The Ship Starting

Walt Whitman


Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman is known as the father of free verse poetry.

His deeply emotional, spiritual, and nature-based poems appeal to poetry lovers around the world.

In ‘The Ship Starting’ Whitman uses powerful imagery, as well as other literary techniques in order to paint a picture of a ship staring out to sea. The poem taps briefly into themes such as travel, bravery, strife, and strength. ‘The Ship Starting’ is quite short at only six lines long, especially compared to some of Whitman’s other works, such as those in Leaves of Grass. It allows the reader a brief insight into this ship’s world and through its brevity is even more impactful.

The Ship Starting
Walt Whitman

Lo, the unbounded sea, On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails, carrying even her moonsails, The pennant is flying aloft as she speeds she speeds so stately— below emulous waves press forward, They surround the ship with shining curving motions and foam.
The Ship Starting by Walt Whitman


The Ship Starting’ by Walt Whitman is an image-rich poem that depicts a ship starting out to sea in dangerous waters.

The poem is only six lines long but in those six lines, Whitman details several different aspects of the ship. He also personifies the waves, allowing them a power that paints a very clear image of the scene in a reader’s head. 


‘The Ship Starting’ by Walt Whitman is a six-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. This is a style of writing known as free verse. It was pioneered in American by Whitman during his lifetime. 

Despite the lack of fixed end rhymes, there are examples of half-rhyme within the six lines of ‘The Ship Starting’. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “breast” and “spread” in line two both contain a short “e” vowel sound and “motions” and “foam” with the similar long “o” sound. 

Poetic Techniques 

Whitman also made use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Ship Starting’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, sibilance, enjambment, and imagery. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “forward” and “foam” in lines five and six. Sibilance is similar to alliteration but it is concerned with soft vowel sounds such as “s” and “th”. 

This kind of repetition usually results in a prolonged hissing or rushing sound. It is often used to mimic another sound, like water, wind, or any kind of fluid movement. This technique appears numerous times in this poem, always in an effort to mimic the rush of water. For example, “spreading” and “sails” in line two and “speeds she speeds so stately” in line four. 

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 two and three as well as between four and five.

Imagery refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. In this case, Whitman uses the prior techniques and images of waves pressing forward, moving the ship, to create a clear image of the ship traveling out to see. 

Analysis of The Ship Starting

Lines 1-3

Lo, the unbounded sea,

On its breast a ship starting, spreading all sails, carrying even

her moonsails.

In the first lines of ‘The Ship Starting,’ the speaker begins by using the word “Lo”. It is used in this context to draw attention to something. In this case, the speaker is drawing the reader’s attention to a ship that is “starting” out into the “unbounded sea”. The sea is “unbound” meaning that there is nothing controlling or restraining it. This creates an immediate image in the reader’s mind of waves that toss and turn. They likely pose a dangerous obstacle for the ship. 

There is on the “breast” or at the peak of the tossing waves, “a ship starting”.This ship is setting out, spreading “all sails”. The third line mentions “her moonsails”. In this line there is an example of personification, referring to the ship as a woman and an allusion to a specific kind of sail the moonraker. This sail is also known as “hope” sail, or “hope-in-heaven” sail. It is the smallest of the sails positioned at the very top of the mast. It might appear as though it could touch the moon. 

A reader should also take note of the use of repetition in these lines, specifically ob sibilance, or the use of words that start with a “s” or “th” sound. In this case, there are numerous words that start with the letter “s”. 

Lines 4-6 

The pennant is flying aloft as she speeds she speeds so stately-

below emulous waves press forward,

They surround the ship with shining curving motions and foam.

Lines four through six of ‘The Ship Starting’ also provide the reader with several examples of sibilance, such as “speeds she speeds”. This is also an interesting example of repetition on its own. It comes after a description of “The pennant” which is “flying aloft”. This is the long narrow flag that is at the very top of the ship. It generally indicates the commission of the captain of the ship. 

The pennant at the top of the mast is juxtaposed against the “emulous waves” that are below the hull. The word “emulous” is used to describe someone or something that is motivated by the spirit of rivalry. In this case, the waves are personified to make it seem as though they are fighting against the ship, trying to win out against it in a battle of strength. They “press forward,” allowing the ship a means of movement, but also a force that it has to battle. 

In the final lines, the waves are described as surrounding the ship with “shining curving motions and foam”. There is a great deal of movement in these lines. It is quite easy to allow Whitman’s imagery to take over and paint a picture of the sea and the ship on it.

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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