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‘This Iron Crown’
Under a Troubled Master-Eye 11: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Chapter 37
© 2019 James LaFond
OCT/28/19
Sunset.
The entire short chapter is quoted below with footnotes at the bottom. This most empathetic of musings crafted as an aside from the narrative perspective of Ishmael, marks him as even more of an outsider than the tormented Ahab and his savage harpooners.
_The cabin; by the stern windows; Ahab sitting alone, and gazing out_.
I leave a white and turbid wake; pale waters, paler cheeks, where’er I sail. The envious billows sidelong swell to whelm my track; let them; but first I pass.
Yonder, by ever-brimming goblet’s rim, the warm waves blush like wine. The gold brow plumbs the blue. The diver sun—slow dived from noon—goes down; my soul mounts up! she wearies with her endless hill. Is, then, the crown too heavy that I wear? this Iron Crown of Lombardy. [1]
Yet is it bright with many a gem; I the wearer, see not its far flashings; but darkly feel that I wear that, that dazzlingly confounds. ’Tis iron—that I know—not gold. ’Tis split, too—that I feel; the jagged edge galls me so, my brain seems to beat against the solid metal; aye, steel skull, mine; the sort that needs no helmet in the most brain-battering fight!
Dry heat upon my brow? Oh! time was, when as the sunrise nobly spurred me, so the sunset soothed. No more. This lovely light, it lights not me; all loveliness is anguish to me, since I can ne’er enjoy. Gifted with the high perception, I lack the low, enjoying power; damned, most
subtly and most malignantly! damned in the midst of Paradise!
Good night—good night! (_waving his hand, he moves from the window_.)
’Twas not so hard a task. I thought to find one stubborn, at the least; but my one cogged circle fits into all their various wheels, and they revolve. Or, if you will, like so many ant-hills of powder, they all stand before me; and I their match. Oh, hard! that to fire others, the match itself must needs be wasting! What I’ve dared, I’ve willed; and
what I’ve willed, I’ll do! They think me mad—Starbuck does; but I’m demoniac, I am madness maddened! That wild madness that’s only calm to comprehend itself! The prophecy was that I should be dismembered; and—Aye! I lost this leg. I now prophesy that I will dismember my dismemberer. Now, then, be the prophet and the fulfiller one. That’s more than ye, ye great gods, ever were. I laugh and hoot at ye, ye cricket-players, ye pugilists, ye deaf Burkes and blinded Bendigoes! [2]
I will not say as schoolboys do to bullies—Take some one of your own size; don’t pommel _me!_ No, ye’ve knocked me down, and I am up again; but _ye_ have run and hidden. Come forth from behind your cotton bags!
I have no long gun to reach ye. Come, Ahab’s compliments to ye; come and see if ye can swerve me. Swerve me? ye cannot swerve me, else ye swerve yourselves! man has ye there. Swerve me? The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails, whereon my soul is grooved to run.
Over unsounded gorges, through the rifled hearts of mountains, under torrents’ beds, unerringly I rush! Naught’s an obstacle, naught’s an angle to the iron way!
Notes
Melville crafted a poignant picture of the man of action physically and spiritually caught in and maimed by the machine of modernity.
-1. The Lombard kings, one of whom, Odocar, died fighting the Byzantines in the 500s, were the most direct of the German tribal rulers that took down the rotting house of Rome. Centuries later, defeated fighting in defiance of empire, the Lombards were henceforth forbidden from bearing arms by Charlemagne. Forced to sell their warrior souls, the Lombards were thence cursed to ages of empty plenty, without honor, as conductors of the sin of usery: money lenders, bankers, merchants, men with everything but a soul, the economic vampires who, in Melville’s time and ours, drink us whole.
-2. Famous bare-knuckle champions of the 1830s-40s.
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