Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"I Sit and Look Out" (1860)
Author:
Baldwin, David B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, this ten-line lyric shows Whitman in his imagination surveying certain illustrative tragic or difficult scenes the world over. With rare understatement, he conveys his grief that such negative conditions abide and his dismay that he is helpless in the face of them.

Eight of the lines begin with "I," but the effect is less to call attention to the writer than to locate the observer, not otherwise described. Sitting passively somewhere, he is simply the viewer and the listener (a role common for Whitman but in a more affirmative mood). The reader is drawn to identify with this abstracted "I." The later particular images are given a sharper focus after the general first-line orientation: "I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame." After a collection of instances, the poem at the end circles back to its opening thrust: "All these—all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent." Keeping silent establishes the dignity of the viewer, whose responses remain understood although hidden.

The instances themselves seem random: a young man at anguish over some wrongdoing, a mother's being neglected, a wife's being abused, someone in love's agonies; more widely, the "workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny," famine at sea, and finally the treatment of the weak by "arrogant persons." But taken together these images illustrate the nature of Whitman's concerns.

In this powerful lyric, then, he is dramatizing the fact that he sees the world as it is in its worst condition, that he is pained by what he sees, but that he has no choice but to accept it. The reader participates in that viewpoint.

Bibliography

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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