“The Maldive Shark” certainly has some problems with science. The portrait of the lumbering, dull-witted shark is one prevalent during the 19th century and its almost sickly whiteness seems to almost be an attempt by Melville to make some kind of commentary on what would become—though he could not have predicted it at the time—his most famous literary creation: Moby-Dick. Maybe the white shark was his way of taking out his frustrations on the white whale was seeming to prove to be his albatross. At any rate, the science is even more sketchy on the poem’s assertion that the pilot-fish acts as the eyes and brain of the shark, leading it where the food is. The implication is that the shark is just not quite bright enough and that implication is just plain bad science.
Which makes it a good thing that “The Maldive Shark” is not a textbook, but a poem. Although the poem may seem to exist for the purpose of providing background to one of those idiosyncratic little bits of weirdness that make the animal world so endlessly fascinating, the poem is not really about either the titular shark or the actual central character that spends part of its life inside the shark’s mouth. The poem is about symbiosis and connection and complicity between partners. It is about the layers of being that make up the world and how we spend our lives never noticing these connections and the circularity of these layers.
To take one particularly convenient yet nevertheless perfect example: how many people who’ve read “The Maldive Shark” since it was published in 1888 never noticed that the first two lines and last two lines of the poem are about the shark and every line in-between is about the pilot-fish when he takes sanctuary inside the mouth of the shark. Some very fine poets excel in which it is known as “shape poetry.” That is, poems in which the lines and words are arranged to form a shape, usually—hopefully—a shape that is associated with the poem.
Had Melville been one of these poets, he might have written this verse in a way in which the lines about the shark alone formed the outline of the bigger fish while the lines about the pilot-fish finding safety inside the shark’s mouth were written inside the outline of the shark. But that would be gimmicky and Melville didn’t need gimmicks. The very fact that it is more than possible to read, enjoy and “get” the meaning of the poem without ever for a moment realizing that the form of the poem mirrors its function speaks volumes about Melville’s subtle talent and lack of need for gimmickry. To have created such a design for an example of shape poetry would have directed attention to the shark and the pilot-fish. The content is less the point of the poem than the form. The shark and the pilot-fish are almost beside the point; they are a conveniently factual example of a symbiotic relationship with which a sailor like Melville would have been familiar.
In fact, it is very likely that Melville would have been familiar enough to know that the relationship was not one in which the pilot-fish acted as the eyes and brain of the shark If the point of the poem is about the layers of connectivity between beings and the complicity of one in the violence of the other, then the real question is very much worth examining: if Melville wasn’t actually talking about two fish in the ocean, what was he trying to say?