The Maldive Shark by Herman Melville

The Maldive Shark is a single stanza poem with the rhyme scheme ABCBDEFEGHIHJKL. The poem is reminiscent of the majority of Melville’s poetic and fictional works in which he recounts and elaborates on his own adventures at sea. The poem presents an image of the shark that is both dangerous and lazy, and an image of the pilot-fish that is equal parts daring and courageous.

 

Summary of The Maldive Shark

This piece is a contemplation of the complex and strange relationship between sharks and pilot-fish. These fish tag along next to shark, picking parasites of their bodies and, Melville’s speaker declares, guiding them to food. Throughout the piece the speaker is trying to make sense of how this relationship works, often he refers to the shark as a large dumb creature, lazy and foolish in his choice not to eat these fish, but then contrasts this by describing the benefits of the relationship. It is hard for this speaker, or perhaps Melville himself, to make sense of how this relationship could work as the shark is seen as being without mercy or discretion, killing anything in its path.

 

Analysis of The Maldive Shark

About the Shark, phlegmatical one,

Pale sot of the Maldive sea,

The sleek little pilot-fish, azure and slim,

How alert in attendance be.

“The Maldive Shark” begins with a very clear introduction to what the poem is going to be about. Melville provides the reader with the statement, “About the Shark,” letting the reader know exactly what is coming next. The shark, as a species, Melville’s speaker calls, “phlegmatical” (meaning without emotion).

The speaker turns at this point to introduce another character into this drama, the pilot-fish. These fish, as the speaker will describe, are known for their ability to tag along next to sharks. By doing this they protect themselves from other dangers and in return eat parasites off of the shark’s body.

In the second line of the poem the speaker describes the shark as a “sot,” meaning foolish or foolhardy. The speaker is referring to the shark’s choice not to eat this prey that is so close to him. This choice appears to the speaker to be a dumb one. The shark is living in the “Maldive sea” a part of the Indian ocean. The pilot-fish are described  in the second line as, “azure,” (blue) and “slim.”  They must be “alert in attendance” just in case the shark decides to turn on them for food instead.

From his saw-pit of mouth, from his charnel of maw

They have nothing of harm to dread,

But liquidly glide on his ghastly flank

Or before his Gorgonian head;

The speaker continues speaking of the danger, or lack of danger, the fish are in in the fifth and sixth lines. The mouth of the shark is described in vivid detail, not for the last time. It is a “saw-pit” and, more simple put, a mouth of death, (“charnel” being another word for death). The saw-pit refers to a pit in which one end of a large saw would be held by one of two men as they cut in half trees or large pieces of wood.

Even though the mouth can be described as these two dangerous places, the fish have “nothing of harm to dread.” They are completely safe there in their mutual relationship.

The fish are contrasted with the shark, they glide along next to the shark “liquidly,” smoothly, and softly, while the shark gets much more fearful adjectives, like “ghastly.” His head is described as Gorgonian (referring to the Gorgons, such as Medusa, of ancient Greek mythology).

Or lurk in the port of serrated teeth

In white triple tiers of glittering gates,

And there find a haven when peril’s abroad,

An asylum in jaws of the Fates!

The speaker continues on describing their relationship. The fish have nothing to fear for the “Gorgonian head” or “the port of serrated teeth.” Melville made the choice to describe the mouth as a port due to the large number of other fish and small creatures that will enter in there and meet their demise. Unlike the pilot-fish which “find a haven” there.

Further description is given to the mouth of the shark, the most fearful part. The teeth are in three “tiers” or layer and make up a “glittering gate;” an interesting contrast to the previous harsh and terrifying imagery Melville uses. It is, metaphorically, in these teeth that the fish find safety, or asylum. The mouth of the shark gets one more descriptor as being the “jaws of the Fates.” This image provides the shark with even greater power, showing him to have power over life and death.

They are friends; and friendly they guide him to prey,

Yet never partake of the treat—

Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull,

Pale ravener of horrible meat.

The next, and last, section of the poem concludes the description of their relationship. They are tentatively described as friends, but friends who have a job to do. Melville speaks of their ability to guide the shark to his prey, yet not “partake of the treat.” This statement is one which is not completely accurate as it is known now that pilot-fish do eat scraps of the prey the shark did not finish.

Building on the description started in the second line, the shark is once more called dumb, a “dotard” who is too lazy and “dull” to make the effort to eat the pilot-fish preferring to let them take care of him. This image is immediately contrasted with another fearful description of the shark as being, “Pale ravener of horrible meat.” It is clear that Melville has two differing opinion about the shark and was hoping to make sense of this odd relationship between the shark and the pilot-fish. It is likely that many in his day, and this holds true for modern times, thought of the shark as nothing more than a killing machine without mercy or discretion. This  mutually beneficial relationship is proof that there is more to the shark than many may have, or do, think.

 

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 cannivals, 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 1850’s, working as a custom’s inspector for the next 20 years, Melville died of a heart attack in 1891. He is now considered on of the greatest American writers.

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