‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ was published as a part of Whitman’s famous collection Leaves of Grass. The poem is part of the section of the volume titled “Sea Shore,” a part of Leaves of Grass that deals with the sea, as well as other commonly discussed themes. These include life, growing up, and the meaning of existence. In this particular poem, the poet describes an existential crisis that comes over him while he’s visiting his home.
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Throughout this poem, the poet takes the reader through complex, beautiful, and personal images that describe his quest to find a side of himself that he has not yet touched. The poet states that through his poetry he has only been able to express his ego. There is much that he does not understand about himself. But, it is being conveyed to him through the mysteries of the ocean he’s walking beside.
He relates himself to the debris at his feet and sees himself as just as much a part of his island, Long Island, as the rest of the nature that influences it. The poet also addresses the “deity” who is sometimes referred to as a father, sometimes suggested to be nature, and other times appears to be a traditional Christian god-like figure. Whitman’s, or his speaker’s, existential crisis in this poem comes to a conclusion as he seeks out the truth of existence through nature.
‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ by Walt Whitman is a four-part poem that is divided into sections of varying lengths. The first part is made up of two stanzas, the second: three, the third: five, and the fourth has three stanzas again. All of these stanzas are different lengths with lines that range from four words up to seventeen.
Whitman is often referred to as the father of free verse poetry and this poem is no exception. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. But, that doesn’t mean that that they totally without either. A close reader can find examples of half-rhyme, rhythm, and numerous other literary and poetic devices in ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’.
Whitman engages with numerous themes in ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’. The most important of these is identity. It is closely followed by nature, memories, and the past. The poet spends the entire poem exploring how to understand his identity. He eventually comes to the conclusion by the end of the poem that the best and only way to successfully do this is not through arrogant poetry but through prolonged periods in nature. He sees the ocean as a symbol of his identity and the identities of all other human beings. The shore is used as a metaphor for the path he’s walking. But, at the same time, he’s all the things combined. He is the ocean, the sand, the wind, and the debris that washes up on the beach.
Whitman makes use of several literary devices in ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’. These include but are not limited to anaphora, enjambment, metaphor, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, is seen through the repetition of words benign with the same sound. For example, “baffled, balk’d, bent” in line one of the second stanza in part two.
Whitman also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. It can be seen in the first five lines of the poem. The first three lines make use of the words “As I” while the fourth and fifth start with the word “Where”.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines three and four of the second stanza of part two.
As I ebb’d with the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk’d where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,
Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems,
Was seiz’d by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.
In the first stanza of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ the poet begins by describing what it’s like to move on the “ocean of life“. The repetition of “As I” help create the correct rhythm for the scene. A reader might imagine the movement of the tides on the shore or the ways that floating boats and birds bob up and down on the water.
Whitman uses figurative language in these lines to describe what it’s like to be alive. Specifically, he is talking about Long Island, New York where he is originally from. But, rather than refer to it as “Long Island” he calls it “Paumanok,” the traditional Native American name for the area. Either way, it’s his home.
The poet uses personification to describe the way that the sea is talking to him. He is caught by the sight and sound of it. He’s staring off into the distance experiencing the energy of the world. He’s seized by it, and swept off into a trail of metaphors and imagery that describe life itself. He’s on a trail which leads all around the earth, on land and water.
Fascinated, my eyes reverting from the south, dropt, to follow those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide,
Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses,
These you presented to me you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk’d with that electric self seeking types.
In the second stanza of part one of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’, the speaker opens by saying that he was fascinated by the trails that wove along the beach. He walks, turning his attention to the various things that he can see washed up on the shore. There is “straw, splinters of wood, weeds” and much more. It appears as a miscellany of worthless items but to the speaker, this imagery is quite important. It’s representative of a larger world. This is an overwhelming experience that is followed constantly by the “breaking waves the other side of” the speaker.
The speaker is also considering the past at this time. Again, Long Island is his home and he engages with his memories.. As he “wended” along the shoreline he came across “self seeking types”. These are others like himself. They to carry the same “electric“ energy and interest in the world.
As I wend to the shores I know not,
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck’d,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift,
A few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.
Part two of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ begins with another example of anaphora seen through the repetition of the words “As I”. They are very similar in form to the opening lines of the first part. Now, contrasting with the previous stanzas, he’s walking somewhere that he does not know. There, he hears a dirge or a funeral march in the voices of drowned men and women from shipwreck. He uses all his senses, sight. hearing and smell as he “inhales the impalpable breezes” that set in upon him.
There’s some thing more somber about these lines especially as the poet seems to be building toward something. The ocean is “mysterious” now has it “rolls toward him closer and closer”. In the second half of the stanza the poet compares himself to the “washed up drift” that he was describing in the previous stanza. These things, as they gather together, create the speaker. He is part of the “sands and drift”.
O baffled, balk’d, bent to the very earth,
Oppress’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.
It’s in the second stanza of part two of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ that the speaker comes to the beginning of the existential crisis that marks this poem out. He expresses confusion over who he is or who he’s become since the last time he visited his home. This is related to the fact that he wandered from a place he knew to the place he did not.
The speaker is looking to his past and everything that he’s done. He has “not once had the least idea” who or what he is. He knows that the poems he has written do not reveal to him the truth of his own existence. The real him stands yet “untouch’d, untold, / altogether unreach’d” (examples of syncope).
He uses repetition in the next line when he expresses his experience of this mysterious self. That self, so obvious yet unreachable, mocks him from a distance. He hears it and sees it through all the words he has written. They, purporting to represent something of the speaker’s personal life, are truly meaningless. The poems are nothing more than his ego talking. A reader should keep their eyes open for examples of alliteration in all of the stanzas of this poem.
I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.
In the third stanza of the second part of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’, the speaker describes how it’s more than just his own identity that he’s having trouble reconciling. He believes that he has never understood “anything”. There’s not one single object that he has completely comprehended. But, perhaps in comfort, he also believes that he’s not the only one. He thinks that no one in all of the history of humankind has ever understood the world.
You oceans both, I close with you,
We murmur alike reproachfully rolling sands and drift, knowing not why,
These little shreds indeed standing for you and me and all.
The third part of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ is made up of a series of shorter stanzas. They are all three or four lines long, making them quatrains or tercets. This section of the poems opens with the speaker addressing both sides of his self. There is the side that he has tried to express unsuccessfully through his poetry and that which he has never reached. Both of these are described as oceans. These two oceans, he says, are combining. The ocean is used as a metaphor for the speaker’s self. But, not just for him, for all human life.
You friable shore with trails of debris,
You fish-shaped island, I take what is underfoot,
What is yours is mine my father.
While the first stanza of this section of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ seems to suggest that some kind of unification is imminent, the next stanza breaks that. He refers to the shores as “friable,” or easily crumbled. There’s debris everywhere. This suggests that things are not going to be quite as easy as the speaker suggested. The shore is hard to traverse. The “fish-shaped island” of Long Island is what he takes “underfoot”. It is there as a representative of the path he needs to take through life. It is nature and it is “father”. It is the source of his life and his future.
I too Paumanok,
I too have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been wash’d on your shores,
I too am but a trail of drift and debris,
I too leave little wrecks upon you, you fish-shaped island.
There is some of the sought-for unity in the next stanza of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ as the poet uses anaphora to describe how he is part of the natural world. He’s part of his home, part of the water surrounding it, and part of the land on which he walks. He too is “but a trail of drift and debris” and he too leaves “little wrecks upon you, you fish shaped island”. He’s left his marks on the island just as the water does. Just as the debris that washes up onshore.
Stanza Four and Five
I throw myself upon your breast my father,
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,
I hold you so firm till you answer me something.
Kiss me my father,
Touch me with your lips as I touch those I love,
Breathe to me while I hold you close the secret of the murmuring I envy.
This part of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ concludes with two more three-line stanzas that are addressed to “father”. This is again, nature. He describes how he desires to throw himself upon nature in cling to it so that he cannot be shaken loose. He desires attention. He’s looking for answers, truth, and an access point to the part of himself that he’s been unable to touch with his poetry.
Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,)
Cease not your moaning you fierce old mother,
Endlessly cry for your castaways, but fear not, deny not me,
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet as I touch you or gather from you.
The final part of the ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ is three stanzas long. The first with four lines, the second with two and third with fifteen. Something appears to have changed in this final part of the poem. He has come to the realization that his life, and all life, is more like the tide than he initially realized. The tide goes out but “the flow will return”. It ebbs away and then comes back. There is sorrow in life, there is happiness, and there is fear. But, the speaker describes, one should not forget that there is also hope. The ocean takes away and the ocean gives back with the flowing of the tide.
I mean tenderly by you and all,
I gather for myself and for this phantom looking down where we lead, and following me and mine.
The unity of the previous stanza of ‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’ is reasserted in the second stanza of the fourth part. Here he addresses “you and all”. This is directed at the elements of nature, mother and father nature, as well as the rest of the world. He also refers to a phantom that’s looking down on him, like a God. Whitman describes this godlike diety as part of the earth but also in this instance as above the earth looking down on it.
Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
(See, from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last,
See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,)
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoy’d hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much whence we come that blare of the cloud-trumpets,
We, capricious, brought hither we know not whence, spread out before you,
You up there walking or sitting,
Whoever you are, we too lie in drifts at your feet.
In the last lines of‘As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life’, the poet zooms back and takes an all-encompassing approach to the world around him. He feels as if everything is his. From the lines on the ground to the “Froth, snowy white” in the ocean. It bubbles as if from lips breathing. He describes himself as part of the ocean, part of the drowned contingent of people he previously mentioned. But, it is not something horrifying. He speaks of colors and uses words like “glistening” to describe the state.
The poem concludes with the speaker addressing nature again as a powerful and ever-present force that’s in control of all aspects of the speaker’s life. This is seen again through the movements of the tide, the shoreline, and the image of the deity looking down from above.
He feels himself in the last lines joined with the sea and made a part of the wider world. It appears that he has come to terms with the part of himself that he did not previously understand. It was always there in the world around him waiting for him to seek it out, a very transcendental point of view. He believes that “you,” the deity sitting above, provide a place for everyone to drift, existence, and seek out the truth.