Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"World Below the Brine, The" (1860)
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.

Receiving its present title in 1871, when it was placed in the grouping entitled "Sea-Shore Memories" in Passage to India, "The World Below the Brine" was originally published in the "Leaves of Grass" cluster as number 16 in the 1860 edition and number 4 in the 1867 edition. The poem was transferred to the "Sea-Drift" cluster in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass.

"The World Below the Brine" describes, in progressive detail, first, plant life existing at the bottom of the ocean's floor, then animal life swimming dumbly and sluggishly in the ocean, and then, finally, those swimmers who occasionally rise to the surface and perhaps walk on land. The poem concludes with a terse contrast between this ocean life and humans who walk the earth, a contrast that points onward to "beings who walk other spheres." Such a clear progression has suggested, variously, Whitman's adherence to the neo-Platonic concept of the Great Chain of Being, possibly through Locke, or his acceptance of nineteenth-century geological and biological descriptions of the evolution of humans.

In addition to implications of a metaphysical or a scientific nature, "The World Below the Brine," with its placement in the "Sea-Drift" cluster, is important for its implications about poetic theory and the role of the poet. In relation to transcendental theories, the poem suggests, through the consciousness of the poet, the possibility of transcendence of the physical and material world. More specifically, in relation to the progress of the poems in the cluster as a whole, "The World Below the Brine" offers a partial vision, a hint, of the immortality of the human soul, a vision which has been described in increasing detail as the cluster has progressed and which is then fully delineated in "On the Beach at Night Alone," the next poem in the series.

Bibliography

Fasel, Ida. "Whitman's 'The World Below the Brine.'" Explicator 25 (1966): Item 7.

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

Freedman, William A. "Whitman's 'The World Below the Brine.'" Explicator 23 (1965): Item 39.

Stillgoe, John R. "Possible Lockean Influence in 'The World Below the Brine.'" Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 150–155.

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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