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Vocabulary in The Maldive Shark

The Shark: In his characterization of the shark, Melville uses adjectives such as “phlegmatical,” “sot,” “dotard,” “lethargic and dull.” The shark is sluggish, both physically and temperamentally—a mindless brute. There is no room for romanticization in this vision. Melville does not specify the species of shark, though it is most likely an oceanic whitetip shark or a variety of reef shark.

The Pilot Fish: In contrast to the lumbering shark, the pilot fish are “sleek,” “slim,” and “alert in attendance.” Melville imagines that these fish guide the shark towards its prey, serving as the “eyes and brains” of the behemoth. In return for their assistance, the shark harbors them from the larger dangers of the open sea, though the safety the shark provides is tenuous.

Vocabulary Examples in The Maldive Shark:

Text of the Poem

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"Eyes and brains to the dotard lethargic and dull..."   (Text of the Poem)

A “dotard” is a dim-witted, often impaired or enfeebled, person. To be “lethargic” is to be morbidly sleepy. Thus Melville’s characterization of the shark as sluggish of mind and body remains consistent to the end of the poem. This line suggests that the pilot fish act as “eyes and brains” to the unthinking shark, perceiving prey and guiding the shark toward it. This is a common misconception of the role of the pilot fish, whose actual role is to clean detritus and parasites from the shark’s mouth and body. Melville’s vision, however, allows for a more fanciful, comical characterization of the shark, which is the driving force of the poem.

"haven..."   (Text of the Poem)

In this line Melville uses the noun “haven” in both of its meanings. In general terms, a haven is a place which offers protection and safety. In nautical terms, a haven is a small body of water sheltered from the sea where boats can drop anchor. This nautical definition continues the “port” metaphor from three lines prior.

"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.

"ravener..."   (Text of the Poem)

The noun “ravener” refers to one who takes what they wish by force, potentially destroying much in the process. The adjective “pale” has an association with lifelessness, and so Melville leaves readers with a final picture of the shark as a harbinger of death.

"Pale sot..."   (Text of the Poem)

The noun “sot” refers to someone who is stupid and dull and who drinks too much. Here Melville extends the characterization of the shark from merely slow of body to also slow of mind.

"phlegmatical..."   (Text of the Poem)

The adjective “phlegmatical,” more commonly seen as “phlegmatic,” describes those with an excess of phlegm in their bodies. According to ancient medical theory, those with a great deal of phlegm possess a certain “phlegmatic” character: slow-moving, unexcitable, and apathetic.

"serrated..."   (Text of the Poem)

If something is “serrated,” it is sharp and jagged or saw-toothed. This reinforces the image of the shark’s “saw-pit of mouth” as a place of danger and death.

"lurk..."   (Text of the Poem)

The verb “to lurk” means to hide oneself in such a way as to escape notice. Since the pilot fish move in and out of the shark’s “charnel of maw,” they must do so in a furtive manner to avoid entrapment.

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