Selected Criticism

"By That Long Scan of Waves" (1885)
Folton, Joe Boyd
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 August of 1885 with seven other poems in the group Fancies at Navesink, "By That Long Scan of Waves" was later incorporated into "Sands at Seventy" in the 1889 printing of Leaves of Grass. The poem serves as a summation of Whitman's career and poses a tableau wherein the light and dark playing on the "long scan of waves" recalls for the poet all the positive and negative experiences of his life.

As in other poems, Whitman uses the image of the sea with its continuous roll and flow to suggest both the passage of time and timelessness. Whitman's use of sea imagery also suggests, as Mark Bauerlein observes, a primordial mother figure that unites birth and death in an endless cycle. Thus, in "Waves" each wave recalls a "by-gone phase" of the poet's life: youth, joy, travels, studies, the Civil War. Reflecting on his life with "old age at hand," Whitman fears that despite his "grand ideal," the totality remains "a nothing." The "grand ideal" may refer to Leaves of Grass, with the "scan" of the waves suggesting poetic meter. Even in 1889, the dominant literary establishment still rejected Whitman's poetry, and in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1888) he laments the public's "anger and contempt" (Whitman 562).

Whitman consoles himself in "Waves" with the certainty that, while his efforts may be unappreciated, they are still "some drop within God's scheme's ensemble." Compared to major works like "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1860), "Waves" receives little critical attention, but it chronicles a moment in the poet's life and plays a significant, albeit small, part in Whitman's own ensemble.


Bauerlein, Mark. Whitman and the American Idiom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991.

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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