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Besides her hoisted boats, an American whaler is outwardly
distinguished by her try-works. She presents the curious
anomaly of the most solid masonry joining with oak and hemp
in constituting the completed ship. It is as if from the open
field a brick-kiln were transported to her planks.

The try-works are planted between the foremast and main-mast,
the most roomy part of the deck. The timbers beneath


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are of a peculiar strength, fitted to sustain the weight of an
almost solid mass of brick and mortar, some ten feet by eight
square, and five in height. The foundation does not penetrate
the deck, but the masonry is firmly secured to the surface by
ponderous knees of iron bracing it on all sides, and screwing it
down to the timbers. On the flanks it is cased with wood, and
at top completely covered by a large, sloping, battened hatchway.
Removing this hatch we expose the great try-pots, two
in number, and each of several barrels' capacity. When not in
use, they are kept remarkably clean. Sometimes they are
polished with soapstone and sand, till they shine within like
silver punch-bowls. During the night-watches some cynical
old sailors will crawl into them and coil themselves away there
for a nap. While employed in polishing them—one man in
each pot, side by side—many confidential communications are
carried on, over the iron lips. It is a place also for profound
mathematical meditation. It was in the left hand try-pot of
the Pequod, with the soapstone diligently circling round me,
that I was first indirectly struck by the remarkable fact, that
in geometry all bodies gliding along the cycloid, my soapstone
for example, will descend from any point in precisely the same

Removing the fire-board from the front of the try-works, the
bare masonry of that side is exposed, penetrated by the two
iron mouths of the furnaces, directly underneath the pots.
These mouths are fitted with heavy doors of iron. The intense
heat of the fire is prevented from communicating itself to the
deck, by means of a shallow reservoir extending under the
entire inclosed surface of the works. By a tunnel inserted at
the rear, this reservoir is kept replenished with water as fast as
it evaporates. There are no external chimneys; they open
direct from the rear wall. And here let us go back for a

It was about nine o'clock at night that the Pequod's try-works


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were first started on this present voyage. It belonged to Stubb
to oversee the business.

“All ready there? Off hatch, then, and start her. You
cook, fire the works.” This was an easy thing, for the carpenter
had been thrusting his shavings into the furnace throughout
the passage. Here be it said that in a whaling voyage the first
fire in the try-works has to be fed for a time with wood. After
that no wood is used, except as a means of quick ignition to
the staple fuel. In a word, after being tried out, the crisp,
shrivelled blubber, now called scraps or fritters, still contains
considerable of its unctuous properties. These fritters feed the
flames. Like a plethoric burning martyr, or a self-consuming
misanthrope, once ignited, the whale supplies his own fuel and
burns by his own body. Would that he consumed his own
smoke! for his smoke is horrible to inhale, and inhale it you
must, and not only that, but you must live in it for the time.
It has an unspeakable, wild, Hindoo odor about it, such as may
lurk in the vicinity of funereal pyres. It smells like the left
wing of the day of judgment; it is an argument for the pit.

By midnight the works were in full operation. We were
clear from the carcase; sail had been made; the wind was
freshening; the wild ocean darkness was intense. But that
darkness was licked up by the fierce flames, which at intervals
forked forth from the sooty flues, and illuminated every lofty
rope in the rigging, as with the famed Greek fire. The burning
ship drove on, as if remorselessly commissioned to some vengeful
deed. So the pitch and sulphur-freighted brigs of the bold
Hydriote, Canaris, issuing from their midnight harbors, with
broad sheets of flame for sails, bore down upon the Turkish
frigates, and folded them in conflagrations.

The hatch, removed from the top of the works, now afforded
a wide hearth in front of them. Standing on this were the
Tartarean shapes of the pagan harpooneers, always the whale-ship's
stokers. With huge pronged poles they pitched hissing


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masses of blubber into the scalding pots, or stirred up the fires
beneath, till the snaky flames darted, curling, out of the doors
to catch them by the feet. The smoke rolled away in sullen
heaps. To every pitch of the ship there was a pitch of the
boiling oil, which seemed all eagerness to leap into their faces.
Opposite the mouth of the works, on the further side of the
wide wooden hearth, was the windlass. This served for a seasofa.
Here lounged the watch, when not otherwise employed,
looking into the red heat of the fire, till their eyes felt scorched
in their heads. Their tawny features, now all begrimed with
smoke and sweat, their matted beards, and the contrasting
barbaric brilliancy of their teeth, all these were strangely
revealed in the capricious emblazonings of the works. As they
narrated to each other their unholy adventures, their tales of
terror told in words of mirth; as their uncivilized laughter
forked upwards out of them, like the flames from the furnace;
as to and fro, in their front, the harpooneers wildly gesticulated
with their huge pronged forks and dippers; as the wind howled
on, and the sea leaped, and the ship groaned and dived, and
yet steadfastly shot her red hell further and further into the
blackness of the sea and the night, and scornfully champed the
white bone in her mouth, and viciously spat round her on all
sides; then the rushing Pequod, freighted with savages, and
laden with fire, and burning a corpse, and plunging into that
blackness of darkness, seemed the material counterpart of her
monomaniac commander's soul.

So seemed it to me, as I stood at her helm, and for long
hours silently guided the way of this fire-ship on the sea.
Wrapped, for that interval, in darkness myself, I but the better
saw the redness, the madness, the ghastliness of others. The
continual sight of the fiend shapes before me, capering half in
smoke and half in fire, these at last begat kindred visions in my
soul, so soon as I began to yield to that unaccountable drowsiness
which ever would come over me at a midnight helm.


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But that night, in particular, a strange (and ever since inexplicable)
thing occurred to me. Starting from a brief standing
sleep, I was horribly conscious of something fatally wrong.
The jaw-bone tiller smote my side, which leaned against it; in
my ears was the low hum of sails, just beginning to shake in
the wind; I thought my eyes were open; I was half conscious
of putting my fingers to the lids and mechanically stretching
them still further apart. But, spite of all this, I could see no
compass before me to steer by; though it seemed but a minute
since I had been watching the card, by the steady binnacle
lamp illuminating it. Nothing seemed before me but a jet
gloom, now and then made ghastly by flashes of redness.
Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing
thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead
as rushing from all havens astern. A stark, bewildered feeling,
as of death, came over me. Convulsively my hands grasped
the tiller, but with the crazy conceit that the tiller was, somehow,
in some enchanted way, inverted. My God! what is the
matter with me? thought I. Lo! in my brief sleep I had
turned myself about, and was fronting the ship's stern, with
my back to her prow and the compass. In an instant I faced
back, just in time to prevent the vessel from flying up into
the wind, and very probably capsizing her. How glad and
how grateful the relief from this unnatural hallucination of the
night, and the fatal contingency of being brought by the lee!

Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man! Never
dream with thy hand on the helm! Turn not thy back to the
compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe
not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look
ghastly. To-morrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be
bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the
morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious,
golden, glad sun, the only true lamp—all others but liars!

Nevertheless the sun hides not Virginia's Dismal Swamp,


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nor Rome's accursed Campagna, nor wide Sahara, nor all the
millions of miles of deserts and of griefs beneath the moon.
The sun hides not the ocean, which is the dark side of this
earth, and which is two thirds of this earth. So, therefore,
that mortal man who hath more of joy than sorrow in him,
that mortal man cannot be true—not true, or undeveloped.
With books the same. The truest of all men was the Man of
Sorrows, and the truest of all books is Solomon's, and Ecclesiastes
is the fine hammered steel of woe. “All is vanity.” All.
This wilful world hath not got hold of unchristian Solomon's
wisdom yet. But he who dodges hospitals and jails, and walks
fast crossing grave-yards, and would rather talk of operas than
hell; calls Cowper, Young, Pascal, Roussean, poor devils all of
sick men; and throughout a care-free lifetime swears by Rabelais
as passing wise, and therefore jolly;—not that man is fitted
to sit down on tomb-stones, and break the green damp mould
with unfathomably wondrous Solomon.

But even Solomon, he says, “the man that wandereth out
of the way of understanding shall remain” (i. e. even while
living) “in the congregation of the dead.” Give not thyself
up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee; as for the
time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is
a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some
souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and
soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.
And even if he for ever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in
the mountains; so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain
eagle is still higher than other birds upon the plain, even though
they soar.