Having given up his dream of making a living as novelist, by 1888 Herman Melville was working as customs inspector and writing poetry for himself and friends. That year put together a collection of verse titled John Marr and Other Sailors and paid for a limited edition printing of 25 copies to be distributed to friends and family. Since the collection was not intended for or expected to be placed into circulation among the general public, Melville did not even include his name as author on the title page. As the title hints, the one common thread uniting all the poems were that they dealt with subjects dealing in some way with the sea. One of the poems was titled “Billy in the Darbies” and it would over time evolve out of the pages of poetry into the last novel Melville would complete, but which would not be published until decades after his death under the title Billy Budd, Sailor.
Like most of Melville’s other work, the poetry contained within would need to be aged and contained for an audience capable of appreciating its artistry. A man well ahead of his time, it would not be deep into the 20th century that “The Maldive Shark” would join the “The Berg” as the selections deemed most worthy of anthologizing and study.
“The Maldive Shark” is comprised of sixteen lines that create symbolic meaning out a species of shark found off the coast of the Maldives Island in the Indian Ocean inside the mouth of which a smaller pilot-fish find refuge from predators, thus symbiotically alerting the larger, less intellectually gift fish of the presence of food. The titular fish is only directly addressed on its own in the first two and final two lines of the poem; the dozen lines inside the four lines addressing the shark are devoted to the pilot-fish and his manner of hiding inside what should be the most dangerous place in the vicinity in order to keep from being eaten.
The description of shark is notable not only for the inscription upon its character of being so dim as to require the pilot-fish to become eyes and brains, but also for its coloring. The whiteness of the “The Maldive Shark” will almost certainly bring to mind a much larger creature in the sea about whom Melville expended far more words.