Good Afternoon my fellow Whitmaniacs!
I was just passing through and decided to try and get some feedback on one of Walter Whitman’s great poems, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”.
Now before I began, I would like to mention the fact that I actually included the ideas I will mention here in an exam essay. I had never considered these ideas before writing this essay, so I’ve lost a little confidence in my “epiphany-like” interpretation 🙂
Here goes…so I’m re-reading the poem for like the third or fourth time trying to figure out exactly what Whitman is doing in this poem. The only thing that I seem to conclude is that whatever it is comes off as a shift from the “common” perception of Whitman that is delivered in his other works. (Don’t let the word common confuse you here as I am well aware that Whitman’s multiplicity hardly qualifies him as having a single, common identity).
However, the more I read the more things began to stand out for me. For example, the overall “spirit” of the poem is very cynical against Whitman’s war poems that have an abundance of optimism and passion. This poem walks along a seashore and identifies, not the beauty of nature, of life, of things, that we are all to easily able to recognize in his poetry, but points to the debris, weeds and “sea gluten”. Whitman is in the midst of this crisis with what appears to me to have no direction to or hint of recovery. The poem speaks of unfamiliarity, mystery, desolation, isolation, but that’s not what makes the poem unique as one that does not possess those qualities present elsewhere in his poetry–for these ideas contribute to this “crisis”. Whitman is contesting the very effect that his poetry will–or won’t–have. Should he or shouldn’t he have “opened his mouth to sing at all”??? Yet, what is most intriguing is that he never resolves this contemplation, this crisis. He never retrieves that passionate, hopeful, “I am the chariot for the multitudes” identity that I am familiar with. I’m reading and re-reading and I can’t find it! Where is the recovery?! Where is Walt Whitman…I don’t know Walter Whitman…I don’t recognize this poem!
Let me clarify one thing, I am not trying to assert that this poem alone acts as non-Whitmanian. I just found it extremely fascinating how humanistic this poem makes Whitman in light of the large Whitman we are always presented with.