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Title: Bardic Symbols

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: April 1860

Publication information: Atlantic Monthly 5 (April 1860): 445-447.

Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: per.00033

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Brett Barney, April Lambert, Heather Morton, Leslie ianno, and Susan Belasco




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Bardic Symbols.1

I.

ELEMENTAL drifts!
Oh, I wish I could impress others as you and the waves have just been
impressing me!

II.

As I ebbed with an ebb of the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the sea-ripples wash you, Paumanok,
Where they rustle up, hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I, musing, late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Alone, held by the eternal self of me that threatens to get the better of me and
stifle me,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
In the ruin, the sediment, that stands for all the water and all the land of the
globe.

III.

Fascinated, my eyes, reverting from the south, dropped, to follow those slender
windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide.

IV.

Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok, there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses,
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked with that eternal self of me, seeking types.

V.

As I wend the shores I know not,
As I listen to the dirge, the voices of men and women wrecked,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or touch, I
know not;
I, too, but signify a little washed-up drift,—a few sands and dead leaves to
gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the leaves and drift.

VI.

Oh, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me, I have not
once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real me still stands untouched, untold,
altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written or shall
write,
Striking me with insults, till I fall helpless upon the sand!

VII.

Oh, I think I have not understood anything,—not a single object,—and that no
man ever can!

VIII.

I think Nature here, in sight of the sea, is taking advantage of me to oppress me,
Because I was assuming so much,
And because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.

IX.

You oceans both! You tangible land! Nature!
Be not too stern with me,—I submit,—I close with you,—
These little shreds shall, indeed, stand for all.

X.

You friable shore, with trails of debris!
You fish-shaped island! I take what is underfoot:
What is yours is mine, my father!

XI.

I, too, Paumanok,
I, too, have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been washed on your
shores.

XII.

I, too, am but a trail of drift and debris,—
I, too, leave little wrecks upon you, you fished-shaped island!

XIII.

I throw myself upon your breast, my father!
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,—
I hold you so firm, till you answer me something.

XIV.

Kiss me, my father!
Touch me with your lips, as I touch those I love!
Breathe to me, while I hold you close, the secret of the wondrous murmuring I
envy!
For I fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it, and utter myself as well
as it.

XV.

Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!

XVI.

Ebb, ocean of life! (the flow will return,)—
Cease not your moaning, you fierce old mother!
Endlessly cry for your castaways! Yet fear not, deny not me,—
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet, as I touch you, or gather
from you.

XVII.

I mean tenderly by you,—
I gather for myself, and for this phantom, looking down where we lead, and fol-
lowing me and mine.

XVIII.

Me and mine!
We, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoyed hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifted at ran-
dom,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much, whence we come, that blare of the cloud-trumpets,—
We, capricious, brought hither, we know not whence, spread out before you,—
you, up there, walking or sitting,
Whoever you are,—we, too, lie in drifts at your feet.

Notes:

1. Revised as "Leaves of Grass. 1" in Leaves of Grass (1860) and reprinted as "Elemental Drifts," Leaves of Grass (1867). The final version of the poem, "As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life," was published in Leaves of Grass (1881–82). [back]


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