As men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones

From Shakespeare’s Pericles (2.1)

Third Fisherman
…Master, I
marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
First Fisherman
Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the
little ones: I can compare our rich misers to
nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and
tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at
last devours them all at a mouthful: such whales
have I heard on o’ the land, who never leave gaping
till they’ve swallowed the whole parish, church,
steeple, bells, and all.
PERICLES
[Aside] A pretty moral.
Third Fisherman
But, master, if I had been the sexton, I would have
been that day in the belfry.
Second Fisherman
Why, man?
Third Fisherman
Because he should have swallowed me too: and when I
had been in his belly, I would have kept such a
jangling of the bells, that he should never have
left, till he cast bells, steeple, church, and
parish up again.

The new Arden includes a lengthy footnote on the history of the proverb in 28-29 (‘as men do a-land: the great ones eat up the little ones.’) but I’m more interested for the moment in connecting Melville’s reuse of the theme – only reapplied to sharks as better – because more blindly vicious – stand-ins for man. Here is Fleece’s sermon to the sharks (ch. 64).

Sullenly taking the offered lantern, old Fleece limped across the deck to the bulwarks; and then, with one hand dropping his light low over the sea, so as to get a good view of his congregation, with the other hand he solemnly flourished his tongs, and leaning far over the side in a mumbling voice began addressing the sharks, while Stubb, softly crawling behind, overheard all that was said.

“Fellow-critters: I’se ordered here to say dat you must stop dat dam noise dare. You hear? Stop dat dam smackin’ ob de lip! Massa Stubb say dat you can fill your dam bellies up to de hatchings, but by Gor! you must stop dat dam racket!”

“Cook,” here interposed Stubb, accompanying the word with a sudden slap on the shoulder,—“Cook! why, damn your eyes, you mustn’t swear that way when you’re preaching. That’s no way to convert sinners, cook!”

“Who dat? Den preach to him yourself,” sullenly turning to go.

“No, cook; go on, go on.”

“Well, den, Belubed fellow-critters:”—

“Right!” exclaimed Stubb, approvingly, “coax ’em to it; try that,” and Fleece continued.

“Do you is all sharks, and by natur wery woracious, yet I zay to you, fellow-critters, dat dat woraciousness—’top dat dam slappin’ ob de tail! How you tink to hear, spose you keep up such a dam slappin’ and bitin’ dare?”

“Cook,” cried Stubb, collaring him, “I won’t have that swearing. Talk to ’em gentlemanly.”

Once more the sermon proceeded.

“Your woraciousness, fellow-critters, I don’t blame ye so much for; dat is natur, and can’t be helped; but to gobern dat wicked natur, dat is de pint. You is sharks, sartin; but if you gobern de shark in you, why den you be angel; for all angel is not’ing more dan de shark well goberned. Now, look here, bred’ren, just try wonst to be cibil, a helping yourselbs from dat whale. Don’t be tearin’ de blubber out your neighbour’s mout, I say. Is not one shark dood right as toder to dat whale? And, by Gor, none on you has de right to dat whale; dat whale belong to some one else. I know some o’ you has berry brig mout, brigger dan oders; but den de brig mouts sometimes has de small bellies; so dat de brigness of de mout is not to swaller wid, but to bit off de blubber for de small fry ob sharks, dat can’t get into de scrouge to help demselves.”

“Well done, old Fleece!” cried Stubb, “that’s Christianity; go on.”

“No use goin’ on; de dam willains will keep a scougin’ and slappin’ each oder, Massa Stubb; dey don’t hear one word; no use a-preachin’ to such dam g’uttons as you call ’em, till dare bellies is full, and dare bellies is bottomless; and when dey do get ’em full, dey wont hear you den; for den dey sink in de sea, go fast to sleep on de coral, and can’t hear not’ing at all, no more, for eber and eber.”

“Upon my soul, I am about of the same opinion; so give the benediction, Fleece, and I’ll away to my supper.”

Upon this, Fleece, holding both hands over the fishy mob, raised his shrill voice, and cried—

“Cussed fellow-critters! Kick up de damndest row as ever you can; fill your dam’ bellies ’till dey bust—and den die.”

[Stubb abuses and bullies Fleece at some length about his cooking skill]

“Cook, give me cutlets for supper to-morrow night in the mid-watch. D’ye hear? away you sail, then.—Halloa! stop! make a bow before you go.—Avast heaving again! Whale-balls for breakfast—don’t forget.”

“Wish, by gor! whale eat him, ’stead of him eat whale. I’m bressed if he ain’t more of shark dan Massa Shark hisself,” muttered the old man, limping away; with which sage ejaculation he went to his hammock.

[Parenthetically – I’ve found in teaching that the mocking presentation of Fleece’s dialect is understandably tough to look past. I think it helps to set it alongside Melville’s style in, for example, describing Queequeg as ‘George Washington cannibalistically developed.’ He seeds shock within cultural convention – so here giving Fleece a stereotyped dialect but having him then express the best understanding of human nature of anyone in the novel. So too his parting remark, approved by the narrator, that is an open condemnation of the entire system he lives under.]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s