Yet, it is also a painstakingly real chapter, filled with details about the wood and the ropes. Melville described himself as a "romancer" but also said he would "write it real". How real is this particular fanciful set of images?
I have spent no real time in New Bedford, and little more in Nantucket, but I do spend a lot of my time in another Massachusetts seaport town, Gloucester, where indeed I was married in just as fanciful a place. Our Lady of Good Voyage church was built about the turn of the century by the Portuguese fishing community of Gloucester, who made the church very much their own. The name "Our Lady of Good Voyage" is from one of the avatars of the Madonna, and a statute of this avatar sits atop the building in the front, cradling her baby and a ship and welcoming you to her protection as you enter. It is a powerful image that comforts many a sailor; TS Eliot, a some-time resident of Gloucester, invoked the Lady in the Four Quartets (canto 4 of the third quartet, "Dry Salvages":
Lady, whose shrine stands on the promontory,
Pray for all those who are in ships, those
Whose business has to do with fish, and
Those concerned with every lawful traffic
And those who conduct them.
Repeat a prayer also on behalf of
Women who have seen their sons or husbands
Setting forth, and not returning:
Figlia del tuo figlio,
Queen of Heaven.
Also pray for those who were in ships, and
Ended their voyage on the sand, in the sea's lips
Or in the dark throat which will not reject them
Or wherever cannot reach them the sound of the sea bell's
It is not a whaling church, and one does not enter the whale there, but it is a place where one comes aboard on a Sunday morning, and every part of the church echos its role as a Sunday port. Each station of the cross bears an image of a boat that has gone down, and models of lost boats adorn the walls (forgive the resolution!):
What would Melville have made of such a place? How would he have written our wedding there? Or the blessing of the fleet by the Archbishop that occurs there annually?
Melville writes of a fanciful, romantic world, but he does indeed write it real. Sometimes, when we look around, there is more there than we first may credit, whether left there by human hand or the divine.