan theologian, put it: 'It was supposed that no less than 600 Pequot souls were brought down to hell that day'."[62]

An aptly fiery name to give a hellbound ship.

Having joined up with his pagan guide (sharing the same bed), Ishmael is now free to make his way to Nantucket Island, the first circle of hell proper. However, this is a fishermen's yarn ("It was <this big>.") and so we have 9 chapters and a Sunday to kill in New Bedford before the ferry on Monday.[63] Nothing for it but head to church, where we hear a sermon on Jonah and the whale delivered by Father Mapple in Chapter 9, The Sermon. There is also the obligatory biography of the pagan guide and his journey to meet his Christian counterpart in Chapter 12, The Biography.

At long last, Ishmael and Queequeg board Charon's ferry, the packet schooner, the Moss. In the Aeneid, Charon is suspicious of Aeneas until his guide, the Sybil, presents him with the Golden Bough. In the Commedia, Charon is likewise suspicious until Virgil tells him it has all been arranged up in heaven. In both cases, Charon is unwilling to take Aeneas or Dante in his ferry because they are not yet dead.

The captain and crew of the Moss are suspicious of Ishmael and Queequeg, until Queequeg dives in the sea to rescue a crewman swept overboard. It is the only action we see on the River Ascushnet,[64] stand in for the River Acheron.[65] Dante falls asleep on boarding Charon's ferry. Ishmael again dispenses with the majority of the journey in a sentence in the following chapter, Nantucket.

If the Captain of the Moss is Charon, Cerberus is "ragged Elijah" who confronts Ishmael and Queequeg on their way to and from the berthed Pequod. Instead of 3 heads, Elijah has the use of only 3 limbs:

"Look ye; when Ahab is all right, then this left arm of mine will be alright; not before."[66]

Along with Captain Ahab and Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby, Elijah is one of 3 3-limbed men in Moby Dick, at least 2 of whom, possibly all 3, lost their limb to Moby Dick. Each limb is cognate with the 3 traitors chewed upon by Satan's 3 mouths at the bottom of the pit. The Titans from The Well of the Giants are represented by the 3 harpooners, Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, each an imposing pagan giant.[67]

Ishmael tells us in the opening paragraph of Loomings how he gets depressed being on land, which is why he goes to sea. "With a philosophical flourish, " he says, "Cato throws himself on his sword; I quietly take to the ship."[68] The Roman philosopher, Cato, upon hearing of Pompey's death, killed himself rather than submit to the will of Julius Caesar. Ishmael, it seems, has no such qualms about submitting to the tyranny of Captain Ahab. Reference to "the ship" foreshadows the name of the chapter in which the Pequod first appears.

In the Commedia, Cato stands on the shore of the island of Purgatory, berating the impious for their impropriety. Quite why a divorced, Roman, pagan suicide should be chosen as a paragon of Christian virtue has been the subject of some debate during the last 700 years. Herman Melville, by mentioning Cato in the opening paragraph, establishes a point of intersection between Moby Dick and the Commedia. As Dante meets Cato when his path finally emerges from the Inferno and starts its upwards trajectory towards redemption, Ishmael meets him on the way down into hell, heading in the same direction as Aeneas. The contrast between Cato and the ship in the opening paragraph contrasts the methods by which Cato and Ishmael have arrived at precisely the same point in the underworld.

On its voyage, the Pequod encounters 9 other ships. 8 of these ships are referred to by name in the titles of the 135 numbered chapters. Only that of the Samuel Enderby is relegated to a sub-heading (Chapter 100, Leg and Arm).  The Pequod features in 5 chapter titles, to more than make up for the Samuel Enderby and again make 9.

The Pequot first encounters the Goney (Chapter 52, The Albatross), named after an old word for the seabird that is hung about the Ancient Mariner's neck in the Coleridge poem. Next are the Town-Ho and Jeroboam (Chapter 54, The Town-Ho's Story and Chapter 71, The Jeroboam's Story respectively). Jeroboam, like Ahab, was a king of Israel. Ishmael claims that the Town-Ho is named after an ancient whaling cry, although this may be a mangling of a Nantucket Indian word, Townor, meaning, ‘I have seen the whale twice’.[69]

Then come the 5 encounters with other vessels that take the form, The Pequod meets:

Chapter 81: The Pequod Meets the Virgin;
Chapter 91: The Pequod Meets the Rose Bud;
Chapter 115: The Pequod Meets the Bachelor;
Chapter 128: The Pequod Meets the Rachel; and
Chapter 131: The Pequod Meets the Delight.

A case can be made for the names of each of these ships having connections with the Commedia. The Virgin is obviously the Virgin Mary. The Rose Bud is the shape of the Empyrean, where God resides and around which the heavenly elect sit in rose petal shaped sections. The Bachelor could be a direct reference to Dante himself. From what little is known of Dante, he seems to have lived something of a bachelor's life. In Canto 24 of Paradise, Dante says:

"Just as a bachelor arms his mind with thought
In silence till his master sets the question
To be discussed but not decided on,

So did I arm myself with arguments
While she was speaking, that I be prepared
For such a questioner and such a creed."[70]

Which is a pretty good description of Ishmael, of whom we know very little. Ishmael keeps almost entirely silent about himself (he might have been a schoolteacher), but his mind is as filled with thoughts and questions as a well stocked armoury.

The Rachel is named after the sister of Leah in the Old Testament. She sits next to Beatrice in the Dantean order of paradise. Finally, the name of the Delight may have a double meaning. It could have direct concordance with Beatrice ('she who blesses' - 'she who brings delight'). However, delight can also be broken down into de light, or of light, a reference to Saint Lucia, the intermediary between Mary and Beatrice. Her name literally means light.[71]

The most compete example of how Melville employs Dante's numerology can be found in Moby Dick's shortest, not so politically correct, chapter, which it is worth quoting here in full:

Chapter 122: Midnight Aloft - Thunder and Lightning

The Main-top-sail yard – Tashtego passing new lashings around it.

“Um, um, um. Stop that thunder! Plenty too much thunder up here. What’s the use of thunder? Um, um, um. We don’t want thunder; we want rum; give us a glass of rum. Um, um, um!”[72]

When each individual word is numbered, the result should by now be fairly obvious:

1) The 2) Main-top-sail 3) yard – 4) Tashtego 5) passing 6) new 7) lashings 8) around 9) it.

“10) Um, 11) um, 12) um. 13) Stop 14) that 15) thunder! 16) Plenty 17) too 18) much 19) thunder 20) up 21) here. 22) What’s 23) the 24) use 25) of 26) thunder? 27) Um, 28) um, 29) um. 30) We 31) don’t 32) want 33) thunder; 34) we 35) want 36) rum; 37) give 38) us 39) a 40) glass 41) of 42) rum. 43) Um, 44) um, 45) um!”

Where, of course:

4 + 5 = 9

The opening 3 words contain a double-hyphenated, triple word at their centre, separated from the rest of the italicised stage direction by a dash. The stage direction is 9 words long in total. The main section of text is 36 words long and contains 9 clauses, 3 of which are merely the repetition, "Um, um, um." as well as 2 other 3 word clauses (“Too much thunder” and “we want rum”). Each "Um, um, um." is separated from its nearest neighbour by 3 other clauses. Even the number of words and syllables that make up the chapter's title can arguably be read as multiples of 9 (9 and 18 respectively).[73]

By now it should also be clear why Moby Dick consists of 135 named chapters. In fact, we have already met this number in the section on the Commedia. It is the number of Cantos in the Commedia, plus Dante's age at the time that the poem is set:

100 + 35 = 135: 1 + 3 + 5 = 9

Melville told Nathaniel Hawthorne in a letter of November  1851, "I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as the lamb."[74] A final trinity is to be found in Moby Dick. In Islamic tradition, it is Ishmael, not Isaac, that Abraham takes to sacrifice at the Temple Mount, God sending an angel to stay his hand at the last moment.[75] In this context, Ishmael is the son and Captain Ahab, Father Abraham, who takes his son to sacrifice on the high seas, his hand only stayed when Ishmael is rescued by the Rachel as the sole survivor at the end of the novel.[76]

Ahab is obsessed with destroying Moby Dick. Ishmael is obsessed with cataloguing every minute detail of whales and whaling (135 chapters worth). Herman Melville, in writing Moby Dick, obsessed over the details. The sections on oceanography and cetology are largely copied verbatim from scientific books that Melville found in his local library. Ahab, Ishmael, and Melville are Moby Dick's Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. 3 obsessives in one. A wicked book indeed.

I draw this section to a close with some minor features of Moby Dick that correspond to 9 and its associate numbers. The novel opens, of course, with 3 words, one of the most famous openings in English Literature: "Call me Ishmael." The Epilogue also begins with 3 words, "The drama's done." As well as the 135 numbered chapters, there are 3 unnumbered, ancillary chapters, Etymology, Extracts and Epilogue.

There are 3 ways to calculate the number of separate passages quoted in Extracts. Counting each citation at the end of each block of text gives 80. However, some passages are elided, or give multiple quotations from  the same source. In each case, a break in text is indicated by a set of asterisks. Taking each break as a new passages gives a total of  89.

Any theory worthy of the name should be able to make predictions. 80 is 1 short of 81, and 89 is 1 short of 90, both multiples of 9. This suggests a missing quote for the theory to hold, and, indeed, there is a final, isolated quote found within Moby Dick. That quote begins the Epilogue:

"And I only am escaped alone to tell thee." Job.[77]

It is the only part of Moby Dick that begins with a quotation. It should come as no surprise that the quotation is 9 words long. However including the citation it is 10 words in length. As the word Job consists of 3 letters, it can be said here to represent the trinity.

The final way to calculate the number of quotations is to simply take each new set of quotation marks as a new quote. This way does actually give 81, as the explorer Scoresby is quoted twice under the same citation. Evidence that Herman Melville arranged his extracts to add up to 81 is shown by the way that they are arranged and presented. He manages, for instance, to quote twice from Milton's Paradise Lost, both under separate quotation marks and citations, by marking the second quote, 'Ibid' (from the Latin, ibidem, "at the same place."[78]).

The numbered chapters conclude with 3 chapters with almost identical names: The Chase - First Day, The Chase - Second Day, and The Chase - Third Day. These are the only 3 chapters in which Moby Dick makes an appearance. Then, like Tristram Shandy, the White Whale is perhaps the least interesting thing about Moby Dick.

The Pequod reaches the bottom of the pit on its third day of pursuit, as alluded to by Ahab:

"[F]rom hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee."[79]

Moby Dick has become Satan himself. More properly he is Lucifer, the rebel angel, striking a blow against the established order of man.

Finally, The Pequod sets out at Christmas (Chapter 22, Merry Christmas). Well, Dante was already using Easter.


"Wherry like the whaled prophet in a spookeerie."
                                                            Finnegans Wake[80]

I conclude with some brief examples of how James Joyce takes this obsession with 9 into the 20th century. To do so requires little or no reference to the Wake's densely complicated text. All that is required is a little counting.

As stated earlier, each full page of text in Finnegans Wake contains 36 lines of text. This page layout is rigorously enforced. A book like Moby Dick can vary in length by as much as a hundred pages or more, depending on the edition.[81] Finnegans Wake is always 628 pages exactly.[82] This helps to preserve many other references to 9.

9 of the 628 pages are blank or contain a single Roman numeral to signify the start of a new section. The first page of text is on page 3. It contains 3 paragraphs. The first paragraph is also the opening sentence. It contains 27 words. For reasons that are beyond the scope of this essay, what Melville takes 3 chapters to achieve in Moby Dick (see above), Joyce conjures up on the opening page of Finnegans Wake.

The first chapter of Finnegans Wake is 27 pages long. The second chapter is 18 pages long, and the third again 27. Chapter 8, which concludes Part I, is also 27 pages long. The antepenultimate chapter is 81 pages long, the penultimate chapter 36 pages long, and the final chapter again 36 pages. Some of the remaining chapters also begin or end on page numbers that contain combinations of 3 and 9 (see pages 309 and 399 for instance). Finnegans Wake has 17 chapters, placing Chapter 9 at the centre.

The principal characters of Finnegans Wake are represented by the acrostics HCE and ALP, more commonly known as Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker and Anna Livia Plurabelle, although combinations of 3 word phrases with these initial letters consume the text. Their children are usually known as Shaun, Shem, and Issy, although they take on many names in the nighttime. If we assign numbers to the letters of the alphabet, such that a =1, b = 2, c = 3 etc., then:

Shaun = 63 (19 + 8 + 1 + 21 + 14);
Shem = 45 (19 + 8 + 5 + 13)
Issy = 72 (9 + 19 + 19 + 25)

All multiples of 9. The  s and h in the names of Shaun and Shem add up to 27. Shaun is sometimes known as Yawn, which is 63 (25 + 23 + 1 + 14). He is also known as Jaun, which makes 46 (10 + 1 + 21 + 14), but bearing in mind that Jesus is a Latinised form of the Greek, Iasus, Jaun can also be Iaun, which makes 45. Part III, Chapter 2 begins, "Jaunty Jaun[.]" Read as Iaunty Iaun, it totals 135 (work it out for yourself).

HCE and ALP combine to give 45, with their initial letters adding to 9. Finnegans Wake also makes frequent reference to the 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights. There are good reasons for this. One of the very best being that 1001 is binary for 9. Moby Dick draws from the myth of Narcissus. Finnegans Wake remembers that there was a second actor in that Greek tragedy, the nymph, Echo, who pined away to nothing for the love of Narcissus. Echo is heard throughout the Wake ("The echo is where in the back of the wodes; callhim forth!")[83] Even HCE's initials are most of Echo read backwards. A circle is all that's missing, of which there are plenty to spare in Finnegans Wake.

I have called this a partial treatment and such it is. For reasons of length, I have not even touched upon the 3 white mates: Starbuck, Stubb and Flask, and their relationship to the 3 heathen harpooners: Queequeg, Tashtego, and Daggoo, as this would require an essay in itself. Moby Dick's underlying, subsurface concerns are to do with slavery, the Indian clearances, manifest destiny and the recently concluded Mexican-American War (1846 - 1848) that saw Mexico lose a third of its land to America. The contrast between mates and harpooners on the Pequod is a grim allegory of the United States in the interbellum period. Moby Dick was published in 1851. The American Civil War would start in 1861.

This is also a partial treatment as there likely lie many more Dantean allusions beneath the surface. For now, I hope I have been able to cast some small light on the influence Dante made on Herman Melville and how this in turn moulded the very shape of Moby Dick. Its narrative structure is almost perfect as a result. A true masterpiece.

So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish;- I have heard of Krakens.
Herman Melville[84]

[1] Bob Dylan, Lyrics 1962 - 2001, Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2004
[2] 3.2.1, King Lear, William Shakespeare, R. A. Foakes (editor), Arden Shakespeare, 2003
[3] Page 240, The Sea Inside, Philip Hoare, Fourth Estate, 2013
[4] The Whalers, A. B. C Whipple, Time Life Books, 1979 (see also, Melville's novel, Typee, amongst others.)
[5] I have chosen to preserve the name by which Dante knew his work. The pre-modifier, Divine (Divina), was added by Giovanni Boccaccio later in the 14th century. I use the commonly accepted English titles for each individual canticle.
[6] XXIX, Vita Nuova, Dante Aligheri, Barbara Reynolds (translator), Penguin Books, 2004
[7] Lines 696 – 697, Book IX, Virgil’s  Aeneid, John Dryen, Frederick Keener (editor), Penguin Classics, 1997
[8] Canto I, The Divine Comedy Vol. II: Purgatory, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[9] Lines 334 - 335, Book I, Virgil’s  Aeneid, John Dryen, Frederick Keener (editor), Penguin Classics, 1997
[10] Lines 82 - 83, Book V, Virgil’s  Aeneid, John Dryen, Frederick Keener (editor), Penguin Classics, 1997
[10] In Our Time, The Muses
[11] Lines 995 - 996, Book V, Virgil’s  Aeneid, John Dryen (translator), Frederick Keener (editor), Penguin Classics, 1997
[11] In Our Time, The Muses
[12] Lines 806 - 807, Book VI, Virgil’s  Aeneid, John Dryen, Frederick Keener (editor), Penguin Classics, 1997
[13] Lines 408 - 409, Book XII, Virgil’s  Aeneid, John Dryen, Frederick Keener (editor), Penguin Classics, 1997
[14] The Iliad, Homer, E. V. Rieu (translator), Guild Publishing London, 1993
[15] The Odyssey, Homer, E. V. Rieu (translator), Guild Publishing London, 1993
[16] In Our Time, The Muses, BBC Radio 4, 19 June 2016
[17] Good News Bible, Collins/Fontana, 1976
[18] II, Vita Nuova, Dante Aligheri, Barbara Reynolds (translator), Penguin Books, 2004
[19] III, Vita Nuova, Dante Aligheri, Barbara Reynolds (translator), Penguin Books, 2004
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] XXIX, Vita Nuova, Dante Aligheri, Barbara Reynolds (translator), Penguin Books, 2004
[24] Ibid.
[25] XLII, Vita Nuova, Dante Aligheri, Barbara Reynolds (translator), Penguin Books, 2004
[26] See Robert Graves, The White Goddess.
[27] Canto III, The Divine Comedy Vol. I: Inferno, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[28] Canto VI, The Divine Comedy Vol. I: Inferno, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[29] Canto XXXI, The Divine Comedy Vol. I: Inferno, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[30] Genesis 2: 10 - 14, Good News Bible, Collins/Fontana, 1976
[31] Canto IV, The Divine Comedy Vol. I: Inferno, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[32] Canto I, The Divine Comedy Vol. II: Purgatory, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[33] See from Line 209, Book VI, Virgil’s  Aeneid, John Dryen, Frederick Keener (editor), Penguin Classics, 1997
[34]Canto I, The Divine Comedy Vol. II: Purgatory, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[36] Introduction, The Divine Comedy Vol. I: Inferno, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[37] The Divine Comedy, Bilingual Edition, Dante Alighieri, Create Space Independent Publishing Platform, 2015
[38] Canto XXXIV, The Divine Comedy Vol. I: Inferno, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[39] Line 836, Book VIII, Virgil’s  Aeneid, John Dryen, Frederick Keener (editor), Penguin Classics, 1997
[40] Canto II, The Divine Comedy Vol. I: Inferno, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[41] 2.2.288, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, William Shakespeare, Philip Edwards (editor), Cambridge University Press, 2004
[42] Stories, Poems and Letters, Herman Melville, R.W.B. Lewis (editor), Dell Publishing, 1962
[43] "I baptise you not in the name of the father, but in the name of the devil."
[44] Chapter 113, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[45] Chapter 1, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[46] Ishmaels’ journey into hell moves in the opposite direction to Dante. As Dante emerges from hell onto the island of Purgatory, Ishmael’s journey into hell begins on the island of Manhattan.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Any wonder it took a progressive heavy metal band, Mastadon, to write Leviathan, an album based on Moby Dick and the soundtrack to Ahab's inner rage?
[49] Chapter 2, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[50] Ibid.
[51] Ish. 625 pages, to be exact.
[52] See James George Fraser's, The Golden Bough
[53] Chapter 1, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[54] Ibid.
[55] Ibid.
[56] Chapter 16, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[57] Ibid. My italics.
[58] Melville misspells the name of the tribe, i.e. Pequod instead of Pequot. This may be accidental or it may be a comment on the novels general themes of slavery and genocide in the New World. The white man cares so little for the peoples that he slaughters that he can't even get their names right.
[59] Chapter 16, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[60] Chapter 1, Columbus, The Indians, and Human Progress, A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn, Pearson Education Limited, 1999
[61] Ibid.
[62] Ibid.
[63] Whilst Dante's journey through the underworld is a series of circular motions, Ishmael's voyage moves in a meandering parabola.
[64] 8.6 miles in length.
[65] In the Aeneid, Charon's ferry crosses the River Styx.
[66] Chapter 19, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[67] "Daggoo, a gigantic, coal-black negro-savage[.]" Chapter 27, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[68] Chapter 1, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[70] Canto XXIV, The Divine Comedy Vol. III: Paradise, Dante Aligheri, Mark Musa (translator), Penguin Books, 1985
[71] James Joyce's daughter was named after St Lucia.
[72] Chapter 122, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[73] By reading 'Chapter 122' as chapter one, two, two.
[74] Stories, Poems and Letters, Herman Melville, R.W.B. Lewis (editor), Dell Publishing, 1962
[75] cf. Genesis 22
[76] The Ancient Mariner is also the sole survivor.
[77] Epilogue, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[79] Chapter 135, Moby Dick, Herman Melville, Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk, Penguin Books, 1992
[80] Footnote 2, page 307, Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, Faber and Faber, 1975
[81] I should know, I own 9 different editions of Moby Dick.
[82] Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, Faber and Faber, 1975; Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, Seamus Deane (Introduction), Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics, 1999
[83] Page 126, Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, Faber and Faber, 1975
[84] Letter to Nathaniel Hawthorne, 17 (?) November 1851, Stories, Poems and Letters, Herman Melville, R.W.B. Lewis (editor), Dell Publishing, 1962

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