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. 
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; 
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! 
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.

Footnotes

  1. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. In the final quatrain, Melville echoes a common myth about pilot fish. While the precise source of the term “pilot fish” is not known, sailors have for millennia observed the behavior of the “friendly” pilot fish and assumed that they helpfully “pilot” sharks toward prey and ships toward safe harbor. Scientists have debunked these accounts but the name “pilot fish” has remained.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. This line contains two examples of alliteration. The phrase “triple tiers” carries an alliteration of t, while “glittering gates” does the same for g. Melville often included such sonic and poetic effects in his work.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. This line contains some notable examples of internal rhyme, both assonance—the repetition of vowel sounds—and consonance—the repetition of consonant sounds. The phrase “liquidly glide” recycles three l sounds and three i sounds, two soft and one hard. The phrase “ghastly flank” repeats l sounds and soft a sounds. It also connects the consonant pair g and k, g being a voiced k. Melville often experimented with musical and sonic effects in his writings, verse and prose alike.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. “The Maldive Shark” follows a metrical scheme known as common meter, in which the lines alternate between four beats and three beats. The rhymes follow a standard ABCB scheme. The rhyme and meter give the poem a light, sing-song tone.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. The pilot fish—scientific name Naucrates ductor—is a small, striped oceanic fish. Pilot fish gather in schools and accompany larger marine animals, such as sharks, rays, and whales. The relationship between the pilot fish and the shark is symbiotic: the pilot fish eats the shark’s food scraps as well as parasites that form on its body; the shark protects the pilot fish from predators.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. The Maldives is an archipelago of 1,190 islands in the Indian Ocean. While there is no official “Maldive sea,” the phrase can be understood to mean the waters of the Indian Ocean around the Maldives, which teem with marine fauna. Chapters 59 through 91 of Melville’s Moby-Dick describe a crossing of the Indian Ocean in great detail.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor