Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"On the Beach at Night" (1871)
Author:
Wohlpart, A. James
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"On the Beach at Night" was first published in the "Sea-Shore Memories" group in the 1871 Passage to India. The poem was transferred to the "Sea-Drift" cluster in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. Significantly, this poem appears in the middle of the cluster (as the sixth of eleven poems) and is the longest poem after the opening poems, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life."

The poem opens with a narrative description of an event similar to that portrayed in Hopkins's "Spring and Fall," a father discussing a natural scene, here, the stars in the night sky, with his daughter. The father notices that the child begins to weep as she watches the "burial-clouds" cover over the stars. The poem then changes from a narrative description to a dramatic presentation of the father reassuring his daughter that the stars are immortal and will endure. The last stanza of the poem concludes the father's speech and includes two important parenthetical statements which explain that this reassurance is also a "first suggestion, the problem and indirection."

In the context of the "Sea-Drift" cluster as a whole, this central poem represents a shift from description of the growing awareness of the "outsetting bard" (initially depicted in "Out of the Cradle") of the meaning of life and death to description of the awareness of life after death. Significantly, the boy-poet of the earlier poems in the cluster has either disappeared and been replaced with a young girl or, more likely, has matured into a father figure who guides his child, offering hints and suggestions as Whitman does in his poems, to an understanding of the immortal nature of the human soul.

Bibliography

Fast, Robin Riley. "Structure and Meaning in Whitman's Sea-Drift." American Transcendental Quarterly 53 (1982): 49–66.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.

Wohlpart, A. James. "From Outsetting Bard to Mature Poet: Whitman's 'Out of the Cradle' and the Sea-Drift Cluster." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (1991): 77–90.


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