The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Space, Matter, Good Will, & the Whale

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the great 1949 lecture Poetry and Space, by Eli Siegel. It is an opulent, surprising, living illustration of the principle on which Aesthetic Realism is based: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Space and its opposite, matter, are aspects of the physical universe. And they also represent desires of our own. They have to do with our own confusions, hopes, happiness, mistakes. Space and matter are related to other opposites that are always part of us, opposites that need to join well in us and so often do not: for example, lightness and heaviness, emptiness and fullness, mind and body.

Earlier in the lecture Mr. Siegel gave this definition of space: “reality thought of as not having any weight at all.” And he continued, “Anything seen as permitting motion without any interference at all could be seen as space.”

In the present section, Mr. Siegel speaks about a poem of pre-revolutionary America. Its author, John Osborn (1713-53), is as unknown today as Mr. Siegel describes him as being in 1949. That is so even though the early anthology from which Mr. Siegel reads about him can now be found online—in that recent aspect of space, cyberspace. I respect and love the way Mr. Siegel speaks of Osborn. Using the little information had about him, Mr. Siegel sees him deeply and so kindly, with beautiful comprehension. Osborn, there in Cape Cod and on the Atlantic Ocean of long ago, is real, his tumult and hopes understood. And Mr. Siegel describes both the meaning and the poetic value of a poem that otherwise would be lost in time.

That poem is “A Whaling Song.” In this lecture Mr. Siegel is not looking at it in terms of economics and industry (whaling was a major industry). Yet today, because of what is happening in our present world, I think it right to comment a little on the trade referred to in the poem. What Eli Siegel made clear in his Goodbye Profit System talks of the 1970s not only explains our economy today—it also enables us to see something important about that activity which had so much meaning and also cruelty with it: whaling.

“Ethics Is a Force”

Mr. Siegel showed that history has now reached a point at which an economy will succeed only if it is based on good will: the honest answering of the question “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Economics these centuries has been based principally on ill will: it’s been based on the idea that the world and one’s fellow humans should be seen in terms—not of justice—but of how much personal profit one can extract from them. This motive, the profit motive, is the impetus behind profit economics. And yet in our time, Mr. Siegel explained, “the conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient.” The reason is that “ethics is a force” working in history. He described hundreds of instances of the force of ethics, from laws against child labor, to laws mandating a minimum wage, to workplace regulations so that people not contract industrial diseases or be maimed by machinery. I’m speaking about this tremendous matter now because an aspect of ethics as force is: there has come to be more of a feeling that the living creatures who share the earth with us should be protected; that they should be seen justly; that there is such a thing as what an animal deserves.

For centuries, the hunting of whales had its necessity, or something like necessity. The whale, with its mighty body, provided so much. For certain peoples—for example, the Inuit—it provided a food on which their very lives depended. For them and others, oil from the whale’s body provided light when burned in lamps. In time, people found that oil from the whale could lubricate machines and be used in the making of soaps, paint, varnish, even some textiles. From a particular oil, spermaceti, one could make candles of fine quality. “Whalebone,” or baleen, from the grand creature’s mouth, was amazingly strong and flexible, and could be used for some of the things now made of plastic. Some persons, even as they hunted the whale, saw it as a deep friend because it gave one so much. And various indigenous people considered the whale, whose body they used, to be not only friendly but sacred.

Meanwhile, for most of the earth’s people the killing of those great mysterious creatures is no longer a necessity: items obtained from whales can be gotten in other ways. There came to be an intense feeling in men and women of many nations that whales must not be slaughtered, and agonizingly slaughtered, in order for certain people to make big profits from their bodies. The whale population was being depleted; and besides, those flesh-and-blood majestic creatures should not be made to suffer so unnecessarily. The protests against the hunting of whales, and the ensuing international ban on commercial whaling, are an instance of ethics as a force.

Yet various entrepreneurs are evading those regulations and massacring whales every day in behalf of profit, because in some places there is a demand for whale meat as a high-priced luxury food. As in every field of economics, the fight is: the ever-growing insistence that reality and life be treated justly, with good will, versus the determination of various people to use anything they please for the personal aggrandizement of themselves and their friends.

Good Will: Substance & Meaning

Good will itself is always a oneness of opposites that are like matter and space: it is a oneness of substance and meaning, solidity and wonder. If we have good will we see a thing or person as real, existing as solidly and definitely as we ourselves do. And simultaneously, we see in him or her or it that intangible but immense thing which is meaning, which goes wide and has no end.

There is a poem about a whale in which this good will has become large music. It is a very early poem by Eli Siegel himself, written in 1922 and published in his book Hail, American Development. We reprint it, and sentences from the author’s note about it, after the present section of Poetry and Space.

In the nine lines of “The Whale” we hear, we feel, the largeness of that animal—and its motion. And we feel, even, its thought. In these beautiful lines with their statements-as-music, the ever so tangible fact is the same as tenderness and wonder.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Whales and Space

By Eli Siegel

The desire to take part in the feeling of space has been in America very much. I now deal with a writer who is very little known; in fact, only scholars have heard of him. He is an early American poet, and when one reads about his life one can see how unsettled he was.

In the Massachusetts of the early 18th century he was interested in going to sea, and apparently did. He had a try at being a minister, but wasn’t orthodox enough. Then he became a doctor, and it seems he wasn’t pleased with that. His name is John Osborn. What he was known for once is his “Whaling Song,” which it seems was popular with sailors for quite a few years and then became little known.

He was born in 1713 and died at the age of 40, in 1753. I am reading from nearly the first American anthology, Specimens of American Poetry, with Critical and Biographical Notices, edited by Samuel Kettell (Boston: S.B. Goodrich & Co., 1829—that is very early for America). I’ll read a few sentences about Osborn’s life from the notice by Kettell. Osborn’s father was pretty learned; he was a minister. Kettell says:

His [father’s] pupil, the poet, meanwhile, was busy one week with his Latin and Greek, and the next in the clam and cod fishery; revelling today among the treasures of classic lore...and digging tomorrow in a sand-bank for the shelly prey that was to be his sustenance during the ensuing winter. In his aquatic excursions, he imbibed those ideas which he has thrown into his celebrated whaling song,—once on the tongue of every Cape Cod sailor.

It seems he liked to stay home and read those Latin or Greek folios—and then, off to the sea.

At the age of nineteen, young Osborn entered Harvard College, where he was noticed as a lively and eccentric genius. When his collegiate term was expired...and while yet undecided what profession to select, [he] devoted a portion of his time to the study of divinity, though the levity of his disposition was such as to preclude all hopes of his prospering in a vocation that would require much gravity and self-denial.

Levity has to do with space, lightness. Gravity has weight. Osborn wasn’t grave.

He submitted himself to the examination of the neighboring clergy, assembled in solemn conclave, [who]...ventured to surmise that his sentiments...were not exactly orthodox....Thus debarred from the pulpit, he...began a course of reading on medicine and surgery....He married a Miss Doane of Chatham, and removed to Middletown, Connecticut, where he commenced practice as a physician.

But he was discontented. He sure didn’t stay put, and apparently wanted to go out into the wide waters and into space.

Matter & Space at Sea

I’ll read some stanzas from “A Whaling Song,” which likely was first written in the 1730s. It is good poetry, and is one of the two poems Osborn wrote—that seems to be all his poetry, so you can read his works very quickly if you are so minded. “A Whaling Song” begins:

When spring returns with western gales,

And gentle breezes sweep

The ruffling seas, we spread our sails

To plough the wat’ry deep.

For killing northern whales prepared,

Our nimble boats on board,

With craft and rum (our chief regard)

And good provisions stored,

Cape Cod, our dearest, native land,

We leave astern, and lose

Its sinking cliffs and lessening sands,

While Zephyr gently blows.

This is authentic poetry. It doesn’t have the finesse that other poems have—but who cares for finesse? I think that this shows a desire to see space and also see the antithesis of space, the solid object. The relation of “northern whales” to “nimble boats” is interesting. “With craft and rum (our chief regard) / And good provisions stored.” He seems to be aware of things of substance, like rum.

I skip a few stanzas and go to the quatrain that has the greatest space quality:

Then as we turn our wondering eyes,

We view one constant show;

Above, around, the circling skies,

The rolling seas below.

Space is the most monotonous thing in the world—that is, pure space, because as soon as there is anything that interferes with the monotony it is no longer space. You can’t have anything in space but space. Space is its own container. Therefore, since it is monotonous, it must be constant. In this quatrain the skies seem to be circling, but then the waves make another kind of circular motion. The next step from space is form, because the one thing you can do to space is give it form; you can make all kinds of lines.

Space is like zero. One thing you can say about zero is that it is one zero, and once you have one zero there is no reason why you can’t have two. So you can do things to space, even though from one point of view it is entirely unchanged. Space, by the way, is very much related to dreams. —But that is a good stanza. The next is good too, though I don’t think it has the art of the one I just read:

When eastward, clear of Newfoundland,

We stem the frozen pole.

We see the icy islands stand,

The northern billows roll.

As to the north we make our way,

Surprising scenes we find;

We lengthen out the tedious day,

And leave the night behind.

We do get the feeling of the monotony of this 18th-century American ship going over the Atlantic looking for whales. We get some of the feeling of space in a later book, one of the classics of English literature, Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast, of 1840. Much had happened in shipping in those years, over a hundred years between Osborn’s poem and Dana’s book.

Now see the northern regions, where

Eternal winter reigns;

One day and night fills up the year,

And endless cold maintains.

The writing is naïve, but it conveys the monotony, the seeing of the world as nothing but space—because water is close to space, particularly monotonous water, and ice is. Ice can be frightening, because it is solidity that seems to be space.

The Whales Affect Space

Then this—the “monsters” are the whales that interfere with space:

We view the monsters of the deep,

Great whales in numerous swarms;

And creatures there, that play and leap,

Of strange, unusual forms.

So the whales, and perhaps other sea creatures, seem to change the space into something frolicsome.

When in our station we are placed,

And whales around us play,

We launch our boats into the main,

And swiftly chase our prey.

In haste we ply our nimble oars,

For an assault design’d;

The sea beneath us foams and roars,

And leaves a wake behind.

This is very honest: this is just what he saw.

Then there is the dealing with the whale. I have a notion that this whale represents something in Osborn’s mind, just as the whale in Moby Dick represented something in Melville’s mind.* I feel that Melville did know this poem. I don’t believe he couldn’t have written Moby Dick without it, of course; but I think he was a little incited by it.

A mighty whale we rush upon,

And in our irons throw:

She sinks her monstrous body down

Among the waves below.

The space that we see beneath the water can also be frightening.

There Is Sinking

She thrashes with her tail around,

And blows her redd’ning breath;

She breaks the air a deaf’ning sound,

While ocean groans beneath.

From numerous wounds, with crimson flood

She stains the frothy seas,

And gasps, and blows her latest blood,

While quivering life decays.

So the solidity that met all this space and water is dealt with. It has to sink, and I think that the sinking of Osborn himself has something to do with the sinking of this whale. I think it was a nice whale but Osborn didn’t know what to do with it.

This, then, was a popular poem, though now very little known. One of these days we may see a little monograph on it in one of the American literature journals, but I don’t know of any lately.


The Whale

By Eli Siegel

Living through the ocean and in it a big animal

Goes through days and hours and through time, until

Its shape of life changes altogether, and it dies.

It goes deep into green waters, and from their depths

Where is food for it, it takes for its living

Those things its needs make it to.

It goes through the minutes and hours all beings do and man;

And all things differently. It is a strange being, for nature

Has given the seas none like it so big and acting so.

From the Author’s Note, 1968

The whale has gone about its business these centuries, even when pursued. It has had, or whales have had, the same hours and days we have had....

The opposites in us as one are equivalent to immortality or infinity, and the whale has these; as the fly does....So the whale in its lumbering fashion represents or instances something unceasing in reality. As the whale stands for reality, it is particularly the whale.

*What Mr. Siegel says swiftly here about Melville’s white whale is new and hugely important in the scholarship on Moby Dick.