Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Sea, The
Author:
Kuebrich, David
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Along with such natural phenomena as the stars, the earth, and the grass, the sea is one of the natural facts that serves as a major religious symbol in Leaves of Grass. It has a pervasive presence: making its initial appearance in the third poem, "In Cabin'd Ships at Sea," it frequently reappears throughout the succeeding pages, sometimes rising up prominently to give its name to poems and sequences, for example, "Song for All Seas, All Ships" and "Sea-Drift," but more often serving as a leitmotif that subtly infuses a range of spiritual values. It forms the thematic center of a larger pattern of aquatic symbolism in Leaves which includes the rain, sea-breezes, rivers, the pond in "Calamus," and other bodies of water such as the swamp of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd." Taken as a whole, these waters constitute the most important symbolism in Whitman's poetry.

An adequate approach to Whitman's use of the sea and other waters must consider his symbolic practice within the context of two related aspects of his poetic. The first, which pertains to the existential dynamics of religious symbolism, is grounded in the fact that although the conceptual meaning of a religious symbol can be grasped intellectually, its existential power derives from the natural fact being encountered as a religious experience that speaks to the depths of the human personality, which Whitman terms the "soul." Accordingly, Whitman enjoins his readers to encounter the sea and other symbols not only in Leaves but also in the book of nature, inscribed by God, where they can be experienced in their numinous power. In addition, he calls for a spiritually active or "athletic" reader who will bring a prepared soul both to the divine text and the poet's commentary on it.

The second relevant aspect of the poetic pertains to the interpretation of the symbol. Whitman requires that the reader join in the creation of meaning in a process in which the poet provides accompanying "hints" and "suggestions" which the reader is to fuse with the emotions induced by her or his soul's encounter with natural fact. In this way, the reader will be able to realize the text's implied but ineffable spiritual meanings. To grasp Whitman's full range of accompanying commentary, the reader must recognize, as Whitman himself always insisted, that Leaves has a considerable amount of textual coherence, and so it must be read not as an anthology of individual poems but as a unified work. Accordingly, it is necessary to attend to the meanings that Whitman's symbols assume as they recur throughout the text, and to bring to any particular instance of a symbol possible related meanings that are attached to its other occurrences in the larger text.

Whitman adapts the structure of his aquatic symbolism to fit diverse thematic contexts and he invests it with a number of related meanings. However, despite this surface multiplicity, an analysis of the essential form and import of this symbolism reveals it to be consistent with the usage of aquatic symbolism in various religious systems: the waters are associated with purification and renewal and with a spiritual matrix or divinity that precedes the creation and takes it back to itself. An awareness of the transhistorical structure and meaning of aquatic symbolism can serve a heuristic purpose in interpreting Whitman's usage; however, it is always necessary to supplement an archetypal reading with the specific nuances of Whitman's text.

In both Whitman's poetry and prose, the sea functions as a symbol of the divine source of humanity and the rest of creation. (This level of meaning is often implicit and must be inferred, as noted above, from its recurring usage.) In "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," Whitman imagines the entities of the natural world as having emerged from a divine sea, and he establishes his spiritual unity with the soil of Long Island by pointing to their common emergence out of these mysterious waters: "I too have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been wash'd on your shores" (section 3). Similarly, in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" he draws upon the symbolic power of the waters of the harbor to establish a sense of a timeless spiritual realm, and then he uses this to create a spiritual kinship with his future readers by reminding them that at an earlier time he also proceeded from the same eternal waters as they have: "I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution" (section 5). Conversely, after their finite existence, humans are conceived of as flowing back into these mystic waters. In "To Old Age" human death and the soul's return to God are analogized to an "estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly as it pours in the great sea." Whitman uses the same comparison in Democratic Vistas: "[M]ortal life is most important with reference to the immortal, the unknown, the spiritual, the only permanently real, which as the ocean waits for and receives the rivers, waits for us each and all" (Prose Works 2:403).

In a related use of this symbolism, Whitman frequently compares death and the soul's journey into the afterlife to a ship's voyage into the open sea. The soul's human existence is analogous to a ship at anchor, and the lifting of the anchor symbolizes the soul's emancipation and eligibility for a higher stage of existence characterized by a more comprehensive participation in the divine nature. For instance, in "Joy, Shipmate, Joy!," Whitman depicts himself jubilantly calling to his soul at the moment of death: "The long, long anchorage we leave, / The ship is clear at last, she leaps!"

To a certain extent this symbolism also reflects Whitman's concern to adapt traditional symbols to modern thought, in this case contemporary evolutionary science. For instance, in "Eidólons" (a Greek term Whitman uses for "symbols"), he asserts that the modern poet is "impell'd" to "newer, higher pinnacles, / From science and the modern." One important way Whitman altered his thought in response to science was to develop a new understanding of the afterlife as an ongoing process. Because then contemporary theory in geology, astronomy, and pre-Darwinian evolutionary biology indicated a process of ongoing, progressive development, Whitman formulated a new understanding of the afterlife as a process in which the soul continued to advance toward progressively higher stages of participation in divinity. Thus Whitman never describes the soul's embarkation after human death as a final voyage but rather as the soul's entrance into a higher spiritual state: "I will not call it our concluding voyage, / But outset and sure entrance to the truest, best, maturest" ("Sail Out for Good, Eidólon Yacht!"). As Whitman projects the soul's posthuman existence in "Passage to India," it will travel through many future seas, but it can do so without fear ("O daring joy, but safe!"), for "are they not," he asks, "all the seas of God?" (section 9).

With the sea representing the divine or the spiritual in Whitman's poetry, the land represents the natural world, and the shoreline becomes a meeting point between the two worlds and thus an appropriate location for spiritual perception and poetic inspiration. In various poems, for instance, "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," "By Blue Ontario's Shore," "When I Heard at the Close of the Day," and "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," Whitman receives an important revelation at the seashore. Also the margins of lesser bodies of water sometimes function in a similar way. For example, in "Calamus" Whitman indicates that the calamus grass is the symbol of a manly love which has a spiritual source and significance by plucking it from the margins of a pond that, like Thoreau's Walden, has an otherworldly depth. After announcing that he has collected symbols from across the world, Whitman passes beyond "the gates" so he can "now draw from the water" the calamus root, "the token of comrades" ("These I Singing in Spring").

Whitman's immersions in the sea are another permutation of the above elements of sea symbolism. They entail a crossing of the mystic juncture and also a form of death and rebirth in which the poet returns to the spiritual source of his being and reemerges in a more pure or noetic state. Thus in section 22 of "Song of Myself," it is appropriate that Whitman immerses himself in the sea just prior to his explicit celebration of the sanctity of his body and sexuality. Similarly, in the most intimate of the "Calamus" poems, "When I Heard at the Close of the Day," Whitman indicates the spiritual dimensions of this love by bathing himself in the sea prior to meeting his comrade. In a related use of this imagery, Whitman describes his effort to sanctify U.S. democracy ("Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood") and to bless Lincoln's death ("When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd") as a sending of sea sounds and sea breezes across the seashore and onto the land.

Because the sea and associated waters are so pervasive and can assume so many forms, the symbolism is an apt vehicle for conveying a rich multiplicity of meanings. Throughout Leaves, in one guise or another, it whispers to the soul messages of divine love, of immortality, of personal renewal, and of the sanctity of the body, manly love, the democratic nation and the entire creation.

Bibliography

Eliade, Mircea. Patterns in Comparative Religion. 1958. Trans. Rosemary Sheed. Cleveland: World, 1970.

Kuebrich, David. Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. Updated ed. Boston: Hall, 1990.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.


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