Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

Isaac Watts in Moby-Dick

In Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, the Pequod‘s journey gets underway on Christmas Day. Captains Peleg and Bildad accompany the ship out of harbor.

Bildad takes the first watch. As he does so, he sings. Ishmael, the narrator, describes it, in Chapter 22 (“Merry Christmas”):

Lank Bildad, as pilot, headed the first watch, and ever and anon, as the old craft deep dived into the green seas, and sent the shivering frost all over her, and the winds howled, and the cordage rang, his steady notes were heard,—

      “Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
         Stand dressed in living green.
      So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
         While Jordan rolled between.”

Never did those sweet words sound more sweetly to me than then. They were full of hope and fruition. Spite of this frigid winter night in the boisterous Atlantic, spite of my wet feet and wetter jacket, there was yet, it then seemed to me, many a pleasant haven in store; and meads and glades so eternally vernal, that the grass shot up by the spring, untrodden, unwilted, remains at midsummer.

What he is singing are the words of the nonconformist/Congregationalist hymnodist Isaac Watts, as Moby-Dick‘s brilliant editor Hershel Parker points out. Specifically, he sings the third stanza of Watts’ poem “A Prospect of Heaven Makes Death Easy” (though the reader is doubtless intended to think of the fourth stanza as well). The poem in full reads:

There is a land of pure delight
   Where saints immortal reign;
Infinite day excludes the night,
   And pleasures banish pain.
There everlasting spring abides,
   And never-withering flowers;
Death like a narrow sea divides
   This heavenly land from ours.
Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
   Stand dressed in living green:
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
   While Jordan rolled between.
But timorous mortals start and shrink
   To cross this narrow sea,
And linger shivering on the brink,
   And fear to launch away.
Oh could we make our doubts remove,
   These gloomy doubts that rise,
And see the Canaan that we love,
   With unbeclouded eyes;
Could we but climb where Moses stood
   And view the landscape o’er,
Not Jordan’s stream, nor death’s cold flood,
   Should fright us from the shore.

This text is now best known from the hymn titled “There Is a Land of Pure Delight” (from the poem’s first line). It is hymn 550, for instance, in the red Trinity Hymnal, and 597 in the blue Trinity Hymnal. (It did not make it into the new Trinity Psalter-Hymnal.) If you’re interested, you can hear a choral recording of the hymn by the Cathedral Schola of the Cathedral of St. Philip here (to a different tune from that found in the TH); you can here a contemporary rendition by Red Mountain Music, in which the final verse is used as a chorus and the verses are rearranged (and two omitted–including the one Bildad sings!), here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.