"Moby Dick tore off Ahab's leg at the knee," the famous British writer, D.H. Lawrence wrote,
then added, "Quite right, too. Should have torn off both legs, and a bit more besides."
This gives a sense of Lawrence's jocular tone in what he wrote about Moby-Dick in 1923 for Studies in Classic American Literature. I am not buying the book and will rely on a website (https://berfrois.com) for the essay. Whether the form on this August 6, 2018, site is the same as Lawrence's published essay, I do not know. But I appreciated the whimsical, entertaining, and informal nature of the piece I read.
Three times D.H. uses 'sententious' to describe Herman Melville, and 'sententiously' once. It strikes me as an odd word because of its contrary meaning: inflated and puffed-up, but succinct, short and sweet. I went to my unabridged OED and found the meaning I think Lawrence intended for Melville: prone to pompous moralizing or bombastic formality.
Lawrence wrote: "The artist was so much better than the man…a tiresome New Englander of the ethical mystical-transcendentalist sort (Emerson, Hawthorne). Lawrence wrote his review of Moby-Dick years before the 1928 publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover. This controversial novel remained banned in the United States until 1960.
In the fourteen-page piece from Berfrois, I enjoyed Lawrence's salty comments. For example, after he said (see above), "a bit more besides," he added: "But Ahab doesn’t think so. Ahab is now a monomaniac. Moby Dick is his monomania. Moby Dick must die or Ahab can't live any longer…All right. This Pequod, ship of the American soul, has three mates.
1. Starbuck: Quaker, Nantucketer, a good responsible man of reason, forethought, intrepidity, what is called a dependable man. At bottom, afraid.
2. Stubbs: Fearless as fire, and as mechanical. Insists on being reckless and jolly on every occasion. Must be afraid, too.
3. Flask: Stubborn, obstinate, without imagination. To him, the wondrous whale was but a species of magnified mouse or water-rat.
There you have them: a maniac captain and his three mates, three splendid seamen, admirable whalemen, first-class men at their job.
It is rather like Mr. (Woodrow) Wilson and his admirable, efficient crew, at the Peace Conference. Except that none of the Pequodders took their wives along.
A maniac captain of the soul, and three eminently practical mates.
Then such a crew, Renegades, castaways, cannibals, Ishmael, Quakers.
Lawrence goes on to name the three harpooners, followed by Ahab's secret crew members, including the nefarious Fedallah.
D.H. then asks: "What do you think of the ship Pequod the ship of the soul of America?
Many races, many peoples, many nations, under the Stars and Stripes. Beaten with many stripes. Seeing stars sometimes. And in a mad ship, under a mad captain, in a mad fanatic's hunt for Moby Dick, the great white whale."
Yet Lawrence concludes, "It is a surpassingly beautiful book, with an awful meaning, and bad jolts!"
And in fourteen pages (on the website), Lawrence works his way through the novel, concluding that M-D "is an epic of the sea…a book of esoteric symbolism of profound significance, and of CONSIDERABLE TIRESOMENESS!"
Yet again, he counters this known truth about Moby-Dick's factual tedium, by stating: "It is the greatest book of the seas ever written. It moves awe in the soul."
For a visual experience, you might consider watching a short documentary on the internet: Phillip Hoare &"The Hunt for Moby Dick."
Next week: A real whale rams and sinks a real ship, the Essex