An incomplete inventory of the language of Moby-Dick includes "nautical, biblical, Homeric, Shakespearean, Miltonic, cetological, alliterative, fanciful, colloquial, archaic and unceasingly allusive". Melville can stretch grammar, quote a range of well-known or obscure sources, or swing from calm prose to high rhetoric, technical exposition, seaman's slang, mystic speculation, or wild prophetic archaism.
The superabundant vocabulary of the work can be broken down into strategies used individually and in combination. First, the original modification of words as "Leviathanism" and the exaggerated repetition of modified words, as in the series "pitiable", "pity", "pitied" and "piteous" (Ch. 81, "The Pequod Meets the Virgin"), Second, the use of existing words in new ways, as when the whale "heaps" and "tasks." Third, words lifted from specialized fields, as "fossiliferous". Fourth, the use of unusual adjective-noun combinations, as in "concentrating brow" and "immaculate manliness" (Ch. 26, "Knights and Squires"). Fifth, using the participial modifier to emphasize and to reinforce the already established expectations of the reader, as the words "preluding" and "foreshadowing" ("so still and subdued and yet somehow preluding was all the scene...", "In this foreshadowing interval...").
Characteristic stylistic elements of another kind are the echoes and overtones. Responsible for this are both Melville's imitation of certain distinct styles and his habitual use of sources to shape his own work. His three most important sources, in order, are the Bible, Shakespeare, and Milton.
The elaborate use of the Homeric simile may not have been learned from Homer himself, yet Matthiessen finds the writing "more consistently alive" on the Homeric than on the Shakespearean level. Especially during the final chase the "controlled accumulation" of such similes emphasizes Ahab's hubris through a succession of land-images, for instance: "The ship tore on; leaving such a furrow in the sea as when a cannon-ball, missent, becomes a ploughshare and turns up the level field" ("The Chase - Second Day," Ch. 134). One paragraph-long simile describes how the thirty men of the crew became a single unit:
For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things--oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp--yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man's valor, that man's fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed to that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to. ("The Chase - Second Day," Ch. 134).
The final phrase fuses the two halves of the comparison, the men become identical with the ship, which follows Ahab's direction. The concentration only gives way to more imagery, with the "mastheads, like the tops of tall palms, were outspreadingly tufted with arms and legs." All these images contribute their "startling energy" to the advance of the narrative. When the boats are lowered, the imagery serves to dwarf everything but Ahab's will in the presence of Moby Dick. These similes, with their astonishing "imaginative abundance," are not only invaluable in creating the dramatic movement, Matthiessen observes: "They are no less notable for breadth; and the more sustained among them, for an heroic dignity."
Assimilation of Shakespeare
The language of Shakespeare went "far beyond all other influences" upon the book, in that it made Melville discover his own full strength "through the challenge of the most abundant imagination in history." Especially the influence of King Lear and Macbeth has attracted scholarly attention. On almost every page debts to Shakespeare can be discovered, whether hard or easy to recognize. The "mere sounds, full of Leviathanism, but signifying nothing" at the end of "Cetology" (Ch.32) echoes the famous phrase in Macbeth: "Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing." Ahab's first extended speech to the crew, in the "Quarter-Deck" (Ch.36), is "virtually blank verse, and can be printed as such":
But look ye, Starbuck, what is said in heat,
That thing unsays itself. There are men From whom warm words are small indignity. I mean not to incense thee. Let it go. Look! see yonder Turkish cheeks of spotted tawn-- Living, breathing pictures painted by the sun. The pagan leopards--the unrecking and Unworshipping things, that live; and seek and giveNo reason for the torrid life they feel!
Most importantly, through Shakespeare Melville infused Moby-Dick with a power of expression he had not previously possessed. Reading Shakespeare had been "a catalytic agent" for Melville, one that transformed his writing "from limited reporting to the expression of profound natural forces." The extent to which Melville was in full possession of his powers can be demonstrated through the description of Ahab, which ends in language "that suggests Shakespeare's but is not an imitation of it: 'Oh, Ahab! what shall be grand in thee, it must needs be plucked from the skies and dived for in the deep, and featured in the unbodied air!' The imaginative richness of the final phrase seems particularly Shakespearean, "but its two key words appear only once each in the plays...and to neither of these usages is Melville indebted for his fresh combination." Melville's assimilation of Shakespeare gave Moby-Dick "a kind of diction that depended upon no source", and that could convey something "almost superhuman or inhuman, bigger than life." The prose is not based on anybody else's verse but on "a sense of speech rhythm."
In addition to this sense of rhythm, Melville acquired verbal resources which show that he "now mastered Shakespeare's mature secret of how to make language itself dramatic." He had learned three essential things:
- To rely on verbs of action, "which lend their dynamic pressure to both movement and meaning." The effective tension caused by the contrast of "thou launchest navies of full-freighted worlds" and "there's that in here that still remains indifferent" in "The Candles" (Ch. 119) makes the last clause lead to a "compulsion to strike the breast" , which suggests "how thoroughly the drama has come to inhere in the words;"
- The Shakespearean energy of verbal compounds was not lost on him ("full-freighted");
- And, finally, Melville learned how to handle "the quickened sense of life that comes from making one part of speech act as another - for example, 'earthquake' as an adjective, or the coining of 'placeless,' an adjective from a noun."