Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (1860)
Author:
Gutman, Huck
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's "As I Ebb'd" was first published in the prestigious Atlantic Monthly in 1860 and later that year appeared as the opening poem of the "Leaves of Grass" section in the third edition of Leaves of Grass. Originally entitle "Bardic Symbols," it was later moved, under its present title, to the "Sea-Drift" section, where it appears as a pendant to the poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." In fact, so marked is its contrast with that poem of a year earlier that it seems its natural partner. Whereas "Out of the Cradle" is about mothers, oceans, poetry, love, and commitment, "As I Ebb'd" is about fathers, the shore, the failure of poetry, personal inadequacy, and profound uncertainty.

Unrelievedly revealing a darkness which contradicts Whitman's heroic self-creation of himself as the poet of democracy, as the celebrator of self, as the good gray poet, "As I Ebb'd" is one of Whitman's most important poems. Nowhere else does Whitman testify so powerfully to what the poem itself is at pains to recognize, that his life was "bouy'd hither from many moods, one contradiction another" (section 4).

The poem is divided into four sections. In the first, "held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems," the poet wanders the shoreline of Long Island at the ebbing of the tide. As his eyes look downward, he notices that the retreating tide has revealed rows of trash, remnants washed ashore by the waves, "Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten." Thinking like a poet—"seeking types"—Whitman decides to read what he sees as a symbol, hoping to understand as "tokens of myself" ("Song of Myself," section 32) what lies before him.

In the second section, as he meditates on the natural symbol washed up by the waves as a representation of himself in the world, Whitman articulates what is, for him, a stunning discovery: "I too but signify at the utmost a little wash'd-up drift." Seeing an additional parallel between the "lines" of worthless sea-drift and the lines of poetry he has sent out into the world, he acknowledges that the poems he has been writing are arrogant. He admits, with much pain, that his poetic productions do not represent the "real Me [which] stands yet untouch'd, untold, altogether unreach'd."

In the third section, he identifies the "fish-shaped island" on which he stands, an island both solid and phallic in profile, with his father. (In contrast, both section 4 and "out of the Cradle" identify the ocean with his mother.) His sense of personal worthlessness and inadequacy is related, perhaps autobiographically, to the son's powerlessness in the presence of his father. "I too have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been wash'd on your shores, / I too am but a trail of drift and debris." As Paul Zweig notes, "in an odd way, father and failure went together for Whitman" (307). Uncertain and deeply dependent, he throws himself on the breast of his father, seeking to be held close so that he can be comforted and hear "the secret of the murmuring I envy." Whether the murmuring is the fulfillment of adult heterosexual love—father and mother together in the marriage bed—or whether it is homoerotic—the sound of manly passion—is ambiguous, an ambiguity which lends the poem great resonance.

The final section has formal affinities with the final section of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," since in both what has been formerly described is now addressed in the imperative, the poet insisting that what exists will hereafter be sufficient for him. Astute readers will note, however, the remarkable dissonance between the celebratory self-confidence of the earlier poem and the saddened acceptance of the whole of "As I Ebb'd." Nowhere is the difference in mood more obvious than between the ecstatic "float" in section 5 of "Brooklyn Ferry" and the passive "floated the measureless float" in section 3 of "As I Ebb'd," where emergence from the primal flux of existence and the uterine fluids signifies no more than the casting up of "drift and debris." The poet's depressive melancholy reaches a nadir in section four, where he envisions himself as a corpse washed up by the waves, lines so shocking that James Russell Lowell, the Atlantic Monthly's editor, cut them from the first published edition. At the close of the poem Whitman's persona embraces the depressive role; contrary to almost all his other poetry, the poet submits without objection to passivity, powerlessness, and subservience.

As Whitman reads symbolically the detritus at his feet left by the retreating tide, so readers of the poem read Whitman's self-presentation symbolically. Readers see it as a break with Whitman's previous poetry, especially the ecstatic self-celebration of "Song of Myself." They read it as documenting a crisis of confidence in Whitman, a profound uncertainty about the worth of his poems and his existence, although some see Whitman's passive acceptance in the fourth part as a subdued resolution to that crisis. Additionally, there are critics who see the poem in historical and psychological contexts. Betsy Erkkila looks to its composition at the historical moment when the nation was coming undone, about to fall into fratricidal war: "No longer sustained by the ensemble of a national democratic order . . . Whitman's drowned poet projects the shipwreck of an entire culture" (169). Edwin Miller sees the collapse of the social order as revealing, through this poem, the substrate of all Whitman's poetry: "despite the . . . expressed desire to be the poetic spokesman of democracy . . . the real subject matter is the restoration of infantile relationships" (46). The renewal of a bond with his father is what the poem signifies to Paul Zweig: "His hurt has enabled him to see his father as if for the first time, and draw from him a kind of negative strength: the ability to endure and thrive in failure" (309).

Bibliography

Bromwich, David. "Suburbs and Extremities." Prose 8 (1974): 25–38.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. New York: New York UP, 1968.

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992.

Waskow, Howard J. Whitman: Explorations in Form. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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