Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Sea-Drift" (1881)
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.

The "Sea-Drift" cluster, a group of eleven poems including "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," was first incorporated into Leaves of Grass in 1881. The cluster consisted of two new poems, two poems from the 1876 Two Rivulets, and seven poems from the "Sea-Shore Memories" cluster in the 1871 Passage to India. With the exception of "Out of the Cradle" and "As I Ebb'd," both of which were composed in 1859 and went through a series of major revisions, most of the poems in this cluster are short lyrics which underwent little change in their inclusion in "Sea-Drift" in 1881.

Critics and scholars often discuss the relative importance of the "Sea-Drift" cluster to an analysis of the structure of the whole of the 1881 Leaves of Grass. Thomas Edward Crawley notes that this arrangement of poems suggests a significant shift from land and pioneering imagery to sea imagery, representing a shift in emphasis from exploration, materialism, and individuality to introspection, spiritualism, and all-inclusive spirituality. Similar readings suggest that the cluster achieves its unity and importance through its description of the poet's encountering, reading, and assimilating the voice and rhythm of the sea, which represents the transfiguration of despair and darkness into faith and hope.

While "Sea-Drift" is often pointed to as a pivotal cluster in Leaves of Grass, very few readings closely analyze the entire series of poems. Central to such a reading, and to the debate about the relationship of the cluster to the whole of Leaves of Grass, is the question of the poetic voice (or voices) described in the cluster, and especially in "Out of the Cradle" (the first poem in the cluster). Because in "Out of the Cradle" Whitman offers a variety of voices that often conflate into one another, critics generally suggest that the boy-poet at the end of his dramatic encounter with the sea is the same as the mature poet who speaks the opening lines and understands the immortal nature of the human soul. Indeed, Robin Riley Fast argues that "Out of the Cradle" is a microcosm of the "Sea-Drift" cluster as a whole in that both offer a vision of the poet's incipient testing and then eventual confirmation of his poetic vision and vocation; the poems in the cluster after "Out of the Cradle" become for Fast a detailed recounting of the maturation process in which the poet comes to understand mortality and then immortality.

Yet a close inspection of the voices in "Out of the Cradle" suggests a clear demarcation between the voice of the "outsetting bard" who at the end of the poem has learned about loss of love and loss of life and the mature poet who in the opening lines of the poem reveals his knowledge of birth and death as intertwined and recurring processes that point to the immortality of the human soul. Thus the knowledge of the boy-poet in the first poem in the cluster is incomplete; indeed, it is in the remainder of the cluster that Whitman describes the maturation process of the poet and thus closes the gap existing in "Out of the Cradle" between the boy-poet's knowledge of death and the mature poet's understanding of immortality.

Whitman develops this growth through a shift in the primary imagery in the cluster from that of the bird to that of the ship, a shift that occurs in "To the Man-of-War-Bird." The bird imagery in the first part of the cluster, arising out of and closely connected to the land (suggesting the physical aspect of humans), is used to symbolize the boy's growing awareness of mortality; the ship imagery in the second part of the cluster, on the other hand, offers the possibility of crossing the sea of time to immortality (suggesting the spiritual aspect of humans). Significantly, the ship imagery becomes a recurring motif in the remainder of Leaves of Grass as Whitman turns from describing the individual and material to describing the inclusive nature of the spiritual.

Bibliography

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

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

LaRue, Robert. "Whitman's Sea: Large Enough for Moby Dick." Walt Whitman Review 12 (1966): 51–59.

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

____. Walt Whitman. Updated ed. Boston: Twayne, 1990.

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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