Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd" (1865)
Author:
Duggar, Margaret H.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd," first published in Drum-Taps in 1865, was included in "Children of Adam" in 1871, where it follows the ecstatic celebration of sexual union, "One Hour to Madness and Joy." By tradition, according to notes in Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, the poem was originally addressed to a female admirer who championed Whitman's poetry against the resistance of her husband.

Though the occasion for the composition of the poem may have been personal, its function in "Adam" is thematic. It addresses the existential crisis of individuality occasioned by the fall into selfhood following the intense affirmation of the body and the sensory life celebrated in "One Hour" and other poems leading up to "Rolling Ocean." The "drop" cohered out of the "rolling ocean" expresses the fragility and vulnerability of the mortal flesh made self-aware. Though the drop is not specifically identified as female in the poem, the solicitous tone of the poetic persona and the humble demeanor of the drop suggest a self-effacing daring often represented as feminine in the nineteenth century.

The presumed femininity of the drop also fits Whitman's mythic structure. As he told Horace Traubel in 1888, "Leaves of Grass is essentially a woman's book" (Traubel 331). Of the forces that combine to produce the self, the body is "Physical matter . . . Female and Mother" but contains "corruption and decease"; "the Soul of the Universe is the Male and genital master," as Whitman wrote in notes published in Walt Whitman's Workshop (49). Thus the ecstatic celebration of the body designed to produce the fully realized identity in "Adam" also exposes the transience of the flesh expressed in the mutability of the individual drop.

The solution to this existential dilemma is the "great rondure," the pooled selfhood of self-aware souls. This spiritual community—"the common air that bathes the globe" in section 17 of "Song of Myself"—is best expressed in a democratic literature that, as in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," links kindred souls through space and time. "Every day at sundown" as the eternal light of the sun departs from physical matter, leaving it exposed to awareness of its own "corruption and decease," in "Rolling Ocean" the poet salutes "the air," the common spiritual bond; "the ocean," the mutable sensory life; and "the land," the fixed principles through which a reclaimed certainty ultimately may be achieved. In another poem, "In Cabin'd Ships at Sea," Whitman calls his book "not a reminiscence of the land alone" but a "lone bark" bearing "my love" through "liquid-flowing syllables" in "ocean's poem."

Bibliography

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

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

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. 1908. Vol. 2. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 196l.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.

____. Walt Whitman's Workshop: A Collection of Unpublished Manuscripts. Ed. Clifton Joseph Furness. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1928.


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