Critical and biographical information on Henry Reed, World War II British poet, critic, translator, and radio dramatist — author of "Naming of Parts"
Henry Reed, poet and radio dramatist
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Reed, Henry. Preface to Moby Dick: A Play for Radio from Herman Melville's Novel. London: Jonathan Cape, 1947. 5-11.


Moby Dick Herman Melville's Moby Dick first appeared in 1851. It is in no way an immature work, though Melville was little over thirty when he wrote it. His unimaginable crowded years of experience in trading vessel, whaler and man-of -war were already behind him; already he had written five other books, including Typee, Omoo and Redburn. Moby Dick is not a book one would offer to a young novelist as a model; though to most of its admirers it is a book more returnable to than any other. It has a Shakespearean capacity, which Melville's other books wholly lack, for standing in one's life as a major experience. It is true that a modern reader, particularly an English one, may find some of the prose of Moby Dick over-romantic; there is also in Melville at times a certain arch heartiness, and at others a certain sentimentality, which temporarily diminish his grandeur. I have known readers who on this account could not get on with him at all. But in most of these faults he is merely of his age. I suppose that the opening chapters of Moby Dick contain a dangerous amount of facetiousness. One fidgets when Melville talks about this 'hypos', or when he says things like: '"Landlord," said I, going up to him as cool as Mount Hecla in a snow storm.' But it is the rest of Melville that matters: the Melville who begins his book with the words "Call me Ishmael"; who speaks of the times 'whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul'; who recalls to us Narcissus and 'the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain'. And there will be readers who, deterred by some streaks in Melville's prose, will always be compelled by his poetry to forgive him altogether for what at their worst are merely the exuberant manners of a different age.

At first sight Moby Dick is what Henry James would call a 'baggy' book. Into the bag a prodigious number of awkward


things have been packed. Then eventually one sees that packed, and not flung, is the word. None of the contents could safely be labelled 'not wanted on the voyage'. Everything at last fits in. At a first reading it is undoubtedly the great story of the insulted demoniac Ahab pursuing his vengeance that takes our imagination. We are a little anxious for the various preludes to be over so that the plot may begin; and perhaps we are inclined to skip the many technical chapters about whaling, and whaling history, and the history of whales, which are disposed about the book. But once the great drama is known to us, it is these curious details that often recall our attention. They are seen to be not digressions but parts of an ambitious and comprehensive picture. Melville has chosen a subject, and has decided to omit nothing relevant to it. He is creating one particular world in all its completeness. If he succeeds, that world may stand as a microcosm of life itself. In some of these devices, as is often pointed out, he recalls Sterne and Rabelais. But in the same devices — the potted encyclopedia, the sermon, the dialogues in play-form — he may remind a present-day reader even more of James Joyce. And in his dominant wish to describe a small world and make it stand for a large one, he resembles Joyce more than anyone else.

There is, of course, another purpose served by the technical chapters. The climax of the book, the three days chase of Moby Dick himself, is all the time being monumentally prepared for. Melville sees to it that by the time Moby Dick is first sighted we shall really know what a whale is like, how he is hunted, every weapon of the complex chase that is brought to use, and what will be done with the whale after the kill. We have been, in detail, round and over and into every part of the whale's body (how astonishing to 1851 must the only mildly elliptical chapter called "the Cassock' have been!). We have already met with, killed, divided and dined off several normal whales; we may therefore better judge the beauty and terror of the white whale himself.


I have mentioned these things because I am conscious that a dramatic adaptation — in whatever medium — has largely to omit them. It is upon the book's symbolism and tragedy alone that an adaptor must concentrate, and an adaptation would be pointless if it did not attempt to arrange the original materials in such a way as to stress and to point the central drama. In England Moby Dick is a book more often talked about than read, but most people who do talk about it know that it is more than a whale that Ahab is pursuing. Some of them will tell you that Moby Dick himself is a presentation of evil. But if that is so, why should so much disapproval be attached to Ahab's attempt to exterminate him? We are sure, even while we are admiring Ahab, that his chase is a wicked one. Moby Dick is a symbolic and not an allegorical story, and therefore in paraphrasing it in terms of moral or religious problems we can, at most, cloud what in the original is not clouded. But a critic of Melville has to put his cards on the table and say what he thinks the book is about; and I think that Moby Dick and the element in which he lives are little less than the face and the unquestionable judgment of God; I think, moreover, that this is what Melville consciously meant them to suggest, though to work out a rigid parallelism would have been false to what Melville thought about the 'ambiguities' of existence. Things slide and change, 'will not stay in place'. At times it seems that Melville is saying that the face of God has sometimes an expression which to us appears evil; it is clear that His judgments have a frequent brutality. But Melville's own cry which rises above the agonized shouts of Ahab, the tumult of the sea, and the threshing of the whale, is that it is not man's part in life to strike out, or to rebel against God's judgment. Ahab is the arch-rebel; and that is fatality and tragedy. This is, in fact, the theme of Mapple's sermon, which for some time (indeed till after we have finished the book) appears to be the kind of dramatic overture which sets an opera's mood but contains none of its themes. Later we can see more clearly that the lesson Mapple


draws from the tale of Jonah is the lesson Melville draws from Ahab's 'fiery hunt': rebellion is damnation, acceptance is beatitude.

Eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath — O Father! — chiefly known to me by Thy rod — mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world's, or mine own. Yet this is nothing; I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?

Ahab will be only is own, the crew will be only his, the world's. And the white whale, whose whiteness is at once beauty and terror, engulfs them all save Ishmael. And Ishmael is saved less because of his own spiritual intuitions than because someone must survive to tell the story. His proper place, too, is in the depths of the sea, for he too has been one of the crew:

My shouts had gone up with the rest; my oath had been welded with theirs; and stronger I shouted, and more did I hammer and clinch my oath, because of the dread in my soul. A wild, mystical, sympathetic feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine.

'Quenchless feud...': that phrase is to appear more than once in Melville's writings.

The destruction of Ishmael with the rest of the crew is the only deliberate falsification I have permitted myself in this radio version; the listener and the reader will perhaps detect others of which I am unaware. I know that there is a danger in all interpretations of great literature, and that while we are in the midst of a story, problems of interpretation and meaning rarely trouble us; so that in my adaptation I have tried, so far as possible, to let Melville speak for himself, and to leave the listener himself to judge of his 'meaning'. It may be added here, perhaps, that the initial excuse for adapting the book for the radio


was that it would simply be an exciting thing to do. It would be good to hear that magnificent language spoken aloud. It offered interesting scopes for an alliance with music. And since the book itself is hard as granite, no adaptor could ruin for long the memory of the original.

In accepting, as one must, the grave limitations of radio as a means of dramatic expression, I have tried to resist the temptation to give in to them unduly. There were duties to be observed towards Melville, toward his reader, and towards those who might become his readers. But the process of adaptation became far more than a matter of selecting the most exciting and dramatic scenes and threading them together. In fact if one did this, there would result merely a series of roaring climaxes; these are brilliant and effective in the book itself, at a distance of fifty or more pages from each other; but compressed into two hours they would make a tumult of nonsense. Some things which are particularly good in the original I have had ruthlessly to cut: the listener here gets only a hint of the touching friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg, and nothing at all of the poetic feeling which invests the short memorable chapter about Bulkington; and these are but a little of what has gone. Again, some things I have had, for dramatic reasons, to develop. I wanted more of Pip, for example, in the earlier part of the story than Melville gives us, because a treble voice is a great help in a wholly male cast. Ishmael, who has so much of Melville himself in him, but who disappears from the book's action for long periods, I have kept more or less continually in sight in this version, because in him can be invested a good deal of the book's tragic melancholy. At times I have made Ishmael and Mapple stand apart from the main narrative as commentators. I needed such commentators to indicate time and place (among their other functions) and they seemed the obvious choice. The Manxman has also become more of a talker than Melville makes him; I wanted at times to make him a listener's eye, and I picked him because there is a


hint of his supernatural knowledge in an early chapter of the book. I have, rather arbitrarily, ignored the fact that he briefly appears in a slightly unfavourable light later on. Ahab's long speeches — and so also Starbuck's — I have juggled with, cut, written passages into, and so on, according to what seemed to be the necessities of the drama. One thing (from the radio's point of view the biggest problem offered by the book) I did not feel at liberty to be very drastic about: the final chase when Moby Dick himself is sighted. There is a great three days' pursuit, and the three lowerings are in Melville in no way repetitive. They are devised by him with brilliant cunning; and they fulfil the plot and the prophecies with amazing acute 'timing'. It would seriously violate Melville to reduce them to a single episode or even a double one. But it was impossible to leave them as they stood; the ear, unaided by the eye, would not put up with it. So to give the ear a rest (if it can be called a rest) I have put the second day of the chase in the form of a verse intermezzo spoken by the spectator Ishmael. I have, as I have said, not left Ishmael alive at the end. I cannot make up my mind whether there is much more point in his survival than that he must be left to tell the tale. Melville puts into his mouth an epilogue with a beautiful last sentence; it was there to be used if I wished. But those lines, which are not an anticlimax in the book, run the risk of being so on the air; this is a risk I did not dare to run. I feel that the incidents of Queequeg's coffin in the book itself, and the use of it to replace the ruined lifebuoy, are largely contrived, for all their charm, as a means of saving Ishmael; I do not see how else he, and no others, could have been saved. (and it is of course quite easy to work out a symbolic 'point' from the fact that it is indirectly Queequeg who saves Ishmael.) The difficulty of squeezing in the coffin-story and not confusing it with the prophecies about the hearses may be imagined. So, at the risk of appearing to try and tidy up Stonehenge, I have omitted, together with much else, Queequeg's coffin and all reference to his illness.


The narrative passages, and certain others, I have written in verse; my principal object in this being self-indulgence. I have usually written in lines which have a blank verse norm at the back of them; any shorter line than this, unless so regular as to limit dramatic flexibility, comes over the air either as prose, or as a series of hiccups. Of these two effects the former is preferable. I have in fact never heard any attempt to deliver irregular short lines in any other way than prose; but I wished here to avoid the risk of either.

This version of Moby Dick was designed to be used with music. In devising the script I knew that there were moments when I should have to shelter guiltily behind a composer. I did not anticipate that Mr. Anthony Hopkins, with his beautiful and ingenious musical score, would so brilliantly and generously make my inadequacies seem like careful contrivances. My most earnest thanks are due to him. My thanks are also due to Mr. Stephen Potter for his patience with me, and for his bold and imaginative production of the play. I am very grateful also to Mrs. Bee Samuel for her technical direction of a programme that bristled with difficulties; and to Mrs. Betty Johnstone for much help during the many months of preparation for the broadcast. Lastly, my especial thanks are due to Mr. Edward Sackville-West, without whose gentle reminders and thoughtful proddings and invaluable suggestions it is doubtful if the play would ever have existed at all. I have dedicated this published version affectionately and gratefully to him.

H. R.
Marnhull, Dorset



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