Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off — then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

Melville is filled with wonderful, thick sentences–reading him, I often find my mouth opening in surprise and pleasure at the audacity of his language. This one is often quoted for good reason. It’s filled with sharp turns of phrases like “grim about the mouth” and “involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses” and “methodically knocking people’s hats off” and its insistent drumbeat, the repetition of whenever…whenever…whenever that pulls us along to that final payoff after the dash. Melville so aptly and quickly describes what the grip of a black mood feels like. (One other note: let’s bring back hypos as another word for a black mood.) 

This sentence is notable because it’s from the first page of Moby-Dick and helps us begin to see who this Ishmael guy is, but also because who among us hasn’t felt this way? We might replace “to sea” with “into the woods” or “up into the mountains” or “to the river.” But who hasn’t been confronted with such a mood that can only be cured by an escape and a confrontation with the vastness of the world?

Today I was in the woods with the dog, cutting a path through several inches of thick, wet snow. I could list the troubles I carried: a sick brother, an unfinished novel, an unhappy child, but I won’t bore you. The woods didn’t solve anything for me, but, moving through the trees, walking parallel to the slushed-over river, the knot in my shoulders began to loosen. And when I read this sentence, that same escape happens, in miniature. 

 

 

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