When on that shivering winter’s night, the Pequod thrust her vindictive bows into the cold malicious waves, who should I see standing at her helm but Bulkington! I looked with sympathetic awe and fearfulness upon the man, who in mid-winter just landed from a four years’ dangerous voyage, could so unrestingly push off again for still another tempestuous term. The land seemed scorching to his feet. Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights ‘gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea’s landlessness again; for refuge’s sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!
—The Lee Shore
A notable and strange chapter early in the Pequod’s voyage reveals to Ishmael that the tyro (or, idyllic sailor) Bulkington, whom Ishmael encountered as one of a gruff new-landed whaling crew at the Spouter-Inn, is in fact aboard the Pequod, and at her helm, staying ashore only a few nights after a four years’ voyage before pushing off from land once more.
This brief encounter, and strangely his last with Bulkington, embroils Ishmael in a wild reverie, indeed one of his most profound, on the meeting of land and sea, and of humanity’s desperate desire to be free of its mortality and boundaries, and of the tremendous cost of attaining that freedom. Only in death, in his ‘ocean perishing’ can Bulkington truly be rid of the land, rid of his human limitations—Promethean, Heculean—radically and existentially free.
Melville’s description of what the land can mean to a ship at sea inspired the fateful roll of The Lee Shore—if fate smiles upon you and the sea is calm, the land welcomes you. If the sea rages however, you are dashed upon the land without mercy by the unending waves, lose one sailor, such a one as Bulkington, who in this death, glimpses that lee shore in the distance, unattainable in this life, though perhaps in the next.
Original Image Courtesy of the University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.