Have you ever met anyone who so captivated you that you could declare them the “most impressive person you’d ever encountered”? Herman Melville, author of the great American novel Moby Dick, described such an encounter in the diary entry excerpted below.
A major source of inspiration for Moby Dick was the little-known story of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex that was attacked by a huge sperm whale. A year after the book’s 1851 publication Melville would finally visit Nantucket and get to meet the man who captained The Essex, Captain George Pollard Jr. The encounter clearly left an indelible mark on the author:
“I—sometime about 1850-3—saw Capt. Pollard on the island of Nantucket, and exchanged some words with him. To the islanders he was a nobody—to me, the most [not pictured:] impressive man, tho’ wholly unassuming, even humble—that I ever encountered.]”
At this time in 1852 thirty-two years had passed since the Essex was attacked by the sperm whale and Pollard was now a nightwatchman in Nantucket (Pollard captained a second whaling ship soon after the Essex that also ended in disaster. Marked a “Johah”–unlucky at sea–no owner would ever trust him to captain a whaling ship again.) The man had a nobility and humility that captivated Melville.
But probably the best summation of Melville’s thoughts about Pollard can be found in the following passage from his 1876 poem Clarel, which describes a “meek and reconciled” night patrolman:
A Jonah is he? – And men bruit
The story. None will give him place
In a third venture. Came the day
Dire need constrained the man to pace
A night patrolman on the quay
Watching the bales till morning hour
Through fair and foul. Never he smiled;
Call him, and he would come; not sour
In spirit, but meek and reconciled:
Patient he was, he none withstood;
Oft on some secret thing would brood;
He ate what came, though but a crust;
In Calvin’s creed he put his trust;
Praised heaven, and said that God was good,
And his calamity but just.
So Sylvio Pellico from cell-door
Forth tottering, after dungeoned years,
Crippled and bleached, and dead his peers:
“Grateful, I thank the Emperor.”