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Page 417


Other poets have warbled the praises of the soft eye of the
antelope, and the lovely plumage of the bird that never alights;
less celestial, I celebrate a tail.

Reckoning the largest sized Sperm Whale's tail to begin
at that point of the trunk where it tapers to about the girth of
a man, it comprises upon its upper surface alone, an area of at
least fifty square feet. The compact round body of its root
expands into two broad, firm, flat palms or flukes, gradually
shoaling away to less than an inch in thickness. At the crotch
or junction, these flukes slightly overlap, then sideways recede
from each other like wings, leaving a wide vacancy between.
In no living thing are the lines of beauty more exquisitely
defined than in the crescentic borders of these flukes. At its
utmost expansion in the full grown whale, the tail will considerably
exceed twenty feet across.

The entire member seems a dense webbed bed of welded
sinews; but cut into it, and you find that three distinct strata compose
it:—upper, middle, and lower. The fibres in the upper and
lower layers, are long and horizontal; those of the middle one,
very short, and running crosswise between the outside layers.
This triune structure, as much as anything else, imparts power to
the tail. To the student of old Roman walls, the middle layer
will furnish a curious parallel to the thin course of tiles always
alternating with the stone in those wonderful relics of the
antique, and which undoubtedly contribute so much to the great
strength of the masonry.

But as if this vast local power in the tendinous tail were not


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enough, the whole bulk of the leviathan is knit over with a
warp and woof of muscular fibres and filaments, which passing
on either side the loins and running down into the flukes, insensibly
blend with them, and largely contribute to their might;
so that in the tail the confluent measureless force of the whole
whale seems concentrated to a point. Could annihilation
occur to matter, this were the thing to do it.

Nor does this—its amazing strength, at all tend to cripple
the graceful flexion of its motions; where infantileness of ease
undulates through a Titanism of power. On the contrary,
those motions derive their most appalling beauty from it. Real
strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows
it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much
to do with the magic. Take away the tied tendons that all over
seem bursting from the marble in the carved Hercules, and its
charm would be gone. As devout Eckerman lifted the linen
sheet from the naked corpse of Goethe, he was overwhelmed
with the massive chest of the man, that seemed as a Roman
triumphal arch. When Angelo paints even God the Father
in human form, mark what robustness is there. And whatever
they may reveal of the divine love in the Son, the soft, curled,
hermaphroditical Italian pictures, in which his idea has been
most successfully embodied; these pictures, so destitute as they
are of all brawniness, hint nothing of any power, but the mere
negative, feminine one of submission and endurance, which on
all hands it is conceded, form the peculiar practical virtues of his

Such is the subtle elasticity of the organ I treat of, that
whether wielded in sport, or in earnest, or in anger, whatever
be the mood it be in, its flexions are invariably marked by exceeding
grace. Therein no fairy's arm can transcend it.

Five great motions are peculiar to it. First, when used as
a fin for progression; Second, when used as a mace in battle;


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Third, in sweeping; Fourth, in lobtailing; Fifth, in peaking

First: Being horizontal in its position, the Leviathan's tail
acts in a different manner from the tails of all other sea creatures.
It never wriggles. In man or fish, wriggling is a sign
of inferiority. To the whale, his tail is the sole means of propulsion.
Scroll-wise coiled forwards beneath the body, and then
rapidly sprung backwards, it is this which gives that singular
darting, leaping motion to the monster when furiously swimming.
His side-fins only serve to steer by.

Second: It is a little significant, that while one sperm whale
only fights another sperm whale with his head and jaw,
nevertheless, in his conflicts with man, he chiefly and contemptuously
uses his tail. In striking at a boat, he swiftly curves
away his flukes from it, and the blow is only inflicted by the
recoil. If it be made in the unobstructed air, especially if it
descend to its mark, the stroke is then simply irresistible. No
ribs of man or boat can withstand it. Your only salvation lies
in eluding it; but if it comes sideways through the opposing
water, then partly owing to the light buoyancy of the whale-boat,
and the elasticity of its materials, a cracked rib or a dashed
plank or two, a sort of stitch in the side, is generally the most
serious result. These submerged side blows are so often
received in the fishery, that they are accounted mere child's
play. Some one strips off a frock, and the hole is stopped.

Third: I cannot demonstrate it, but it seems to me, that in
the whale the sense of touch is concentrated in the tail; for
in this respect there is a delicacy in it only equalled by the
daintiness of the elephant's trunk. This delicacy is chiefly
evinced in the action of sweeping, when in maidenly gentleness
the whale with a certain soft slowness moves his immense flukes
from side to side upon the surface of the sea; and if he feel
but a sailor's whisker, woe to that sailor, whiskers and all.
What tenderness there is in that preliminary touch! Had this


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tail any prehensile power, I should straightway bethink me of
Darmonodes' elephant that so frequented the flower-market, and
with low salutations presented nosegays to damsels, and then
caressed their zones. On more accounts than one, a pity it is
that the whale does not possess this prehensile virtue in his
tail; for I have heard of yet another elephant, that when
wounded in the fight, curved round his trunk and extracted the

Fourth: Stealing unawares upon the whale in the fancied
security of the middle of solitary seas, you find him unbent
from the vast corpulence of his dignity, and kitten-like, he plays
on the ocean as if it were a hearth. But still you see his power
in his play. The broad palms of his tail are flirted high into
the air; then smiting the surface, the thunderous concussion
resounds for miles. You would almost think a great gun had
been discharged; and if you noticed the light wreath of vapor
from the spiracle at his other extremity, you would think that
that was the smoke from the touch-hole.

Fifth: As in the ordinary floating posture of the leviathan
the flukes lie considerably below the level of his back, they are
then completely out of sight beneath the surface; but when he
is about to plunge into the deeps, his entire flukes with at
least thirty feet of his body are tossed erect in the air, and so
remain vibrating a moment, till they downwards shoot out of
view. Excepting the sublime breach—somewhere else to be
described—this peaking of the whale's flukes is perhaps the
grandest sight to be seen in all animated nature. Out of
the bottomless profundities the gigantic tail seems spasmodically
snatching at the highest heaven. So in dreams, have I seen
majestic Satan thrusting forth his tormented colossal claw from
the flame Baltic of Hell. But in gazing at such scenes, it is all
in all what mood you are in; if in the Dantean, the devils will
occur to you; if in that of Isaiah, the archangels. Standing at
the mast-head of my ship during a sunrise that crimsoned


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sky and sea, I once saw a large herd of whales in the east, all
heading towards the sun, and for a moment vibrating in concert
with peaked flukes. As it seemed to me at the time, such
a grand embodiment of adoration of the gods was never beheld,
even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers. As Ptolemy
Philopater testified of the African elephant, I then testified of
the whale, pronouncing him the most devout of all beings.
For according to King Juba, the military elephants of antiquity
often hailed the morning with their trunks uplifted in the profoundest

The chance comparison in this chapter, between the whale
and the elephant, so far as some aspects of the tail of the one
and the trunk of the other are concerned, should not tend to
place those two opposite organs on an equality, much less the
creatures to which they respectively belong. For as the mightiest
elephant is but a terrier to Leviathan, so, compared with
Leviathan's tail, his trunk is but the stalk of a lily. The most
direful blow from the elephant's trunk were as the playful tap
of a fan, compared with the measureless crush and crash of the
sperm whale's ponderous flukes, which in repeated instances
have one after the other hurled entire boats with all their oars
and crews into the air, very much as an Indian juggler tosses
his balls.[1]

The more I consider this mighty tail, the more do I deplore
my inability to express it. At times there are gestures in it,
which, though they would well grace the hand of man, remain
wholly inexplicable. In an extensive herd, so remarkable, occasionally,


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are these mystic gestures, that I have heard hunters
who have declared them akin to Free-Mason signs and symbols;
that the whale, indeed, by these methods intelligently conversed
with the world. Nor are there wanting other motions of the
whale in his general body, full of strangeness, and unaccountable
to his most experienced assailant. Dissect him how I may,
then, I but go skin deep; I know him not, and never will. But
if I know not even the tail of this whale, how understand his
head? much more, how comprehend his face, when face he has
none? Thou shalt see my back parts, my tail, he seems to
say, but my face shall not be seen. But I cannot completely
make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face,
I say again he has no face.


Though all comparison in the way of general bulk between the
whale and the elephant is preposterous, inasmuch as in that particular
the elephant stands in much the same respect to the whale that a dog
does to the elephant; nevertheless, there are not wanting some points of
curious similitude; among these is the spout. It is well known that the
elephant will often draw up water or dust in his trunk, and then elevating
it, jet it forth in a stream.