About the Shark
A creature is a creation; if something is created, then we are inclined to wonder By whom, if anyone?, and If there is a whom, then what are they like? Or as William Blake asks the tiger in his poem “The Tyger”: “Did he smile his work to see? / Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”
People have written poems about animals for a long time, and there have been many reasons why. But two seem foremost: one is because animals provide a metaphorical window into the human world from a surprising vantage. Another is because of their very inhumanness and potential sublimity. A successful animal poem makes use of both, weighing those two impulses against each other, suspending an answer to the question: can we see ourselves in nature, or not?
Herman Melville’s brilliant, albeit relatively obscure (compared at least to the renown of Moby-Dick) “The Maldive Shark” is adept in its balancing of these two impulses. Other critics (including Robert Pinsky, whose work I admire) have said that this piece is basically a really good nature poem about a scary sea-beast, but I believe it’s more than that. As readers of his fiction will likely have observed, Melville understands that the pathetic fallacy as applied to animals is most convincing when it’s neutral to pessimistic: when nature is indifferent to human suffering, if not outright hostile. It’s also most effective when it’s fairly oblique and hard to interpret, at least in a clear and singular fashion.
When nature is sentimentally presented as being in harmony with people or as existing primarily to teach humans helpful and obvious lessons, the poem doing the presenting risks seeming insufferable and glib. Examples abound of poems that work this way, of which “The Chambered Nautilus” by Oliver Wendell Holmes is among the most prominent. “Thanks for the heavenly message brought by thee, / Child of the wandering sea,” Holmes’s ecstatic speaker declares to the mollusk.
“The Maldive Shark” illustrates that animals in literature are most provocative of thought when they resist reductive interpretation as symbols. They retain their alien strangeness even as they prompt the reader to contemplate their resemblance to humans.
“About the Shark, phlegmatical one,” Melville writes to open the poem, “Pale sot of the Maldive sea.” To say, for instance, that the shark is “phlegmatical” means that it’s unemotional or, worse, unsusceptible to or destitute of emotion. It is terrifying, yes, but so too is it apathetic. To say that the shark is a “sot” is to call it “a habitual drunkard,” blunting any glamour it might possess, no matter how fearful its “charnel of maw.” Yet just because the shark is a “dotard”—aging and senile—does not mean that this charnel house—a vault or building where human skeletal remains are stored—is not deadly.
One potential reading that suggests itself to me is that “The Maldive Shark” affords an eerily prescient way of understanding the banality of evil in general and the perils of capitalism in particular; late capitalism can be a nightmare even in its senescence. The pilot fish “never partake of the treat” that is the shark’s enormous feast, contenting themselves, rather, with tiny scraps in the “port of serrated teeth.” Meanwhile, the shark does not even enjoy the spoils of his dominion—a “Pale ravener of horrible meat.” The pilot fish can be read as managerial workers in the way they actively lead the shark to its prey, selling out other defenseless fish, acting in sympathy with the predatory institution instead of with their fellow smaller fry.
Melville seems to prefigure the consented coercion described by Antonio Gramsci as hegemony. The shark needs only passively indicate its capacity for force—he’ll never have to become violent with the pilot fish because they cede their own rights from the start. Viewed in this light, the poem seems to be about the lamentable tendency of people both as workers and as citizens (the pilot fish) to respond to evil (the shark) opportunistically, in a way that benefits the evil, without even realizing they’re doing it—or, worse, while realizing they’re doing it but believing it to be their best if not only option.
But whether or not you agree with this reading, “The Maldive Shark” is effective because it doesn’t require or insist on any single interpretation. It can be taken simply as a depiction of a shark that gives the reader an uh-oh feeling—but then leads us to interrogate that feeling. Perhaps the creepiest thing about it is that there is no thought being exercised by anyone, shark or pilot fish, and certainly no imagination. None of the fish are aware of their situation with respect to other fish. And in the end, the shark is not horrible—the meat is horrible. The anxiety at the root of the poem is not so much what jerks the pilot fish are or how ghastly the shark is, but that everybody involved is merely meat, behaving mechanistically without any self-knowledge. And the unasked question is: are we, the readers, any better?
“The Maldive Shark” is a remarkable animal poem in that it evokes this intense reaction of disgust and anxiety without trying to explain either feeling away. It is willing to dwell in ambiguity, a trait that it shares with another wonderful animal poem by Melville’s contemporary Emily Dickinson, “A narrow fellow in the grass (1096).”
As in “The Maldive Shark,” the language is vivid and the tone compelling and authoritative. To hear the speaker say, “The grass divides as with a comb,” and to describe the snake’s movement as “a whip lash, / Unbraiding in the sun,” delights the reader with comparisons that are both surprising and accurate. The motion of the poem is unsettling, too, as the first two stanzas are calm and observant, but the final one, as with Melville’s last line, passes an unmistakably disturbing judgment: unlike other creatures the male speaker has encountered (“several of nature’s people,” he says, making them sound equal to humans, just about, in the hierarchy of personhood), he feels not cordiality but a constricting fear and gasping loss of breath when he encounters a snake—an involuntary and itself almost animal chill: “a tighter breathing, / And zero at the bone.”
Both poems present their respective animals honestly and with respect, neither one arguing away their unpleasantness to render them overly cute or beatific, nor demonizing them into cartoon villains. Both poems urge consideration of what such creatures have to show us about both humans and the universe in which we live, pushing us to a point of unease then prompting us to consider that discomfort.
Of course, neither Melville nor Dickinson set out simply to run in the opposite direction of poems that glorify animals sentimentally, which is to say to write a poem about some gross parasite that’s just gross. The goal was not to write about a repellent animal, but to write about the relationship between a distressing animal and the fish that unscrupulously assist it, in the case of Melville, and to write about the relationship between the speaker and the revulsion he can’t help but feel toward the snake, in the case of Dickinson.
Both poems exist within—or at least with an awareness of—the broader context of animal poems that are religiously contemplative or “spiritual,” but both are anxious in their involvement therein. Melville in particular seems to say, roughly, I hope this shark and its pilot fish don’t tell us something about the nature of the human soul and the universe because yikes. There is nowhere to stand in “The Maldive Shark” that isn’t implicated or that doesn’t encourage the people standing there to contemplate their own complicity. And this is what makes it superior to “The Chambered Nautilus” or Isaac Watts’s “Against Idleness and Mischief” or even a poem like so many by Mary Oliver (“The Summer Day,” to name just one) and other contemporary nature poets, where readers can, if they choose, react righteously by saying, “My soul does build more stately mansions,” or “I’m never idle or mischievous,” or “I know exactly what it is I plan to do with my one wild and precious life.” Melville doesn’t let anyone off the hook, human or animal.
And he doesn’t force the inherent strangeness of the animal world into sanitized alignment with humanity’s more flattering ideas about itself. Holmes tidies up the nautilus until it’s a gleaming and undisturbing “ship of pearl,” omitting the Cthulhu-like strangeness of the actual creature, with its tentacles and its home in the dark, unknowable sea. All he really gives the reader is its disinfected, empty shell presenting itself on a vacant beach as a prompt for facile meditation. He shuts down the wonder.
Melville, on the other hand, gives us an animal and a situation rich with potential for varied and repeated contemplation. In so doing, he anticipates the appearance of other similarly outstanding animal poems, such as Marianne Moore’s “The Fish,” of which she writes unforgettably, “The sea grows old in it,” and Lorine Niedecker’s “A Monster Owl,” which pointedly refuses reduction to a moral:
A monster owlout on the fenceflew away. Whatis it the signof? The sign ofan owl.
Such poems and the animals in them are lovely for being majestic and enthralling, but also unnerving and mysterious.
“The Maldive Shark” was not the first time Melville wrote about this particular beast. In his 1849 novel Mardi, he treated the creature in prose in a chapter called “My Lord Shark and his Pages,” calling the relationship between shark and pilot fish “one of the most inscrutable things in nature.” Here too, as in the poem, his genius lies in not insisting on a pat scrutability, but in admitting to his audience that “the whole thing becomes a mystery unfathomable. Truly marvels abound. It needs no dead man to be raised, to convince us of some things.”
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...