Selected Criticism

"With Husky-Haughty Lips, O Sea!" (1884)
Baldwin, David B.
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 Harper's Monthly (March 1884), this twenty-three-line poem describes Whitman's response to the sea during a week's visit to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, with John Burroughs in September and October, 1883. Found in the Leaves of Grass cluster "Sands at Seventy," it joins numerous other poems involving the sea, most especially the eight-poem group "Fancies at Navesink," composed around the same time, and the earlier cluster, "Sea-Drift."

The poem's structure follows a familiar Whitman pattern, fashioned to provide the most dramatic impact. The central image is first presented with the poet's involvement immediately established as he addresses the sea, which responds with its "varied strange suggestions." Extending this personification in a series of descriptive lines, he portrays the sea's complex, shifting moods until there takes place a kind of apotheosis: the sea sounds have seemed to the listener "the first and last confession of the globe." That confession, for Whitman, is "the tale of cosmic elemental passion." The connection with the poet, prepared for in the parenthetical "sounding, appealing to the sky's deaf ear—but now, rapport for once," is made through a key word in the last line, "kindred": "Thou tellest to a kindred soul." The arrangement has been less linear than circular, less descriptive than reflective. The poet retains the opening role as listener but has added a major idea: that his role is also that of a companion.

This poem is dominated by the use of personification, a device much favored by nineteenth-century writers and one that often led to mawkish sentimentality or absurd exaggeration. Whitman's poetry is seldom guilty of the first, but sometimes falls into the second, as can be felt here. An ocean seen with an "ample, smiling face" or a "brooding scowl and murk," with "many tears" and in a "lonely state," having a "vast heart, like a planet's" might not be the ocean another onlooker would see. Whitman does perhaps admit to himself that an ocean and a human are not comparable, as he suggests that the ocean can never attain true greatness: there is "a lack from all eternity in thy content / (Naught but the greatest struggles, wrongs, defeats, could make thee greatest—no less could make thee,)"—but this is a stretching of the comparison into the absurd.

By now Whitman is letting his fancy run free with a conceit in which the sea, "by lengthen'd swell, and spasm, and panting breath," is viewed sympathetically because held back, chained, thwarted, letting off a "serpent hiss, and savage peals of laughter / And undertones of distant lion roar." When this sea, constricted like Prometheus, becomes the voice of the earth's cosmic passion, the conceit has become more obscure than apt, remaining admirable only as an instance of Whitman's imaginative reach.

The qualities of the sea selected by the poet are its mixture of moods, its "unsubduedness, caprices, wilfulness," its loneliness, its being forcibly controlled by some greater power, and its passion. With these, to some unspecified degree, Whitman feels allied. The bond is wisely left vague and cryptic. This is not one of his confessional poems; the role of Whitman himself remains generalized. The poem's effectiveness depends on the taste of the reader, who may or may not enter into the poet's imaginative response to the sea on this occasion.


Allen, Gay Wilson, and Charles T. Davis, eds. Walt Whitman's Poems: Selections with Critical Aids. New York: New York UP, 1955.

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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