University of Virginia Library

Search this document 




What the white whale was to Ahab, has been hinted; what,
at times, he was to me, as yet remains unsaid.

Aside from those more obvious considerations touching Moby
Dick, which could not but occasionally awaken in any man's
soul some alarm, there was another thought, or rather vague,
nameless horror concerning him, which at times by its intensity
completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and
well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in
a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that
above all things appalled me. But how can I hope to explain
myself here; and yet, in some dim random way, explain myself
I must, else all these chapters might be naught.

Though in many natural objects, whiteness refiningly enhances
beauty, as if imparting some special virtue of its own,
as in marbles, japonicas, and pearls; and though various
nations have in some way recognised a certain royal pre-eminence
in this hue; even the barbaric, grand old kings of Pegu placing
the title “Lord of the White Elephants” above all their other
magniloquent ascriptions of dominion; and the modern kings
of Siam unfurling the same snow-white quadruped in the royal
standard; and the Hanoverian flag bearing the one figure of a
snow-white charger; and the great Austrian Empire, Cæsarian,
heir to overlording Rome, having for the imperial color the
same imperial hue; and though this pre-eminence in it applies


Page 208
to the human race itself, giving the white man ideal mastership
over every dusky tribe; and though, besides all this, whiteness
has been even made significant of gladness, for among the
Romans a white stone marked a joyful day; and though in
other mortal sympathies and symbolizings, this same hue is
made the emblem of many touching, noble things—the innocence
of brides, the benignity of age; though among the Red
Men of America the giving of the white belt of wampum was
the deepest pledge of honor; though in many climes, whiteness
typifies the majesty of Justice in the ermine of the Judge, and
contributes to the daily state of kings and queens drawn by
milk-white steeds; though even in the higher mysteries of the
most august religions it has been made the symbol of the divine
spotlessness and power, by the Persian fire worshippers, the
white forked flame being held the holiest on the altar; and in
the Greek mythologies, Great Jove himself being made incarnate
in a snow-white bull; and though to the noble Iroquois,
the midwinter sacrifice of the sacred White Dog was by far the
holiest festival of their theology, that spotless, faithful creature
being held the purest envoy they could send to the Great Spirit
with the annual tidings of their own fidelity; and though
directly from the Latin word for white, all Christian priests derive
the name of one part of their sacred vesture, the alb or
tunic, worn beneath the cassock; and though among the holy
pomps of the Romish faith, white is specially employed in the
celebration of the Passion of our Lord; though in the Vision
of St. John, white robes are given to the redeemed, and the
four-and-twenty elders stand clothed in white before the great
white throne, and the Holy One that sitteth there white like
wool; yet for all these accumulated associations, with whatever
is sweet, and honorable, and sublime, there yet lurks an elusive
something in the innermost idea of this hue, which strikes
more of panic to the soul than that redness which affrights in


Page 209

This elusive quality it is, which causes the thought of whiteness,
when divorced from more kindly associations, and coupled
with any object terrible in itself, to heighten that terror to the
furthest bounds. Witness the white bear of the poles, and the
white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness
makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That
ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness,
even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating
of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his
heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear
or shark.[1]

Bethink thee of the albatross, whence come those clouds of
spiritual wonderment and pale dread, in which that white
phantom sails in all imaginations? Not Coleridge first threw
that spell; but God's great, unflattering laureate, Nature.[2]


Page 210

Most famous in our Western annals and Indian traditions is
that of the White Steed of the Praries; a magnificent milk-white
charger, large-eyed, small-headed, bluff-chested, and with
the dignity of a thousand monarchs in his lofty, overscorning
carriage. He was the elected Xerxes of vast herds of wild
horses, whose pastures in those days were only fenced by the


Page 211
Rocky Mountains and the Alleghanies. At their flaming head
he westward trooped it like that chosen star which every evening
leads on the hosts of light. The flashing cascade of his
mane, the curving comet of his tail, invested him with housings
more resplendent than gold and silver-beaters could have furnished
him. A most imperial and archangelical apparition of
that unfallen, western world, which to the eyes of the old trappers
and hunters revived the glories of those primeval times
when Adam walked majestic as a god, bluff-bowed and fearless
as this mighty steed. Whether marching amid his aides and
marshals in the van of countless cohorts that endlessly streamed
it over the plains, like an Ohio; or whether with his circumambient
subjects browsing all around at the horizon, the White
Steed gallopingly reviewed them with warm nostrils reddening
through his cool milkiness; in whatever aspect he presented
himself, always to the bravest Indians he was the object of
trembling reverence and awe. Nor can it be questioned from
what stands on legendary record of this noble horse, that it was
his spiritual whiteness chiefly, which so clothed him with divineness;
and that this divineness had that in it which, though
commanding worship, at the same time enforced a certain nameless

But there are other instances where this whiteness loses all
that accessory and strange glory which invests it in the White
Steed and Albatross.

What is it that in the Albino man so peculiarly repels and
often shocks the eye, as that sometimes he is loathed by his
own kith and kin! It is that whiteness which invests him, a
thing expressed by the name he bears. The Albino is as well
made as other men—has no substantive deformity—and yet
this mere aspect of all-pervading whiteness makes him more
strangely hideous than the ugliest abortion. Why should this
be so?


Page 212

Nor, in quite other aspects, does Nature in her least palpable
but not the less malicious agencies, fail to enlist among her
forces this crowning attribute of the terrible. From its snowy
aspect, the gauntleted ghost of the Southern Seas has been
denominated the White Squall. Nor, in some historic instances,
has the art of human malice omitted so potent an auxiliary.
How wildly it heightens the effect of that passage in
Froissart, when, masked in the snowy symbol of their faction,
the desperate White Hoods of Ghent murder their bailiff in the

Nor, in some hings, does the common, hereditary experience
of all mankind fail to bear witness to the supernaturalism of
this hue. It cannot well be doubted, that the one visible quality
in the aspect of the dead which most appals the gazer, is the
marble pallor lingering there; as if indeed that pallor were as
much like the badge of consternation in the other world, as of
mortal trepidation here. And from that pallor of the dead, we
borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them.
Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the same
snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in a milk-white
fog—Yea, while these terrors seize us, let us add, that
even the king of terrors, when personified by the evangelist,
rides on his pallid horse.

Therefore, in his other moods, symbolize whatever grand or
gracious thing he will by whiteness, no man can deny that in
its profoundest idealized significance it calls up a peculiar apparition
to the soul.

But though without dissent this point be fixed, how is mortal
man to account for it? To analyse it, would seem impossible.
Can we, then, by the citation of some of those instances wherein
this thing of whiteness—though for the time either wholly
or in great part stripped of all direct associations calculated to
impart to it aught fearful, but, nevertheless, is found to exert


Page 213
over us the same sorcery, however modified;—can we thus
hope to light upon some chance clue to conduct us to the hidden
cause we seek?

Let us try. But in a matter like this, subtlety appeals to
subtlety, and without imagination no man can follow another
into these halls. And though, doubtless, some at least of the
imaginative impressions about to be presented may have been
shared by most men, yet few perhaps were entirely conscious of
them at the time, and therefore may not be able to recall them

Why to the man of untutored ideality, who happens to be
but loosely acquainted with the peculiar character of the day,
does the bare mention of Whitsuntide marshal in the fancy such
long, dreary, speechless processions of slow-pacing pilgrims,
down-cast and hooded with new-faller snow? Or, to the unread,
unsophisticated Protestant of the Middle American States, why
does the passing mention of a White Friar or a White Nun,
evoke such an eyeless statue in the soul?

Or what is there apart from the traditions of dungeoned warriors
and kings (which will not wholly account for it) that
makes the White Tower of London tell so much more strongly
on the imagination of an untravelled American, than those other
storied structures, its neighbors—the Byward Tower, or even the
Bloody? And those sublimer towers, the White Mountains of
New Hampshire, whence, in peculiar moods, comes that gigantic
ghostliness over the soul at the bare mention of that name,
while the thought of Virginia's Blue Ridge is full of a soft, dewy,
distant dreaminess? Or why, irrespective of all latitudes and
longitudes, does the name of the White Sea exert such a spectralness
over the fancy, while that of the Yellow Sea lulls us
with mortal thoughts of long lacquered mild afternoons on the
waves, followed by the gaudiest and yet sleepiest of sunsets? Or,
to choose a wholly unsubstantial instance, purely addressed to the
fancy, why, in reading the old fairy tales of Central Europe, does


Page 214
“the tall pale man” of the Hartz forests, whose changeless
pallor unrustlingly glides through the green of the groves—why
is this phantom more terrible than all the whooping imps of the

Nor is it, altogether, the remembrance of her cathedral-toppling
earthquakes; nor the stampedoes of her frantic seas:
nor the tearlessness of arid skies that never rain; nor the sight
of her wide field of leaning spires, wrenched cope-stones, and
crosses all adroop (like canted yards of anchored fleets); and
her suburban avenues of house-walls lying over upon each other,
as a tossed pack of cards;—it is not these things alone which
make tearless Lima, the strangest, saddest city thou can'st see.
For Lima has taken the white veil; and there is a higher horror
in this whiteness of her woe. Old as Pizarro, this whiteness
keeps her ruins for ever new; admits not the cheerful
greenness of complete decay; spreads over her broken ramparts
the rigid pallor of an apoplexy that fixes its own

I know that, to the common apprehension, this phenomenon
of whiteness is not confessed to be the prime agent in exaggerating
the terror of objects otherwise terrible; nor to the unimaginative
mind is there aught of terror in those appearances
whose awfulness to another mind almost solely consists in this
one phenomenon, especially when exhibited under any form at
all approaching to muteness or universality. What I mean by
these two statements may perhaps be respectively elucidated by
the following examples.

First: The mariner, when drawing nigh the coasts of foreign
lands, if by night he hear the roar of breakers, starts to vigilance,
and feels just enough of trepidation to sharpen all his
faculties; but under precisely similar circumstances, let him be
called from his hammock to view his ship sailing through a
midnight sea of milky whiteness—as if from encircling headlands
shoals of combed white bears were swimming round him,


Page 215
then he feels a silent, superstitious dread; the shrouded phantom
of the whitened waters is horrible to him as a real ghost; in
vain the lead assures him he is still off soundings; heart and
helm they both go down; he never rests till blue water is under
him again. Yet where is the mariner who will tell thee, “Sir,
it was not so much the fear of striking hidden rocks, as the fear
of that hideous whiteness that so stirred me?”

Second: To the native Indian of Peru, the continual sight of
the snow-howdahed Andes conveys naught of dread, except,
perhaps, in the mere fancying of the eternal frosted desolateness
reigning at such vast altitudes, and the natural conceit of what
a fearfulness it would be to lose oneself in such inhuman solitudes.
Much the same is it with the backwoodsman of the
West, who with comparative indifference views an unbounded
prairie sheeted with driven snow, no shadow of tree or twig to
break the fixed trance of whiteness. Not so the sailor, beholding
the scenery of the Antarctic seas; where at times, by some
infernal trick of legerdemain in the powers of frost and air, he,
shivering and half shipwrecked, instead of rainbows speaking
hope and solace to his misery, views what seems a boundless
church-yard grinning upon him with its lean ice monuments and
splintered crosses.

But thou sayest, methinks this white-lead chapter about
whiteness is but a white flag hung out from a craven soul; thou
surrenderest to a hypo, Ishmael.

Tell me, why this strong young colt, foaled in some
peaceful valley of Vermont, far removed from all beasts of prey—
why is it that upon the sunniest day, if you but shake a fresh
buffalo robe behind him, so that he cannot even see it, but
only smells its wild animal muskiness—why will he start, snort,
and with bursting eyes paw the ground in phrensies of affright?
There is no remembrance in him of any gorings of wild creatures
in his green northern home, so that the strange muskiness
he smells cannot recall to him anything associated with the experience


Page 216
of former perils; for what knows he, this New England
colt, of the black bisons of distant Oregon?

No: but here thou beholdest even in a dumb brute, the instinct
of the knowledge of the demonism in the world. Though
thousands of miles from Oregon, still when he smells that savage
musk, the rending, goring bison herds are as present as to the
deserted wild foal of the prairies, which this instant they may
be trampling into dust.

Thus, then, the muffled rollings of a milky sea; the bleak
rustlings of the festooned frosts of mountains; the desolate
shiftings of the windrowed snows of prairies; all these, to Ishmael,
are as the shaking of that buffalo robe to the frightened colt!

Though neither knows where lie the nameless things of which
the mystic sign gives forth such hints; yet with me, as with the
colt, somewhere those things must exist. Though in many of
its aspects this visible world seems formed in love, the invisible
spheres were formed in fright.

But not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness,
and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and
more strange and far more portentous—why, as we have seen,
it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things, nay,
the very veil of the Christian's Deity; and yet should be as it
is, the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind.

Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless
voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from
behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the
white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence
whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color,
and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these
reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in
a wide landscape of snows—a colorless, all-color of atheism
from which we shrink? And when we consider that other
theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues—


Page 217
every stately or lovely emblazoning—the sweet tinges of sunset
skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the
butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits,
not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without;
so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot,
whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within;
and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical
cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle
of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if
operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects,
even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge—pondering all
this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper; and like wilful
travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring
glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself
blind at the monumental white shreud that wraps all the prospect
around him. And of all these things the Albino whale
was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?


With reference to the Polar bear, it may possibly be urged by him
who would fain go still deeper into this matter, that it is not the whiteness,
separately regarded, which heightens the intolerable hideousness of
that brute; for, analysed, that heightened hideousness, it might be said,
only arises from the circumstance, that the irresponsible ferociousness of
the creature stands invested in the fleece of celestial innocence and love;
and hence, by bringing together two such opposite emotions in our minds,
the Polar bear frightens us with so unnatural a contrast. But even assuming
all this to be true; yet, were it not for the whiteness, you would
not have that intensified terror.

As for the white shark, the white gliding ghostliness of repose in that
creature, when beheld in his ordinary moods, strangely tallies with the
same quality in the Polar quadruped. This pecuharity is most vividly
hit by the French in the name they bestow upon that fish. The Romish
mass for the dead begins with “Requiem eternam” (eternal rest), whence
Requiem denominating the mass itself, and any other funereal music.
Now, in allusion to the white, silent stillness of death in this shark, and
the mild deadliness of his habits, the French call him Requin.


I remember the first albatross I ever saw. It was during a prolonged
gale, in waters hard upon the Antarctic seas. From my forenoon watch
below, I ascended to the overclouded deck; and there, dashed upon the
main hatches, I saw a regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness, and
with a hooked, Roman bill sublime. At intervals, it arched forth its vast
archangel wings, as if to embrace some holy ark. Wondrous flutterings
and throbbings shook it. Though bodily unharmed, it uttered cries, as
some king's ghost in supernatural distress. Through its inexpressible,
strange eyes, methought I peeped to secrets which took hold of God. As
Abraham before the angels. I bowed myself; the white thing was so
white, its wings se wide, and in those for ever exiled waters, I had lost the
miserable warping memories of traditions and of towns. Long I gazed
at that prodigy of plumage. I cannot tell, can only hint, the things that
darted through me then. But at last I awoke; and turning, asked a sailor
what bird was this. A goney, he replied. Goney! I never had heard
that name before; is it conceivable that this glorious thing is utterly unknown
to men ashore! never! But some time after, I learned that goney
was some seaman's name for albatross. So that by no possibility could
Coleridge's wild Rhyme have had aught to do with those mystical impressions
which were mine, when I saw that bird upon our deck. For
neither had I then read the Rhyme, nor knew the bird to be an albatross.
Yet, in saying this, I do but indirectly burnish a little brighter the noble
merit of the poem and the poet.

I assert, then, that in the wondrous bodily whiteness of the bird chiefly
lurks the secret of the spell; a truth the more evinced in this, that by a
solecism of terms there are birds called grey albatrosses; and these I
have frequently seen, but never with such emotions as when I beheld the
Antaretic fowl.

But how had the mystic thing been caught? Whisper it not, and I
will tell; with a treacherous hook and line, as the fowl floated on the
sea. At last the Captain made a postman of it; tying a lettered,
leathern tally round its neck, with the ship's time and place; and then
letting it escape. But I doubt not, that leathern tally, meant for man,
was taken off in Heaven, when the white fowl flew to join the wing-folding,
the invoking, and adoring cherubim!