Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"By Blue Ontario's Shore" (1856)
Author:
Gruesz, Kirsten Silva
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

One of the most heavily revised compositions in all of Leaves of Grass, this long poem lays out the central features of Whitman's democratic idealism and describes the poet's role in fostering it. The poem first appears in 1856, liberally borrowing key passages from the prose Preface to the first edition (1855) and serving a similar purpose as a manifesto for the book as a whole. Following the mutations of "By Blue Ontario's Shore" over the years offers revealing glimpses into the refinement of Whitman's Americanist thought—particularly as it responds to the trauma of the Civil War—as well as the evolution of his style.

The original 1856 title, "Poem of Many In One," alludes to the national motto that Whitman incorporated into his philosophy of composition. ("E Pluribus Unum" was another designation he considered for it.) Just as the Union forms one political entity out of the separate states, Leaves of Grass fuses many poems into one interrelated whole. As the poem explains, the bard of democracy is entrusted with the task of linking together the diverse individuals who make up this young "Nation announcing itself" (section 2) by celebrating the greatness of their daily lives. The poet is the glue that holds this American mosaic together; he is the "equalizer," the "arbiter of the diverse" (section 10). As he imagines himself literally "incarnating this land" (section 6), stretching to accommodate its rapid growth across the continent, Whitman characteristically uses the human body as a metaphor for the body politic. This organic relationship between the poet and the country he has "affectionately...absorbed" (section 13) is expressed through sexual imagery as well; both creative and procreative energies represent the larger force that unifies part and whole.

The poem's reappearance as the first of the "Chants Democratic" in the third edition (1860) suggests its continuing importance as a prefatory statement of purpose. By 1867, however, it undergoes a dramatic change of tone, reflecting the intervening events of the Civil War, which shattered Whitman's ideal of a unified nation. Now titled "As I sat Alone by Blue Ontario's Shore," it begins not with a celebration of America's greatness, but with the somber image of a solitary poet musing upon "the dead that return no more." Turning for comfort to the "Mother" of democracy, he confronts the devastating legacy of the war by railing against the "enemies" that sought to destroy the Union. However, he goes on to peer prophetically into the future, envisioning democracy "with spreading mantle covering the world" (section 17). The geographical growth of the nation will be accompanied by a more mature spiritual understanding of "the great Idea" (sections 10, 11, 14, 20)—democratic individualism. As its ultimate position following the "Memories of President Lincoln" section indicates, the poem in its final version responds to the wounds of the war by placing recent events within a larger, prophetic perspective of the nation's destiny.

Perhaps because of its indebtedness to the Preface (especially evident in sections 5–6 and 9–12), critics have divided sharply on the merit of "Blue Ontario" as a work of poetry. Some New Critics, notably Howard Waskow, complain that there is too much message and not enough music in it. But as Thomas Crawley points out, Whitman here perfects many of the techniques, such as the catalogue and the incantatory phrase, that are hallmarks of Leaves. Moreover, the genesis of the poem suggests a radical fluidity between prose and poetry that reinforces Whitman's importance as an innovative user of language. (On the other hand, some of the revisions to "Blue Ontario" also indicate an increasing linguistic conservatism, as he tones down both its strident nationalism and its boldly sexual images.)

The most useful readings of this poem, such as those of M. Wynn Thomas, Betsy Erkkila, and James E. Miller, Jr., grow out of the idea that Whitman's poetics are inseparable from his understanding of political, spiritual, and bodily union. Along with "Starting from Paumanok," "Song of the Broad-Axe," and "Song of Myself," "By Blue Ontario's Shore" stands as a major statement of Whitman's philosophy of democratic individualism.

Bibliography

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Culbert, Gary A. "Whitman's Revisions of 'By Blue Ontario's Shore.'" Walt Whitman Review 23 (1977): 35–45.

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

Miller, James E., Jr. "Leaves of Grass": America's Lyric-Epic of Self and Democracy. New York: Twayne, 1992.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

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


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