Text: Jack Scherting, “The Bottle and the Coffin: Further Speculation on Poe and Moby-Dick,” Poe Newsletter­, October 1968, vol. I, no. 2, 1:22


[page 22, column 1:]

The Bottle and the Coffin:
Further Speculation on Poe and Moby-Dick

Washington State University

Two well-known works of American fiction fit the following description. Composed in the 19th century each is an account of an observant, first-person narrator who, prompted by a nervous restlessness, went to sea only to find himself aboard an ill-fated ship. The ship, manned by a strange crew and under the command of a strange, awesome captain, is destroyed in an improbable catastrophe; and were it not for the fortuitous recovery of a floating vessel and its freight, the narrative of the disastrous voyage would never have reached the public. The two works are, of course, Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) and Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” (1833), and the correspondences are in some respects so close as to suggest a causal rather than a coincidental relationship between the two tales.

Moby-Dick is largely a product of Melville’s creatively rendered experiences and reading, and a number of scholars have identified a wide variety of sources which influenced the composition of the work; no one, however, has pointed out the curious parallels between Poe’s story and Melville’s novel. Evidence that Melville was familiar with Poe’s work after the publication of Moby-Dick is conclusive: He presented his wife with The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe, inscribed by Melville “To My Wife New Year’s Day — 1861” (1). Long before this date, Melville must have encountered Poe’s tale, since he was very much interested in accounts of life at sea and since both authors were associated with Evert Duyckinck, from whom Melville borrowed numerous books. Indeed, Patrick F. Quinn and John J. McAleer have explored parallels between Moby-Dick and other works by Poe (2). Quinn analyzes the correspondences between The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and Moby-Dick as support for his contention that “if Melville did not long and seriously study the essential drift of [Pym ], then the similarities that exist between that book and Moby-Dick must be accounted one of the most extraordinary accidents in literature” [p. 585]. McAleer speculates that the idea for objectifying Ahab’s flawed character may have been suggested to Melville by the “evocative force” of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” for in both Ahab and the house of Usher, the appearance of fundamental soundness is visibly flawed — by Ahab’s livid scar, and by the fissure in the masonry of Usher.

To these observations, I should like to add that trace elements from the “MS. Found in a Bottle” appear in Moby-Dick. There is, for example, a resemblance in both tone and substance between the motives which Poe and Melville’s narrators cite as prompting them to go to sea. Poe’s unnamed narrator explains, “I went as a passenger — having no other inducement than a kind of nervous restlessness which haunted me as a fiend” (3). In a similar vein, Ishmael says: “. . . having little money in my purse and nothing in particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation” (4). [column 2:]

The two sea tales also have thematic parallels. “It is evident,” Poe’s narrator records, “that we are hurrying onwards to some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction” [p. 14]. Compare this with Ishmael’s observation: “Uppermost was the impression, that whatever swift, rushing thing I stood on was not so much bound to any haven ahead as rushing from all havens astern” [XCIV, 418]. The “never-to-be-imparted secret” in Poe’s story calls to mind Ishmael’s comments on the “ungraspable phantom of life” and the drowning of Narcissus.

It is also of interest to note that both stories terminate with descriptions of whirlpools and that both authors make an effort to “preserve” their tales by having them conveyed back to the world of people by two pieces of flotsam — the bottle bearing the narrative, and the coffin bearing the narrator.

Most significant, however, is the remarkable similarity of the enigmatic captains in the two tales. Both are described as older, grey-haired men, and it is suggested that both are agents of some higher authority. Poe’s narrator writes that his captain “pored, with a fiery unquiet eye, over a paper which I took to be a commission, and which, at all events, bore the signature of a monarch” [p. 13]. And to Ahab’s tormented mind, his true commission was not the one issued by the Pequod’s owners in Nantucket: “I am the Fates ’ lieutenant,” he tells Starbuck, “I act under orders” [CXXXIV, 554].

Although the correspondences so far cited might conceivably be coincidental, the nearly identical choice of words in the following quotations [italics mine] is more difficult to attribute to mere coincidence: in Poe’s story, the captain is described as having a “well-knit and compact frame of body, neither robust nor remarkably otherwise” [p. 12]; and Ishmael describes Ahab’s limbs as those of a man who had been rescued from the stake before the fire had taken “one particle from their compacted aged robustness “ [XXVIII, 120].

The words compact and robust are not particularly unusual ones, but the odds are astronomically high against the chance that two American authors, working independently, would happen to hit upon virtually identical words and to use them in identically the same order for the purpose of describing ships ’ captains in sea stories having a number of other curious correspondences. All things considered, it is likely that Melville had read Poe’s tale, that traces of it stuck in his mind, and that, during the creative process, these elements were transformed and incorporated into Moby-Dick.



(1)  Merton Sealts, “Melville’s Reading: A Checklist of Books Owned and Borrowed,” Harvard Library Bulletin, III (Autumn 1949), 418.

(2)  Patrick F. Quinn, “Poe’s Imaginary Voyage,” Hudson Review, IV (Winter 1952), 562-585; John J. McAleer, “Poe and Gothic Elements in Moby-Dick,” Emerson Society Quarterly, No. 27 (II Quarter 1962), p. 34.

(3)  The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York, 1965), II, 2.

(4)  Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, or The Whale, ed. Luther S. Mansfield and Howard P. Vincent (New York: Hendricks House, 1952), p. 1.


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[S:1 - PSDR, 1968]