Facing West From California’s Shores by Walt Whitman

Here is an analysis of Walt Whitman’s poem Facing West From California’s Shores, which the poet wrote in 1860 and added to Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems known as the artist’s seminal work, in 1867. While many of the poems included in the collection are related to nature, Whitman also wrote ones that are considered to be patriotic. Other poems, like Facing West from California’s Shores, also document major events in American history. These events range from the acquisition of lands and territories, such as California, to the death of President Abraham Lincoln (Arguably Whitman’s most favorite work, O Captain! My Captain! is an elegy written in memory of the president).


Facing West From California’s Shores Summary

Written in 1860, many people believe Facing West From California’s Shores to have been written about California becoming the thirty-first state in America. The speaker of the poem seems to be the United States personified. The country is looking to the west from California, wondering what lands lie on the other side. With America’s expansion into California, many came to the realization that it was the farthest the country could expand in the west. This poem recognizes that, but it also revels in looking at the old world from the shores of the new.


Breakdown Analysis of Facing West from California’s Shores

In this poem, Walt Whitman uses free verse. Additionally, the poem does not have a regular meter. There is also nothing much to say about the form: the poem is only one stanza long and merely eleven lines long. Also something of note is the fact that the entire poem is only one sentence long. While the structure and form seem simple, in typical Whitman fashion, the poem is multi-layered and can be read on many different levels. The best way to analyse is to look at the poem line by line.

The first line reads, “Facing west, from California’s shores,” which provides the setting of Facing West From California’s Shores, obviously near the shoreline of California. The second line continues the thought started in the first. It reads, “Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound…” At this point, the poem’s speaker has not been revealed. The reader does not know who is facing west, seeking what has yet to be found, but the audience can infer from the third line that the speaker is not Whitman himself; instead, it is the land mass that is America. The third line reads, “I, a child, very old, over waves, towards the house of maternity, the land of migrations, look afar…” This line is an example of Whitman at his finest, jamming his lines with personification, juxtaposition, and imagery.

The landmass that is the United States is talking about what she is doing on her most western shore. Secondly, Whitman presents the reader with a contradiction: how can a child be very old? In this section, he juxtaposes the new world—the United States—with the old landmass that has been around for millions of years. America, the land of immigrants, is looking out towards the countries lying on the other side of the ocean, calling them the “house of maternity” and the “land of migrations.”

The speaker of Facing West From California’s Shores then starts to name the lands beyond the ocean, “starting westward from Hindustan, from the vales of Kashmere…” In this line, the speaker is obviously talking about India. Hindustan refers geographically to the northern part of India, and the valleys of Kashmere are also located in this general region. The speaker then draws out from this area to Asia at large. Whitman writes, “From Asia—from the north—from the God, the sage, and the hero.” He continues his journey, this time referring to other, more exotic lands. He writes, “From the south—from the flowery peninsulas, and the spice islands…” The Spice Islands are in Indonesia, and thanks to Whitman’s diction, particularly in his use of the word “flowery,” the islands provide a very different picture than the one previously painted in the Indian valleys. In the next line, the speaker returns back to his shore, saying, “Long having wander’d since—round the earth having wander’d, Now I face home again—very pleased and joyous…” This line can really be interpreted in two very different ways. First, the speaker may be feeling pleased and joyous from looking out across the sea at the different lands; however, it can also be read that the speaker is happy to have finally returned back home.

Whitman ends Facing West From California’s Shores with two questions for the reader: “(But where is what I started for, so long ago? And why is it yet unfound?)” These last two lines add a feeling of restlessness and discontent to the poem. The pleasure and joy from the previous line seems to have disappeared and been replaced with confusion. The speaker sought out long ago to find what he was seeking—the reader can speculate that this could be anything, really, but the disappointing fact is that the speaker has not yet found what he has been searching for. Perhaps these two lines represent the disappointment in knowing that America can expand no further, at least in the west.


Historical Context

It was an exciting yet tumultuous time to be an American during Whitman’s day. The young country had spent four long years divided and fighting, but it was also a time of expansion and new discoveries. America quickly grew in all directions, from California to Florida to Maine. This poem is a perfect representation of that expansion, and it also reflects the feelings Americans had toward their ever-growing country, particularly with the two questions at the end of Facing West From California’s Shores. Whitman seems to be asking when will it be enough? When will the United States be finished gathering all of their land?

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