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Metaphor in The Maldive Shark

Though Melville avoids the common poetic approach of looking upon the natural world with a romanticized or sentimentalized lens, he still cloaks the shark and the pilot fish in metaphorical language to convey his disenchanted but bemused vision. The shark’s stomach is a “charnel,” its head “Gorgonian,” its teeth “glittering gates,” its mouth “a saw-pit,” a haven and a port where the pilot fish stay. The metaphors range widely in their references but contribute to a singular tone and worldview.

Metaphor Examples in The Maldive Shark:

Text of the Poem

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"asylum in jaws of the Fates!..."   (Text of the Poem)

This line compares the shark’s jaws to both an “asylum,” or place of refuge, and the Fates, the Greek goddesses who determine the destinies—and deaths—of all mortals. The suggestion is that the pilot fish have a tense relationship with the shark, who can both offer them asylum and, like the Fates, decide at any point to kill them.

"In white triple tiers..."   (Text of the Poem)

In this line, Melville figures the rows of teeth in the shark’s mouth as “triple tiers of glittering gates.” This metaphor grants the mouth a welcoming quality that adheres to the topic of the stanza. The beauty and appeal of the teeth, as expressed in this image, speaks to the central tension of the relationship between the shark and the pilot fish: though the shark is deadly, it offers the fish irresistible protection. The image of the “triple tiers” comes from sharks’ rows of teeth that rotate outward to replace lost teeth. Most species of shark have five such rows, though certain species have up to fifty.

"the port of serrated teeth ..."   (Text of the Poem)

In this quatrain, Melville discusses the occasional tendency of pilot fish to swim inside the mouth of the shark they are following. The purpose of this practice is to clean away the scraps of food from between the shark’s teeth. In this line, Melville figures the shark’s mouth as a port; the suggested extension of the metaphor is that the pilot fish are like boats in the port.

"Gorgonian head..."   (Text of the Poem)

The adjective “Gorgonian” compares the shark to a gorgon, a monster from ancient Greek mythology. Gorgons have been imagined in many different ways but often have snake-covered heads and are so terrifying in appearance as to turn humans to stone with a single look. The Greek poet Hesiod imagined the gorgons as sea creatures; it is possible that Melville drew on Hesiod’s version by comparing the Maldive shark to a gorgon.

"charnel of maw..."   (Text of the Poem)

A “charnel house” is a burial place where bodies are piled up and entombed, usually in an unceremonious manner. A “maw” is a stomach. Thus, the phrase “charnel of maw” compares the shark’s stomach to a place where corpses accumulate. “Maw” often means “jaws” as well, contributing to a sense of the deadliness of the shark’s digestive tract.

"saw-pit of mouth..."   (Text of the Poem)

A “saw-pit” is a pit in the ground that allows a lumberjack to stand below the log she intends to saw lengthwise, pulling the saw downward as another lumberjack stands above and alternately pulls upwards. To compare the shark’s mouth to a saw-pit suggests another metaphor: the shark’s teeth as a saw.

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