Isaac Watts (1674-1748) was a well-known English hymn writer and theologian. He is the author of many hymns that will be immediately recognized by a modern audience, such as “Joy to the World” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.” Watts’s specific contribution to Protestant hymns was a style that took the traditional verse of the Bible and incorporated it with his own poetic rendering of his personal Christian experience. One of his aims was to “renovate” Old Testament Judaic Psalms to reflect New Testament Christian truths. In many of his hymns, like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” Watts’s intention is to bring the “common man” of the congregation and the religious magnitude of symbols like the Cross closer together, to make spiritual truths more accessible.
In Chapter 22 of Moby-Dick, “Merry Christmas,” there is a reference to Captain Bildad’s sister Charity placing “a small choice copy” of one of Watts’s hymnals in each sailor’s berth (or bed), presumably to give the sailors an alternative to singing bawdy songs while they manage the ship. In fact, Bildad explicitly commands: “no profane songs would be allowed on the Pequod, particularly in getting under weigh.” The sailors do not heed Bildad, however, and “roared forth some sort of chorus about the girls in Booble Alley with hearty good will.” The sailors choose to sing about these women (who, one assumes, lack the sort of piety exemplified in Watts) rather than intone the hymns tucked away in their beds. Bildad, by contrast, does sing a Watts hymn, “There is A Land of Pure Delight,” while piloting the ship as it leaves port:
Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood,
Stand dressed in living green.
So to the Jews old Canaan stood,
While Jordan rolled between.
At the beginning of the Pequod’s voyage, the common sailors choose to remember the carnal, physical pleasures of Nantucket, while Bildad and his sister strive to preserve the hope of the “sweet fields” of heaven “beyond the swelling floods.” Ishmael represents the marriage of the two notions, much like Watts represents the marriage of Old Testament poetry and his own. Instead of remembering the spiritual in rejection of the carnal, or rejecting the spiritual in remembrance the carnal, Ishmael interprets Watts’s hymn (sung by Bildad) as the promise of a physical manifestation of “pleasant haven in store.” He hopes that the whaling journey itself will lead to “meads and glades […] eternally vernal.” In all three cases, song (or the interpretation of song) renders the magnitude of the Pequod’s journey more accessible to the singer. The sailors face the great unknown while remembering the carnal pleasures of port; Bildad faces the physical unknown with his eyes on a spiritual certainty of heaven; Ishmael harbors hope that his first whaling voyage will reward him with “pleasant haven,” or heaven at sea. Like Watts, they all seek to make the incomprehensible, their own mortality in the face of the great unknown, comprehensible.