Monday, May 26, 2008

Herman Melville Hates Penguins

It's no secret that everyone loves penguins these days: they're small and endearing, they protect their young, they were in that one movie, and then they were in that other one animated movie, etc. In the BBC's magnum opus of a nature series, "Planet Earth," which I just started watching on DVD, the first episode wastes no time at all in cutting directly to penguin footage, presumably to hook people in because they love penguins. (Right after the penguins: adorable baby polar bear footage. After that they stop pandering quite so much.) So yes, everyone loves penguins. But not Herman Melville:
What outlandish beings are these? Erect as men, but hardly as symmetrical, they stand all round the rock like sculpted caryatides, supporting the next range of eaves above. Their bodies are grotesquely misshapen; their bills short; their feet seemingly legless; while the members at their sides are neither fin, wing, nor arm. And truly neither fish, flesh, nor fowl is the penguin; as an edible, pertaining neither to Carnival nor Lent; without exception the most ambiguous and least lovely creature yet discovered by man. Though dabbling in all three elements, and indeed possessing some rudimental claims to all, the penguin is at home in none. On land it stumps; afloat it sculls; in the air it flops. As if ashamed of her failure, Nature keeps this ungainly child hidden away at the ends of the earth, in the Straits of Magellan, and on the abased sea-story of Rodondo.
That's from Melville's 1854 sketch of the Galapagos, "The Encantadas or Enchanted Isles." This is now my favorite Melville passage about zoology, surpassing the chapter in Moby Dick where he notes that the people who classify whales as mammals are wrong. I mean, taking penguins down a notch in high-flown 19th-century prose style? That's great.


Blogger Pete said...

Speaking of taking Penguins down a notch, the Pittsburgh Pens have rapidly found themselves down two games to the Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup plapyoffs. Too bad.

5/27/2008 3:33 AM  

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