Top Words

Click a word to see its frequency and other chapters in which it appears.

Word Occurrences
tail 20
whale 20
flukes 12
elephant 11
much 7
one 7
trunk 7
man 6
side 6
power 6
never 5
leviathan 5
face 5
seems 5
sperm 4
surface 4
often 4
motions 4
middle 4
body 4
would 4
between 4
out 4
air 4
strength 4
has 4
away 3
feet 3
touch 3
some 3
two 3
sea 3
boat 3
back 3
head 3
great 3
soft 3
less 3
beauty 3
entire 3
does 3
seen 3
upper 3
whole 2
vast 2
contribute 2
palms 2
curious 2
bulk 2
point 2

Chapter 86: The Tail.


Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the antelope,
and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights; less celestial, I
celebrate a tail.

Reckoning the largest sized Sperm Whale's tail to begin at that point of
the trunk where it tapers to about the girth of a man, it comprises
upon its upper surface alone, an area of at least fifty square feet. The
compact round body of its root expands into two broad, firm, flat palms
or flukes, gradually shoaling away to less than an inch in thickness.
At the crotch or junction, these flukes slightly overlap, then sideways
recede from each other like wings, leaving a wide vacancy between. In
no living thing are the lines of beauty more exquisitely defined than in
the crescentic borders of these flukes. At its utmost expansion in the
full grown whale, the tail will considerably exceed twenty feet across.

The entire member seems a dense webbed bed of welded sinews; but cut
into it, and you find that three distinct strata compose it:--upper,
middle, and lower. The fibres in the upper and lower layers, are
long and horizontal; those of the middle one, very short, and running
crosswise between the outside layers. This triune structure, as much as
anything else, imparts power to the tail. To the student of old Roman
walls, the middle layer will furnish a curious parallel to the thin
course of tiles always alternating with the stone in those wonderful
relics of the antique, and which undoubtedly contribute so much to the
great strength of the masonry.

But as if this vast local power in the tendinous tail were not enough,
the whole bulk of the leviathan is knit over with a warp and woof of
muscular fibres and filaments, which passing on either side the loins
and running down into the flukes, insensibly blend with them, and
largely contribute to their might; so that in the tail the confluent
measureless force of the whole whale seems concentrated to a point.
Could annihilation occur to matter, this were the thing to do it.

Nor does this--its amazing strength, at all tend to cripple the graceful
flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease undulates through
a Titanism of power. On the contrary, those motions derive their most
appalling beauty from it. Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony,
but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful,
strength has much to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that
all over seem bursting from the marble in the carved Hercules, and its
charm would be gone. As devout Eckerman lifted the linen sheet from the
naked corpse of Goethe, he was overwhelmed with the massive chest of the
man, that seemed as a Roman triumphal arch. When Angelo paints even God
the Father in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever
they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled,
hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been most
successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they are of all
brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere negative, feminine
one of submission and endurance, which on all hands it is conceded, form
the peculiar practical virtues of his teachings.

Such is the subtle elasticity of the organ I treat of, that whether
wielded in sport, or in earnest, or in anger, whatever be the mood it
be in, its flexions are invariably marked by exceeding grace. Therein no
fairy's arm can transcend it.

Five great motions are peculiar to it. First, when used as a fin for
progression; Second, when used as a mace in battle; Third, in sweeping;
Fourth, in lobtailing; Fifth, in peaking flukes.

First: Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan's tail acts in
a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures. It never
wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign of inferiority. To the
whale, his tail is the sole means of propulsion. Scroll-wise coiled
forwards beneath the body, and then rapidly sprung backwards, it is this
which gives that singular darting, leaping motion to the monster when
furiously swimming. His side-fins only serve to steer by.

Second: It is a little significant, that while one sperm whale only
fights another sperm whale with his head and jaw, nevertheless, in his
conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously uses his tail. In
striking at a boat, he swiftly curves away his flukes from it, and the
blow is only inflicted by the recoil. If it be made in the unobstructed
air, especially if it descend to its mark, the stroke is then simply
irresistible. No ribs of man or boat can withstand it. Your only
salvation lies in eluding it; but if it comes sideways through the
opposing water, then partly owing to the light buoyancy of the whale
boat, and the elasticity of its materials, a cracked rib or a dashed
plank or two, a sort of stitch in the side, is generally the most
serious result. These submerged side blows are so often received in the
fishery, that they are accounted mere child's play. Some one strips off
a frock, and the hole is stopped.

Third: I cannot demonstrate it, but it seems to me, that in the whale
the sense of touch is concentrated in the tail; for in this respect
there is a delicacy in it only equalled by the daintiness of the
elephant's trunk. This delicacy is chiefly evinced in the action of
sweeping, when in maidenly gentleness the whale with a certain soft
slowness moves his immense flukes from side to side upon the surface
of the sea; and if he feel but a sailor's whisker, woe to that sailor,
whiskers and all. What tenderness there is in that preliminary touch!
Had this tail any prehensile power, I should straightway bethink me of
Darmonodes' elephant that so frequented the flower-market, and with
low salutations presented nosegays to damsels, and then caressed their
zones. On more accounts than one, a pity it is that the whale does not
possess this prehensile virtue in his tail; for I have heard of yet
another elephant, that when wounded in the fight, curved round his trunk
and extracted the dart.

Fourth: Stealing unawares upon the whale in the fancied security of the
middle of solitary seas, you find him unbent from the vast corpulence
of his dignity, and kitten-like, he plays on the ocean as if it were a
hearth. But still you see his power in his play. The broad palms of
his tail are flirted high into the air; then smiting the surface, the
thunderous concussion resounds for miles. You would almost think a great
gun had been discharged; and if you noticed the light wreath of vapour
from the spiracle at his other extremity, you would think that that was
the smoke from the touch-hole.

Fifth: As in the ordinary floating posture of the leviathan the flukes
lie considerably below the level of his back, they are then completely
out of sight beneath the surface; but when he is about to plunge into
the deeps, his entire flukes with at least thirty feet of his body are
tossed erect in the air, and so remain vibrating a moment, till they
downwards shoot out of view. Excepting the sublime BREACH--somewhere
else to be described--this peaking of the whale's flukes is perhaps the
grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature. Out of the bottomless
profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically snatching at the
highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen majestic Satan thrusting forth
his tormented colossal claw from the flame Baltic of Hell. But in
gazing at such scenes, it is all in all what mood you are in; if in
the Dantean, the devils will occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the
archangels. Standing at the mast-head of my ship during a sunrise that
crimsoned sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east,
all heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert with
peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such a grand embodiment
of adoration of the gods was never beheld, even in Persia, the home of
the fire worshippers. As Ptolemy Philopater testified of the African
elephant, I then testified of the whale, pronouncing him the most devout
of all beings. For according to King Juba, the military elephants of
antiquity often hailed the morning with their trunks uplifted in the
profoundest silence.

The chance comparison in this chapter, between the whale and the
elephant, so far as some aspects of the tail of the one and the trunk
of the other are concerned, should not tend to place those two
opposite organs on an equality, much less the creatures to which they
respectively belong. For as the mightiest elephant is but a terrier
to Leviathan, so, compared with Leviathan's tail, his trunk is but the
stalk of a lily. The most direful blow from the elephant's trunk were as
the playful tap of a fan, compared with the measureless crush and crash
of the sperm whale's ponderous flukes, which in repeated instances have
one after the other hurled entire boats with all their oars and crews
into the air, very much as an Indian juggler tosses his balls.*

*Though all comparison in the way of general bulk between the whale
and the elephant is preposterous, inasmuch as in that particular the
elephant stands in much the same respect to the whale that a dog does to
the elephant; nevertheless, there are not wanting some points of curious
similitude; among these is the spout. It is well known that the elephant
will often draw up water or dust in his trunk, and then elevating it,
jet it forth in a stream.

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore my inability
to express it. At times there are gestures in it, which, though they
would well grace the hand of man, remain wholly inexplicable. In an
extensive herd, so remarkable, occasionally, are these mystic gestures,
that I have heard hunters who have declared them akin to Free-Mason
signs and symbols; that the whale, indeed, by these methods
intelligently conversed with the world. Nor are there wanting other
motions of the whale in his general body, full of strangeness, and
unaccountable to his most experienced assailant. Dissect him how I may,
then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will. But if I know
not even the tail of this whale, how understand his head? much more,
how comprehend his face, when face he has none? Thou shalt see my back
parts, my tail, he seems to say, but my face shall not be seen. But I
cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about
his face, I say again he has no face.