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I am not a native English speaker. I am struggling with the last few paragraphs of chapter 26 ("Knights and Squires") of Moby-Dick by Herman Melville.

I tried using a dictionary and even translating to my native language but the dots don't seem to connect. I am not able to get the intuitive feeling of these paragraphs. I tried reading it multiple times, but I don't feel satisfied.

I don't want to skip any line of a book that plays such an important role in English Literature.

But were the coming narrative to reveal in any instance, the complete abasement of poor Starbuck’s fortitude, scarce might I have the heart to write it; for it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valour in the soul. Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes. That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man. Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture. Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou Just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind! Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!

Before these paragraphs, the narrator was talking about the qualities of Starbuck, and it was making sense. But then, he diverged. He went from Starbuck to democratic God(what does that mean?) very abruptly.

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    @RobbieGoodwin: Questions about literary meaning are on topic here, even if the person asking is still learning English. (We are all still learning English, even native speakers.) – Gareth Rees Nov 12 '20 at 20:46
  • Why is it a problem that Melville's chain of thought went from Starbuck to anything, however abruptly? Isn't changing the subject a common literary device? If you're asking what a "democratic God" means in itself, that looks like a valid Question and I suggest that here, it matters not a jot. A "democratic God" is He Whose dignity thou shalt see shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike… or anything else thou might mention. – Robbie Goodwin Nov 12 '20 at 23:29
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    @RobbieGoodwin The changing of the subject is not a problem. It just happened so abruptly that I could not follow what's happening. And that's what the question is: "What just happened?". – rishabh jain Nov 13 '20 at 4:40
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    @RobbieGoodwin Asking about the rhetorical structure of a passage is on topic here. Melville is not always easy to follow! Why "doubly hammered leaves of gold", for example? – Gareth Rees Nov 13 '20 at 11:10
  • @Garther Broadly, clothing with "doubly hammered leaves of gold" gives to Cervantes the guise of a lilly already golden, gilded over again because however high Nature held the flower itself, still each layer of gilt adds glamour. How could that relate to rhetorical structure? Rishabh jain Don't you think the switch from Starbuck to his or Melville's God extrapolates the void between "Men… detestable" and "man… ideal"? – Robbie Goodwin Nov 14 '20 at 23:56
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TLDR: Starbuck is a great man because he has worked hard to elevate himself. Hard work is the ultimate democratic quality because anyone can do it, and it comes from God. If the author should spend a lot of time and words and purple prose repeating this sentiment, then he asks God to defend him from earthly critics.

But were the coming narrative to reveal in any instance, the complete abasement of poor Starbuck’s fortitude, scarce might I have the heart to write it; for it is a thing most sorrowful, nay shocking, to expose the fall of valour in the soul.

If the story ahead reveals a failure of Starbuck’s courage, the author would not want to write it.

Men may seem detestable as joint stock-companies and nations; knaves, fools, and murderers there may be; men may have mean and meagre faces; but man, in the ideal, is so noble and so sparkling, such a grand and glowing creature, that over any ignominious blemish in him all his fellows should run to throw their costliest robes.

Human beings may seem bad, commit bad acts, even look bad but at the same time the ideal of humanity is so noble that we can excuse the minor errors of those who approach it.

That immaculate manliness we feel within ourselves, so far within us, that it remains intact though all the outer character seem gone; bleeds with keenest anguish at the undraped spectacle of a valor-ruined man.

Because we know how great humanity can be, someone who approaches that ideal then falls low is a terrible thing to witness.

Nor can piety itself, at such a shameful sight, completely stifle her upbraidings against the permitting stars. But this august dignity I treat of, is not the dignity of kings and robes, but that abounding dignity which has no robed investiture.

The highest ideal of humanity is behaving in a dignfied manner, but don't be fooled by those who merely look dignified.

Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God; Himself! The great God absolute! The centre and circumference of all democracy! His omnipresence, our divine equality!

It is the dignity of hard work. God has given everyone the capacity to achieve that dignity if they choose to work hard, therefore it is democractic and equal.

If, then, to meanest mariners, and renegades and castaways, I shall hereafter ascribe high qualities, though dark; weave round them tragic graces; if even the most mournful, perchance the most abased, among them all, shall at times lift himself to the exalted mounts; if I shall touch that workman’s arm with some ethereal light; if I shall spread a rainbow over his disastrous set of sun; then against all mortal critics bear me out in it, thou Just Spirit of Equality, which hast spread one royal mantle of humanity over all my kind!

If the author describes the work of ordinary, even mean-seeming people, in over-glowing terms then God, the "spirit of equality" will defend him from critical readers.

Bear me out in it, thou great democratic God! who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl; Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes; Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne! Thou who, in all Thy mighty, earthly marchings, ever cullest Thy selectest champions from the kingly commons; bear me out in it, O God!

God has seen fit to protect the reputations of writers such as Bunyan, Cervantes. To pull from obscurity the military leader and later President Andrew Jackson. Who continues to elevate the worthy from the mass of humanity. So please see fit to protect the author's opinion on dignity and hard work from critics.

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Matt Thrower has explained the overall shape of the passage, so I will content myself with elucidating Melville’s references to three men who overcame hardship and achieved fame.

who didst not refuse to the swart convict, Bunyan, the pale, poetic pearl;

John Bunyan was convicted in 1660 for failure to conform to the Church of England. While imprisoned in Bedford County Gaol, he began The Pilgrim’s Progress, a work of relgious allegory that he likens to a pearl in the ‘Author’s Apology for his Book’:

If that a pearl may in a toad’s head dwell,
And may be found too in an oyster-shell;
If things that promise nothing do contain
What better is than gold; who will disdain,
That have an inkling of it, there to look,
That they may find it? Now, my little book,
(Though void of all these paintings that may make
It with this or the other man to take)
Is not without those things that do excel
What do in brave but empty notions dwell.

The reference to Bunyan is followed by:

Thou who didst clothe with doubly hammered leaves of finest gold, the stumped and paupered arm of old Cervantes

Miguel de Cervantes was wounded at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, rendering his left arm useless. He is remembered now for the invention of the modern novel in his mock-heroic Don Quixote. Melville was a fan, calling Cervantes’ character “that sagest sage that ever lived” in his story ‘The Piazza’.

Finally, we have U.S. president Andrew Jackson:

Thou who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne!

The “pebbles” represent the hardship from which Jackson rose: he was the child of poor immigrants and orphaned at 14. He rose to national prominence as a military commander (“upon a war-horse”) by fighting native Americans in the Creek and Seminole wars, and the British at New Orleans in 1815.

Whether Melville meant “higher than a throne” to be sincere or ironic is something that critics have pondered: is this a phrase of approbation (democratic election being inherently worthier than primogeniture), or criticism (Jackson appropriating to himself powers that even George III did not possess)?

Melville’s attitude to Jacksonian republicanism is, however, far from straightforward. He inherited from his family a deeply ambivalent attitude toward America’s seventh president who was idolized by [Herman’s brother] Gansevoort but excoriated by older relatives who blamed him for Melville’s grandfather being removed from political office […] In Redburn, written about a year before Moby Dick, Melville parodies Jackson naming the most brutal and uncouth of the common sailors after the President and even having him claim descent from “Old Hickory.” There, Redburn, the protagonist, expresses mainly distaste for Jackson but also, importantly, a grudging respect for the mysterious power he wields over his fellows : "It is not for me to say, what it was that made the whole ship’s company submit so to the whims of one poor miserable man like Jackson. I only know that so it was.”

Ian McGuire (2003). ‘“Who ain’t a slave?”: Moby Dick and the Ideology of Free Labor’. Journal of American Studies 37:2, pp. 292–293.

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  • I reckon that I'll have to read this book multiple times to fully comprehend the deepest thoughts of the narrator. – rishabh jain Nov 13 '20 at 5:39

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