The ribs and terrors in the whale

Herman Melville

‘The ribs and terrors in the whale’ by Herman Melville depicts the plight of a narrator trapped within a whale, who prays to God and is then liberated.


Herman Melville

Nationality: American

Herman Melville is the famed author of Moby Dick and a few select poems.

Depending on the piece of writing, Melville’s style changes significantly.

Named for its first line, ‘The ribs and terrors in the whale’ by Herman Melville is a five stanza poem depicting the power of God. 

Each stanza of this poem is made up of four lines and the lines vary in their rhyme scheme. The second rhymes, ABAB, the first, third, and fifth rhyme, ABCB, and the fourth has no end rhymes. It is clear that Melville considered each stanza independently of the preceding and following and chose to do what benefited those lines individually.  

The ribs and terrors in the whale by Herman Melville



This poem begins with a repetition of what has come to stand in as the title, The ribs and terrors in the whale,” and immediately shows the narrator in a very terrifying state. He has been trapped inside of a whale and the ribs are arching over him. The waves of the ocean roll past him as the whale descends inside of the whale. 

The speaker can see the opening of its jaws above him and calls out to God to save him, doubting that he would be saved, but he is. God “No more the whale did me confine.” God sped to the narrator’s side, as if on “a radiant dolphin” and now this song, the poem itself, will record “That terrible, joyful hour” forever. The narrator’s faith in God is restored after this incident and he will clearly never forget it. 


Analysis of The ribs and terrors in the whale

First Stanza

The ribs and terrors in the whale, 

Arched over me a dismal gloom, 

While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, 

And left me deepening down to doom. 

Melville begins this poem by placing his speaker in a situation that is quite dire. In the first line, the speaker is looking around him and sees, The ribs and terrors in the whale.” These things are “Arched” over him, creating a place of “dismal gloom.” It is immediately clear that this narrator has been swallowed by a whale. Above him, he sees the rounded shape of the whale’s ribs as well as “terrors.” By this, the unfortunate narrator could mean the dark interior of the whale’s body or all the additional things that have been swallowed that are strewn throughout the body.

Due to the fact that whales swallow massive amounts of water when they eat, there are around the speaker two different types of waves. There are those outside the whale that are “sun-lit” by God and have “left him,” and those within. The water that is within the creature is washing the speaker further into the belly of the whale. 


Second Stanza

I saw the opening maw of hell, 

With endless pains and sorrows there; 

Which none but they that feel can tell— 

Oh, I was plunging to despair. 

From his place inside the whale, the speaker can see the opening of its mouth. He refers to it as the “opening maw of hell” through which he has passed. He is expecting to be born down into hell to meet “endless pains and sorrows there.” These pains are reserved only for those that have experienced them. If one has been swallowed, there is no way to tell others what they experienced. 

The speaker finishes this line by reiterating that he was “plunging to despair.” He is expecting that a torturous end to his life is very near. 


Third Stanza

In black distress, I called my God, 

When I could scarce believe him mine, 

He bowed his ear to my complaints— 

No more the whale did me confine. 

At this turning point in ‘The ribs and terrors in the whale’ the speaker resorts to begging for relief from “my God.” In his “black distress,” his unrelenting pain and fear, he speaks to a God that he “could scare believe him mine.” This leads the reader to believe that the speaker traditionally is not religious but is only turning to God as a last resort. He does not believe that help will truly come as he is not sure God accepts him. 

To his surprise, God “bowed his ear to my complaints,” he listened to the speaker’s prays, and answered them, releasing the narrator from the whale’s stomach. 


Fourth Stanza

With speed he flew to my relief, 

As on a radiant dolphin borne; 

Awful, yet bright, as lightening shone 

The face of my Deliverer God. 

This fourth stanza is used to describe the speed and power with which God commanded him free of the whale. God, or the embodiment of his power, is said to have flown “to my relief / As on a radiant dolphin borne.” Here the Melville creates for the reader a picture of God in the image of Poseidon, with command over the creatures of the sea. 

God’s power, as it often is in the Bible is described as being, “Awful” but also wonderful so too “shone” the face of God as he came to deliver the narrator from his plight. 


Fifth Stanza

My song for ever shall record 

That terrible, that joyful hour; 

I give the glory to my God, 

His all the mercy and the power.

The ribs and terrors in the whale’ concludes with Melville taking the reader out of the main story and into the present. It is only at the end that the reader fully realizes that this poem has been a “frame story.” One story, that of the whale, is being told by a character in the larger story. 

 The speaker is telling how his “song,” this poem, will forever tell of these happenings. Through this poem, he will “give the glory to my God,” and make sure that all know who was responsible for his deliverance. God, he concludes, is endlessly merciful and powerful. The narrator’s ardor is even greater due to the fact that in the beginning, he was not sure if God was “his” enough for him to be worthy of rescue. 


About Herman Melville

Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. Melville suffered from scarlet fever as a child from which he never fully recovered; his vision was permanently damaged. Beginning in 1839 Melville began to work on various merchant ships after not being able to find a job in New York. After various voyages, being captured by cannibals, and jail for mutiny, he decided to start putting down his stories on paper. 

In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, with whom he would eventually have four children and four years later he would write his most popular novel, Moby-Dick. It was not until after his death that his work would begin to receive critical acclaim. After delivering a series of lectures in the late 1850s, working as a customs inspector for the next 20 years, Melville died of a heart attack in 1891. He is now considered one of the greatest American writers. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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