Warmest climes but nurse the cruellest fangs: the tiger of Bengal crouches in spiced groves of ceaseless verdure. Skies the most effulgent but basket the deadliest thunders: gorgeous Cuba knows tornadoes that never swept tame northern lands. So, too, it is, that in these resplendent Japanese seas the mariner encounters the direst of all storms, the Typhoon. It will sometimes burst from out that cloudless sky, like an exploding bomb upon a dazed and sleepy town.

Towards evening of that day, the Pequod was torn of her canvas, and bare-poled was left to fight a Typhoon which had struck her directly ahead. When darkness came on, sky and sea roared and split with the thunder, and blazed with the lightning, that showed the disabled masts fluttering here and there with the rags which the first fury of the tempest had left for its after sport.

—The Candles

Descriptions of a ship tossed at sea in violent storms are absolutely everywhere in 19th century literature, and captivate us still. Wooden ships braving the kinds of storms we know to regularly occur in such waters, ships lost with all hands, the infinite expanse that can so quickly turn its raw force against you.

Chapter 119: The Candles gives a marvelous description of a terrible storm, replete with St. Elmo’s Fire, called ‘the corpusants’ by the Pequod’s sailors, the bizarre electrical effect so rarely seen or experienced, and always experienced at sea. Not only does Melville allow these grand weathering metaphors play over his characters, his Ahab stands firmly against the elemental fire and sea, and grasps the lightning rods to feel its fire against his own. The unholy weapon, baptized in the name of the devil, glows maliciously with this fire, but Ahab extinguishes the flame with a bellow of breath that sends the crew further into panic and cathartic fear.

Poe’s ‘Descent into the Maelstrom’ is another particularly excellent example of this kind of writing, and Mark Twain’s descriptions of wrecks on the Mississippi are harrowing, see also Stephen Crane, Ernest Hemmingway, and many others.

Original Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress.