Such a portentous and mysterious monster roused all my curiosity. Then the wild and distant seas where he rolled his island bulk; the undeliverable, nameless perils of the whale; these, with all the attending marvels of a thousand Patagonian sights and sounds, helped to sway me to my wish. With other men, perhaps, such things would not have been inducements; but as for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts. Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror, and could still be social with it—would they let me—since it is but well to be on friendly terms with all the inmates of the place one lodges in. —Melville, Moby-Dick

And what does this "but well to be" mean?

I would like to hear from someone who has read this book.

1 Answer 1


Not ignoring what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror ...

The boldfaced part is a participle clause: a clause in which the role of verb is played by the non-finite present participle form.

When such clauses appear at the beginning of a sentence, their subject is taken to be the NP which is the subject of the following matrix (main) clause. Accordingly we parse this as:

[While] I do not ignore what is good, I am quick to perceive a horror.

(Quick is used here in the sense “eager”; Ishmael has already told us that the ‘monster roused all my curiosity’.)

It is but well to be on friendly terms ...

But is used here in the sense merely, only, just. Well is the old-fashioned adjectival use which was recently discussed here. We may paraphrase:

It’s just a good idea to be on friendly terms ...

  • I thought this "but" was an intensifier.(from a dictionary) 2. Used as an intensive: Get out of here but fast!
    – user2492
    Jan 25, 2014 at 18:47
  • birdman1234 I think that's a 20th-century usage, after Melville's time. Ishmael's justifying his odd willingness to "be social" with horror: "After all, it's only prudent" or "only good manners to be on friendly terms ..." Jan 25, 2014 at 19:41
  • So is this but the same as "it's only fair to do that?"
    – user2492
    Jan 25, 2014 at 19:58
  • @birdman Exactly! We rarely use but in that sense today, but it was once ordinary. Jan 25, 2014 at 20:11
  • Don't misunderstand me; I'm sensitive to good things too; but I'm reelyreely turned on by horrid things. Jan 25, 2014 at 20:18

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