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It was during the more pleasant weather, that in due rotation
with the other seamen my first mast-head came round.

In most American whalemen the mast-heads are manned almost
simultaneously with the vessel's leaving her port; even
though she may have fifteen thousand miles, and more, to sail
ere reaching her proper cruising ground. And if, after a three,
four, or five years' voyage she is drawing nigh home with anything
empty in her—say, an empty vial even—then, her mast-heads
are kept manned to the last; and not till her skysailpoles
sail in among the spires of the port, does she altogether
relinquish the hope of capturing one whale more.

Now, as the business of standing mast-heads, ashore or afloat,
is a very ancient and interesting one, let us in some measure expatiate
here. I take it, that the earliest standers of mast-heads
were the old Egyptians; because, in all my researches, I find
none prior to them. For though their progenitors, the builders
of Babel, must doubtless, by their tower, have intended to rear
the loftiest mast-head in all Asia, or Africa either; yet (ere the
final truck was put to it) as that great stone mast of theirs may
be said to have gone by the board, in the dread gale of God's
wrath; therefore, we cannot give these Babel builders priority
over the Egyptians. And that the Egyptians were a nation of


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mast-head standers, is an assertion based upon the general
belief among archæologists, that the first pyramids were founded
for astronomical purposes: a theory singularly supported by the
peculiar stair-like formation of all four sides of those edifices;
whereby, with prodigious long upliftings of their legs, those old
astronomers were wont to mount to the apex, and sing out for
new stars; even as the look-outs of a modern ship sing out for
a sail, or a whale just bearing in sight. In Saint Stylites, the
famous Christian hermit of old times, who built him a lofty
stone pillar in the desert and spent the whole latter portion of
his life on its summit, hoisting his food from the ground with a
tackle; in him we have a remarkable instance of a dauntless
stander-of-mast-heads; who was not to be driven from his place
by fogs or frosts, rain, hail, or sleet; but valiantly facing everything
out to the last, literally died at his post. Of modern
standers-of-mast-heads we have but a lifeless set; mere stone,
iron, and bronze men; who, though well capable of facing out a
stiff gale, are still entirely incompetent to the business of singing
out upon discovering any strange sight. There is Napoleon;
who, upon the top of the column of Vendome, stands with arms
folded, some one hundred and fifty feet in the air; careless, now,
who rules the decks below; whether Louis Philippe, Louis
Blanc, or Louis the Devil. Great Washington, too, stands high
aloft on his towering main-mast in Baltimore, and like one of
Hercules' pillars, his column marks that point of human grandeur
beyond which few mortals will go. Admiral Nelson, also,
on a capstan of gun-metal, stands his mast-head in Trafalgar
Square; and ever when most obscured by that London smoke,
token is yet given that a hidden hero is there; for where there
is smoke, must be fire. But neither great Washington, nor
Napoleon, nor Nelson, will answer a single hail from below,
however madly invoked to befriend by their counsels the distracted
decks upon which they gaze; however it may be surmised,
that their spirits penetrate through the thick haze of the


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future, and descry what shoals and what rocks must be

It may seem unwarrantable to couple in any respect the
mast-head standers of the land with those of the sea; but that
in truth it is not so, is plainly evinced by an item for which
Obed Macy, the sole historian of Nantucket, stands accountable.
The worthy Obed tells us, that in the early times of the whale
fishery, ere ships were regularly launched in pursuit of the game,
the people of that island erected lofty spars along the sea-coast,
to which the look-outs ascended by means of nailed cleats,
something as fowls go upstairs in a hen-house. A few years
ago this same plan was adopted by the Bay whalemen of New
Zealand, who, upon descrying the game, gave notice to the
ready-manned boats nigh the beach. But this custom has now
become obsolete; turn we then to the one proper mast-head,
that of a whale-ship at sea. The three mast-heads are kept
manned from sun-rise to sun-set; the seamen taking their regular
turns (as at the helm), and relieving each other every two
hours. In the serene weather of the tropics it is exceedingly
pleasant the mast-head; nay, to a dreamy meditative man it is
delightful. There you stand, a hundred feet above the silent
decks, striding along the deep, as if the masts were gigantic
stilts, while beneath you and between your legs, as it were,
swim the hugest monsters of the sea, even as ships once sailed
between the boots of the famous Colossus at old Rhodes. There
you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea, with nothing
ruffled but the waves. The tranced ship indolently rolls; the
drowsy trade winds blow; everything resolves you into languor.
For the most part, in this tropic whaling life, a sublime uneventfulness
invests you; you hear no news; read no gazettes; extras
with startling accounts of commonplaces never delude you into
unnecessary excitements; you hear of no domestic afflictions;
bankrupt securities; fall of stocks; are never troubled with the
thought of what you shall have for dinner—for all your meals


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for three years and more are snugly stowed in casks, and your
bill of fare is immutable.

In one of those southern whalemen, on a long three or four
years' voyage, as often happens, the sum of the various hours
you spend at the mast-head would amount to several entire
months. And it is much to be deplored that the place to which
you devote so considerable a portion of the whole term of your
natural life, should be so sadly destitute of anything approaching
to a cosy inhabitiveness, or adapted to breed a comfortable
localness of feeling, such as pertains to a bed, a hammock, a
hearse, a sentry box, a pulpit, a coach, or any other of those
small and snug contrivances in which men temporarily isolate
themselves. Your most usual point of perch is the head of the
t' gallant-mast, where you stand upon two thin parallel sticks
(almost peculiar to whalemen) called the t' gallant cross-trees.
Here, tossed about by the sea, the beginner feels about as
cosy as he would standing on a bull's horns. To be sure, in
cold weather you may carry your house aloft with you, in the
shape of a watch-coat; but properly speaking the thickest
watch-coat is no more of a house than the unclad body; for as
the soul is glued inside of its fleshly tabernacle, and cannot freely
move about in it, nor even move out of it, without running
great risk of perishing (like an ignorant pilgrim crossing the
snowy Alps in winter); so a watch-coat is not so much of a house
as it is a mere envelope, or additional skin encasing you. You
cannot put a shelf or chest of drawers in your body, and no
more can you make a convenient closet of your watch-coat.

Concerning all this, it is much to be deplored that the mast-heads
of a southern whale ship are unprovided with those enviable
little tents or pulpits, called crow's-nests, in which the look-outs
of a Greenland whaler are protected from the inclement
weather of the frozen seas. In the fire-side narrative of Captain
Sleet, entitled “A Voyage among the Icebergs, in quest of the
Greenland Whale, and incidentally for the re-discovery of the


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Lost Icelandic Colonies of Old Greenland;” in this admirable
volume, all standers of mast-heads are furnished with a charmingly
circumstantial account of the then recently invented crow's-nest
of the Glacier, which was the name of Captain Sleet's good
craft. He called it the Sleet's crow's-nest, in honor of himself;
he being the original inventor and patentee, and free from all
ridiculous false delicacy, and holding that if we call our own
children after our own names (we fathers being the original
inventors and patentees), so likewise should we denominate after
ourselves any other apparatus we may beget. In shape, the
Sleet's crow's-nest is something like a large tierce or pipe; it is
open above, however, where it is furnished with a movable
side-screen to keep to windward of your head in a hard gale.
Being fixed on the summit of the mast, you ascend into it
through a little trap-hatch in the bottom. On the after side, or
side next the stern of the ship, is a comfortable seat, with a
locker underneath for umbrellas, comforters, and coats. In
front is a leather rack, in which to keep your speaking trumpet,
pipe, telescope, and other nautical conveniences. When Captain
Sleet in person stood his mast-head in this crow's nest of his, he
tells us that he always had a rifle with him (also fixed in the
rack), together with a powder flask and shot, for the purpose of
popping off the stray narwhales, or vagrant sea unicorns infesting
those waters; for you cannot successfully shoot at them from
the deck owing to the resistance of the water, but to shoot down
upon them is a very different thing. Now, it was plainly a
labor of love for Captain Sleet to describe, as he does, all the
little detailed conveniences of his crow's-nest; but though he so
enlarges upon many of these, and though he treats us to a
very scientific account of his experiments in this crow's-nest,
with a small compass he kept there for the purpose of counteracting
the errors resulting from what is called the “local attraction”
of all binnacle magnets; an error ascribable to the horizontal
vicinity of the iron in the ship's planks, and in the Glacier's


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case, perhaps, to there having been so many broken-down blacksmiths
among her crew; I say, that though the Captain is very
discreet and scientific here, yet, for all his learned “binnacle
deviations,” “azimuth compass observations,” and “approximate
errors,” he knows very well, Captain Sleet, that he was
not so much immersed in those profound magnetic meditations,
as to fail being attracted occasionally towards that well replenished
little case-bottle, so nicely tucked in on one side of his
crow's nest, within easy reach of his hand. Though, upon the
whole, I greatly admire and even love the brave, the honest, and
learned Captain; yet I take it very ill of him that he should
so utterly ignore that case-bottle, seeing what a faithful friend and
comforter it must have been, while with mittened fingers and
hooded head he was studying the mathematics aloft there in
that bird's nest within three or four perches of the pole.

But if we Southern whale-fishers are not so snugly housed
aloft as Captain Sleet and his Greenland-men were; yet that
disadvantage is greatly counterbalanced by the widely contrasting
serenity of those seductive seas in which we South fishers
mostly float. For one, I used to lounge up the rigging very
leisurely, resting in the top to have a chat with Queequeg, or
any one else off duty whom I might find there; then ascending
a little way further, and throwing a lazy leg over the top-sail
yard, take a preliminary view of the watery pastures, and so at
last mount to my ultimate destination.

Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit
that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the
universe revolving in me, how could I—being left completely to
myself at such a thought-engendering altitude,—how could I
but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships'
standing orders, “Keep your weather eye open, and sing out
every time.”

And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye shipowners
of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant


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fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable
meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the
Phædon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an
one, I say: your whales must be seen before they can be killed;
and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten
wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm
the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays,
the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many
romantic, melancholy, and absent-minded young men, disgusted
with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar
and blubber. Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself
upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship,
and in moody phrase ejaculates:—
“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.”
Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded
young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not
feeling sufficient “interest” in the voyage; half-hinting that
they are so hopelessly lost to all honorable ambition, as that in
their secret souls they would rather not see whales than otherwise.
But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion
that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use,
then, to strain the visual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses
at home.

“Why, thou monkey,” said a harpooneer to one of these
lads, “we've been cruising now hard upon three years,
and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce
as hen's teeth whenever thou art up here.” Perhaps they
were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the
far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of
vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the
blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses
his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible


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image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind
and nature; and every strange, half-seen, gliding, beautiful thing
that eludes him; every dimly-discovered, uprising fin of some
undiscernible form, seems to him the embodiment of those
elusive thoughts that only people the soul by continually flitting
through it. In this enchanted mood, thy spirit ebbs away to
whence it came; becomes diffused through time and space;
like Cranmer's sprinkled Pantheistic ashes, forming at last
a part of every shore the round globe over.

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted
by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea;
by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this
sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch;
slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror.
Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day,
in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop
through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to
rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!