Skip to main content

Parting Thought on Flaxman

For a convenient guide to Melville’s many allusions to Persians, Salamis, Darius, Xerxes, and Susa, see Coffler’s “Master Index” (pp. 12, 6, 13, 16, 14). I have already noted that Ishmael’s allusion to “half Xerxes’ army” in chapter 81 of Moby-Dick parallels The Persians by viewing the scene through “enemy” perspective. Ishmael’s use of the words  “shadows, shade, and phantoms” when imagining that underwater army relates to the climactic speech given by the Ghost of Darius, the “shade” who has risen from the dead to rebuke the overarching ambition of his son Xerxes (Aeschylus/Potter, lxii, 329-36). In the larger structure of Moby-Dick, the loss of this same bull whale when he sinks out of sight after being captured and killed at the end of chapter 81 is answered by the birth of the baby whale in chapter 87, “The Grand Armada.” Aeschylus creates a similar rhythm in The Persians when the sinking of Xerxes’ armada at Salamis is answered by the rise of the Ghost of Darius from the grave. The warning from the Ghost about “impetuous” manner in which Xerxes has set himself against the gods and destroyed his whole armada applies well to the passion of Ahab and the fate of his crew. Equally applicable to Moby-Dick is the larger vision for which The Persians is still accorded a unique position in the world of Greek tragedy: its articulation of “an archaic wholeness of vision, a perception of humanity’s place in the great non-human world” (Aeschylus / Herington, p. 28). Ishmael ultimately achieves such a vision in spite being enveloped in the world of the nineteenth-century whaling industry—most magically when seeing himself in relation to the rise of the baby whale.

Two final thoughts on Flaxman. A second allusion to Xerxes in Moby-Dick evokes Flaxman as well as Aeschylus. In the chapter on “The Whiteness of the Whale” Ishmael depicts the “White Steed of the Prairies” in a way the calls to mind the “white steeds” in Flaxman’s Aurora: “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” (NN MD 191). This rather surprising comparison of the “White Steed of the [American] Prairies” to the Persian commander Xerxes had been artfully anticipated in an earlier allusion to “white steeds” in the same chapter. When Ishmael refers to “the daily state of kings and queens drawn by milk-white steeds” as an example of the power of whiteness as a color, these “milk-white steeds” allude both to the Aeschylus text and to Flaxman’s image of Aurora drawn by her own white steeds (NN MD 189; CAT 2). 

Sixteen years after publishing Moby-Dick, sailing through Grecian Islands en route to Athens from the Holy Land, Melville appears to have had Flaxman in mind for entirely different reasons. “A fine sail upon the whole,” he writes in his journal entry for February 5, 1857. “But the scenery is all outline. No filling up. Seem to be sailing upon gigantic outline engravings” (NN J 97).