The parable of “Jonah and the whale,” from the Bible, is a didactic parable intended to teach readers that God loves everyone and anyone who repents their sins will be forgiven. In Viola Meynell’s poem, she mainly focuses on describing the qualities of the whale in the first seven stanzas in order to show how the whale symbolizes repentance of sins by God and then adds a twist in the last stanza as Jonah enters the whale unexpectedly. Meynell allows readers to vicariously experience the world of the whale, the majestic king of the lake; she uses various sound techniques, diction with symbolic connotations, and vivid imagery to emphasize the significant features of the “watery world” the whale lives in.
Meynell uses an ABAB rhyme scheme where the last word rhymes every other line of a stanza. There are eight stanzas in total, each stanza contains four lines. The first and fourth line of each stanza has nine syllables while the second and third lines contain 10 syllables.
Overall, Meynell uses these stanza patterns and rhyming scheme to create a “wavery” effect. In other words, when readers read the poem out aloud, they vicariously feel like the whale ‘rocking’ through the sea waves.
The first five stanzas are dedicated to vividly describe the “watery world” where the whale resides. Meynell chose special diction such as “sported”, “rich oil”, and “foaming wake”. By describing the whale as “sporting round” the world instead of “swimming”, Meynell depicts that the whale is almost swimming for fun or as a sport.
“His rich oil was a gloomy waveless lake” shows that the oil that’s coming out of the whale’s body results in a gloomy or blackish lake. The “gloominess” and “blackness” are words that can be used to describe sin. The whale is later injured by the seamen in his “foaming wake”. The seamen decide to injure the whale because it is their natural instinct to protect themselves from a humongous mammal such as the whale. Also, in the bible, after Jonah refuses to do God’s will, he decided to travel on a ship to Spain.
On the way to his destination, there was a terrible storm and Jonah is thrown overboard into the water by the seamen because Jonah told the seamen that the storm meant God’s displeasure in Jonah. Jonah is then swallowed by the whale. The image of the “seamen attacking the whale” can also infer that they don’t want Jonah to come back onto their ship in the fear of experiencing a terrible storm once again. The image of the “foaming” wake can also be viewed as a religious ritual, for example the Christian ritual of baptism. Baptism is a water-associated ceremony carried out to purify one’s body and soul and is somewhat necessary for salvation.
The second stanza starts off with the imagery of the “old corroding iron [the whale] bore”, this shows that the weapon hurled by the seamen into the whale was a rusted metal weapon. The poet uses the word “corroding” to symbolize something that is dirty, impure, or sinful. The corroding iron can also symbolize Jonah because he is not willing to listen to God and therefore is sinning. The personification of the weapon “journeyed through his flesh” creates an interesting imagery in which the weapon is on a journey to ‘find’ the whale’s source of ‘life’ which is its heart. Readers are relieved because the whale was not injured by the weapon. Meynell then continues to describe another weapon by describing the imagery of: “Another lance he wore/Outside him, pricking in a tender spot.” A lance is a weapon with a metal arrow head. The image of the whale “wearing the lance” can be analogous to Jesus Christ wearing the crown of thorns. When the whale wears “the lance”, it is like a humiliation.
The third and sixth stanza juxtaposes the whale’s personality as being ignorant with the fourth and fifth stanza when it is described as being omnipotent. In the third stanza, even as the whale was injured, it doesn’t seem to feel the pain because his “parts” could not even send a stronger message to his brain, it was as it its nerve system was not working efficiently. This is parallel to Jonah’s stubbornness to refuse God’s will, Jonah is not understanding that God loves everyone and would like to save everyone by giving them a chance to repent.
However, Jonah is selfish in that he refuses to help God “save” others. The whale’s ignorance is reiterated once again in the sixth stanza by Meynell’s use of the words “sluggish brain” and no thought ever arouse”. “Sluggish” means slow and this means that the whale takes a long time to process his thoughts. “Sluggish brain” is also an analogy to Jonah’s mind, because Jonah is slow to realize the purpose of what God assigned him to do. The whale never has any thought, gleams, or visions that “brought/Light to the dark of his old dreamless mind”. The word “light” was chosen to mean knowledge while the juxtaposed word “dark” was used to represent ignorance. “Light” can also mean God and “dark” means sins. Once again, the poet reiterates that Jonah is “in the dark” or being sinful and is refusing to accept the will of God, which is “light”.
Meynell then shows the authority of the whale in the fourth and fifth stanzas. The whale’s “play” and every moment causes “storm in a calm sea” because it has a huge body in that whenever it moves, the still sea will be disturbed into movement. From the touch of the whale, the little sea creatures might turn out being “wrecks” that lay scattered. Meynell then describes an image where “The Moon rocked to and fro his watery couch”; the water that sprays out of his blowhole is described as a “watery couch” that appears to be ‘holding’ the moon.
“His hunger cleared the sea” because when he’s hungry, he will have a huge appetite and devour all those sea creatures in the sea as if “clearing the sea”. “Where he passed, the ocean’s edge lifted its brim”. As the whale passes through a body of water, naturally, the water will rise up due to the weight of the whale. “Ocean edge” and “brim” are words used to describe the surface of the ocean. So wherever the whale passes, the surface of the ocean will rise. “Sea-floor” and “garden” were words used to describe the sea bed. The “harvest ripe” on the sea bed can be described as the food for the whale.
Finally the last two stanzas describe the time when Jonah enters the whale. “Half-hints of knowledge” burst upon the whale as if it was experiencing an epiphany. This epiphany was suggested by the poet as coming from God. Maybe God was trying to inform the whale that it has to swallow Jonah to help God teach Jonah a lesson. This was further proven when the whale has glimpses of the three components of the world: Time, space, and change. “Something greater than his might” suggests that a powerful deity has control of the whale’s mind and Jonah. In the last stanza, the whale swallows Jonah and is hit with the “blinding Truth”. In the Bible story, Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights; during that time, he finally understands that he should do what God asked him to do and is grateful to God for saving him from drowning.