Gallied Whale

Stripped to our shirts and drawers, we sprang to the white-ash, and after several hours’ pulling were almost disposed to renounce the chase, when a general pausing commotion among the whales gave animating token that they were now at last under the influence of that strange perplexity of inert irresolution, which, when the fishermen perceive it in the whale, they say he is gallied. The compact martial columns in which they had been hitherto rapidly and steadily swimming, were now broken up in one measureless rout; and like King Porus’ elephants in the Indian battle with Alexander, they seemed going mad with consternation. In all directions expanding in vast irregular circles, and aimlessly swimming hither and thither, by their short thick spoutings, they plainly betrayed their distraction of panic. This was still more strangely evinced by those of their number, who, completely paralysed as it were, helplessly floated like water-logged dismantled ships on the sea. Had these Leviathans been but a flock of simple sheep, pursued over the pasture by three fierce wolves, they could not possibly have evinced such excessive dismay. But this occasional timidity is characteristic of almost all herding creatures. Though banding together in tens of thousands, the lion-maned buffaloes of the West have fled before a solitary horseman. Witness, too, all human beings, how when herded together in the sheepfold of a theatre’s pit, they will, at the slightest alarm of fire, rush helter-skelter for the outlets, crowding, trampling, jamming, and remorselessly dashing each other to death. Best, therefore, withhold any amazement at the strangely gallied whales before us, for there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.

—The Grand Armada

Gallied Whale presents whatever player drew it with a whale paralyzed by fear, and it is a welcome relief when seen.

Melville’s use of the verb ‘to gally’ he claims as a colloquialism among whaling men, basically meaning ‘to frighten’—but he also provides a footnote describing his discovery of the word, or perhaps its parent, in King Lear, as ‘to gallow’. This is one of many instances where the influence of Shakespeare’s work, most often King Lear, though including references to Timon of Athens, Midsummer Night’s Dream and others. Charles Olson gives the definitive critique of this relationship, having worked directly from Melville’s copy of The Plays, which was riddled with underscored passages and notes in the margins.[1]

Original Image Courtesy of the University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.


[1] Charles Olson, Call Me Ishmael (San Francisco: City Lights, 1947), 47.

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