(originally posted 2/14/2001)
In his poem “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” Whitman endures several almost violent transitions in his thought, as the narrative progresses. He splits the poem into four sections, each of which signals one of these transitions. The first section seems to set the stage and describe the coming together of conditions that all lead up to Whitman’s revelation. The second section describes his realization of the meaning of the vision he’s experience. In section three, he describes the intense emotions and his subsequent loss of control due to those emotions, as he turns to nature for comfort. Finally in section four he accepts the new way of thinking he’s come to understand and finds a higher connectedness not only with nature but with God as well. Most of the lines in the poem are long and he seems unconstrained by any metrical detail. This gives the poem a breathless and in some places uneven sound and flow. Whitman of course meant to prompt this kind of reading since it works well with the spinning-out-of-control theme that he wants to convey. With a closer look at the rhetorical situation and four-part structure of the poem, as well as a verification of the dual symbolism of the ocean, Whitman’s meaning floats to the surface more readily to be examined.
In section one Whitman begins, “As I ebb’d with the ocean of life,” (line 1). He establishes here the metaphor that he will use throughout the poem, that of the ocean as symbolic of all human action and human experience. If Whitman is ebbing with the ocean of life then he is allowing himself to be pulled back, to contract in upon himself, just as the ocean seems to contract and expand on the shore with the tide. This first line communicates to Whitman’s reader that he’s in a specific state of mind. He’s ebbing, and what this means becomes more obvious later on. He continues, “As I wended the shores I know, / As I walk’d where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,” (2-3). Now Whitman establishes place in a more concrete way. He describes himself as wending on the shore of Paumanok, the island of his birth. So literally he walks on a seashore as well, “Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,” (5). The word endless, in connection with a seashore implies for the reader a description of the tide and thus the ocean. So Whitman is comparing the ocean to a fierce old mother. Also since he places this personification right after a description of where he literally is, the reader can assume that he’s personifying the literal ocean and not the metaphoric ocean of life. Now Whitman sets the scene for the vision he’s about to experience. In lines 6-8 Whitman describes how his frame of mind is as perfect as the setting for the vision about to take place. He says, “I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward, / Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems, / Was seiz’d by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot.” So he is at the very edge of his egotism about what he has written, similar to the tide when it has reached as high as it can on the shore and is about to ebb. In the next few lines several likenesses strike him. First he decides in line nine that where he is on the seashore is, “the sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.” By likenesses here he refers to this state of representation. He brings up in the next several lines specific examples of the muck washed ashore and sees it all as symbolizing the contents of the ocean. This symbolism will lead him in the second section to find himself symbolic of all humankind.
In the second section, having established that the small patch of shoreline he stands on is representative of all land and water, and in the mood to be looking for objects and ideas of similarity, Whitman defines himself as representative of all humans and human experience. This becomes problematic for him in that realizing that he represents all humankind, he comes to the conclusion that all the poetry he’s written before is no longer pertinent, and that no poetry ever can be. He begins this section, “As I wend the shores I know not,” (18). Before he was wending the shores he new. Metaphorically speaking now, he’s on shaky mental and emotional ground. He’s unfamiliar with this feeling of being representative of everyone, even though looking over some of his other poems this is a position he adopts frequently. In this poem, however, he makes it out to be strange and disconcerting for him. He continues, “As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck’d, / As I inhale the impalpable breeze that set in upon me, / As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,” (19-21). In 19, he provides evidence of his feeling symbolic of humankind in general. If he’s listening to the dirge of voice, he must be hearing many voices, and in true Whitmanian fashion he feels that he represents them. His reference to the breeze as impalpable provides a clue to the reader about the ocean in the next line. When her refers to the ocean as mysterious, the reader knows he’s not referring to the earthly ocean that just a stanza before seemed mothering to him. Rather, he feels mystified by this ocean of life, that he hears through the dirge of men and women’s voice, the ocean of all humankind’s experience. His next few lines reveal that while he feels representative of, he also feels trivialized by, the sheer size of human experience. He says, “I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift, / a few sands and dead leaves to gather, / Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift,” (22-24). Seeing his small part in the greater ocean of humankind, he indeed feels much less significant and this leads him to say that he feels, “Opress’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth, / Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who ore what I am. / But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,” (26-28). Having found his simultaneously representative and trivialized place in the whole experience of humankind, Whitman feels ashamed of the poetry he’s written before, as though nothing he’s yet written has expressed the essence of what it is that now surrounds and permeates him. He describes that untouched self as, “Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,” (29) and he says, “I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,” (32). Now that Whitman’s completes his mental revolution, he begins in the third section his turbulent reaction to it.
In the third section Whitman completely abandons the idea of himself and a poet and furthers his ebbing process, turning to nature in his sudden humility for some feeling of connectedness. He begins, “You oceans both, I close with you,” (35). So finally he makes direct reference to the duality of his symbol of the ocean, on the one hand meaning the real ocean that seems motherly and helpful to him and on the other hand the ocean of life which symbolizes all human experience. He can only say this temporary farewell to two oceans, if he is indeed using two oceans in his thought process. He makes one last reference to his poetry by comparing himself to the ocean saying, “We murmur alike reproachfully rolling sand and drift, knowing not why,” (36). By this Whitman means that the literal ocean’s carving of the shoreline gets at the randomness with which he feels he has constructed all his poetry up to this point. Far from the electric prideful self at the beginning of the poem, now he gives himself little more credit as an artist than anyone would give the ocean for purpose in the way it shapes the coast. Now he turns to the island for comfort saying, “You fish-shaped island, I take what is underfoot,” (39). He next compares himself to the debris thrown up on the shore as he says, “I too have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been wash’d on your shores, / I too am but a trail of debris, / I too leave little wrecks upon you, you fish-shaped island,” (42-44). Having been thrown into a mental tailspin by his revelations, he feels as out of control of his own fate as the scraps and muck thrown up on shore by the sea. He indicates how helpless this makes him feel and seeks comfort from the paternal island crying, “I throw myself upon your breast my father, / I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me, / I hold you so firm till you answer me something. / Kiss me my father, / Touch me with your lips as I touch those I love,” (45-49). In his anguish here, he cries out to the island for comfort from the sensation of having been shaken loose from all the confidence he had. His near hysteria ends only with his command to the island to breath to him in line 50 and further releases him in section four.
In the fourth and final section of the poem, Whitman seems to have come to terms with his simultaneous significance and insignificance in the ocean of human experience. He begins, “Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,)” (51). His acceptance of the ebb and his calm tone regarding the return of the fuller tide indicate that he’s resigned himself to his newly discovered position as representative but still small part of the ocean of life. Next he addresses the physical ocean once again personifying it as motherly saying, “Cease not your moaning you fierce old mother, / Endlessly cry for your castaways, but fear not, deny not me,” (52-53). He articulates his understanding of his position as well as the position of all humankind in the ocean of life in lines 56-58 where he says, “I gather myself and for this phantom looking down where we lead, and following me and mine. / Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses, / Froth, snowy white, and bubbles.” By me and mine he means the human race, and again he compares himself and everyone to beach debris. He breaks from this though momentarily to say, “See, from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last, / See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,” (59-60). This image of his death indicates his total acceptance of his newfound role. His next several lines provide more examples of the sea slough tossed around by nature that he compares humankind to. Finally in line 68, Whitman shifts his focus. He says, “Just as much whence we come that blare of the cloud-trumpets, / We, capricious, brought hither we know not whence, spread out before you, / You up there walking or sitting, / Whoever you are, we too lie in drifts at your feet,” (68-71). Here Whitman comes full circle, alluding to the beginning of the poem when he was walking on the edge of the sand surveying the debris tossed up on the shore. Now he is that debris, and another entity, God, walks on the shore of the ocean of life, as only God can, and surveys him as debris on the shore. This sudden shift seems almost its own section, being as it breaks from the theme of nature as ultimate power and moves to the figure of God as ultimate power, but Whitman seems to included it in his final section so that he might really demand his reader’s attention and signify the importance of this shift which is really a turn back to the beginning image.
Whitman uses the earthly ocean to symbolize a motherly force matching the islands fatherly force, and his visionary ocean of life to symbolize the magnitude of human experience. Twice in his poem, Whitman refers to the material ocean as motherly, fierce, but motherly none the less. This provides a clue to the reader that he refers to more than one ocean. In line 21 after all he calls that ocean mysterious and his tone indicates apprehension as he describes it, “roll(ing) toward me closer and closer.” He would not fear the motherly ocean, fierce though it may be, because he has that ocean figured out. He knows her endless cry is simply the tide endlessly splashing on the shore. For him to be nervous about the roll and approach of the ocean indicates that he must be referring to a different ocean, an ocean with more serious implications for him. The reader finds out this is definitely the case in line 35 when he says, “You oceans both, I close with you.” To refer to two oceans Whitman must be visualizing two. If the reader had any doubt about what the ocean of life (the visionary ocean as opposed to the tangible ocean) is, that doubt cannot exist after he represents himself as sea debris on the shore, especially after he refers to God as the new walker.
Having properly observed the progression of Whitman’s narrative broken into four parts and taken a scrutinizing look at the duel symbolism of the ocean in the poem, Whitman does seem to be laid out for any curious inspection of his meaning to take place. The theme of simultaneous connection with and alienation from all of society resurfaces often in Whitman’s poetry. If the rhetorical situation of this poem reflects upon any real events or revelations in his life, it seems unlikely that the experience was as revealing for him as he asserts, since so much of his poetry speaks to the same intertwining feeling that he shares with all humankind.