Selected Criticism

"On the Beach at Night Alone" (1856)
Fulton, Joe Boyd
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Originally titled "Clef Poem" in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, "On the Beach at Night Alone" is a truncated version of its precursor. Revising his poems for the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman, according to Thomas Crawley, made his poems more concise by reducing sexual references. Whitman cut nearly half of the lines from "Beach," removing passages treating death and sexuality. While the poet in the 1856 "Clef Poem" wonders if the "pink nipples" of his sleeping partners will "taste the same" in the afterlife, the poet in the 1867 "Beach" speaks in far more abstract terms.

Despite the title change, however, the motif of the "clef" remains in the latter version. Whitman retains the line "I think a thought of the clef of the universes," using the French word for key to indicate the clue or key with which to unlock the secrets of the cosmos. Whitman portrays himself as apprehending an insight into the universe that will grant the reader "key" insight. Recalling "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856), Whitman describes a "vast similitude" that unifies all time, all people, and all places.

"On the Beach at Night Alone" may be classed among Whitman's minor poems, but has been the focus of increasing critical attention due to the revisions between the 1856 and 1867 editions of Leaves of Grass. The poet in 1867 expresses himself with more confidence, no longer asking questions about the future, but offering answers. Although less startling than "Clef Poem," "Beach" emerges as a more unified poem, with Whitman focusing directly on the metaphysical issues that form the crux of his interest.


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

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.


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