The World Below the Brine by Walt Whitman

“The World Below the Brine” is single stanza, a free verse poem written as a monument to the variety and beauty of life in the ocean. The poem  was first published in 1860, then again in 1867, with a different placement within the text, as part of Whitman’s masterpiece Leaves of Grass. 


Summary of The World Below the Brine

In “The World Below the Brine”  it is the speaker’s goal throughout the piece to acquaint the reader with the vast array of colors, plant and animal life in the sea and make clear the large number of similarities, and differences, between life under the sea and on land. Whitman speaks of the “wars” and “tribes” that exist beneath the ocean and concludes by contemplating what other “sphere” human have yet to encounter and understand.


The World Below the Brine Analysis

The world below the brine;

Forests at the bottom of the sea—the branches and leaves,

Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds—

the thick tangle, the openings, and the pink turf,

This piece begins by introducing the main topic of the poem, what the “world below the brine” looks like and what lives there. By “below the brine” Whitman is referring of course to the ocean. He begins by describing the “branches and leaves,” as well as the “Sea-lettuce,” “lichens” and “strange flowers and seeds” as making up a different kind of forest on the “bottom of the sea.” The arrangement of all of these elements is different from the forests and woods known on land, but very reminiscent of them as well.

The two specific plants that the speaker describes in this stanza are also similar to plants we know on land. Sea-lettuce is a green algae that grows to resemble a leaf of lettuce. This plant can be found all over the ocean floor. The lichens Whitman describes as being “vast,” they are spread out in huge quantities everywhere this speaker looks. Lichen are simple leaflike plants that grow on most of any surface, and can be found under water and on land. This adds another connect to the world above water.

These plants grow in “thick tangles” and as one looks around they will see openings of different life forms and the “pink turf,” perhaps referring to corral or just the variety of colors found on the ocean floor. These colors are elaborated on as the poem continues.

Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold—

the play of light through the water,

Dumb swimmers there among the rocks—coral, gluten, grass, rushes—

and the aliment of the swimmers,

The speaker brings to mind the image of rainbows cast by the reflections in water in the next section. Whitman describes the vast array of colors on can find underwater from gray to gold. This world the speaker is seeing is endlessly complicated and so far, simple and beautiful.

At this point Whitman introduces moving life, without naming any creatures in particular. The speaker is seeing “dumb swimmers” swimming around the rocks. This is referring to small creatures, any that floats or swims on instinct alone. Moving through the ocean surviving on what it encounters. The speaker sees “coral, gluten, grass, rushes” all of these things listed one after another add to the picture of the sea as being full of life. Also present are the “ailment” of the swimmers, creatures that would prey on those that cannot defend themselves.

Sluggish existences grazing there, suspended, or slowly crawling

close to the bottom,

The sperm-whale at the surface, blowing air and spray, or disporting

with his flukes,

Whitman now introduces a number of contrasting elements in an effort to show the variety and diversity of life. There are those leading “sluggish existences” crawling around slowly on the bottom of the ocean, but there are also sperm whales “at the surface” spraying water into the air as they come up to breathe.

The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard,

and the sting-ray;

Passions there—wars, pursuits, tribes—sight in those ocean-depths—

breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do;

Further contrasts follow, and danger is introduced with the “leaden-eyed shark.” The eyes are described as being of lead because they are dark and without light, and perhaps mercy. Immediately after this is mentioned the walrus, not a supremely dangerous animal, but one that should not be tempted. Much less dangerous is the turtle, sea-leopard, and finally the sting-ray. Not only are these creature different in the dangers they pose but also in their shape and form. All manner of life resides beneath the brine.

Also found, are “passions.” Whitman describes the life in the ocean as having “wars, pursuits, tribes.” He is imbued them with the ability to form alliances and make choices to better their own lives. He makes this choice to draw additional parallels to our own lives in which these are common features of humankind. They have “sight” and awareness. The next line is another way of drawing parallels as the creatures of the ocean are said to breathe that “thick-breathing air, as so many do.” This could be referring to the water itself that acts as the air for many sea creatures, or it could be another way of “humanizing” these life forms, relating them to our own need for air.

The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings

like us, who walk this sphere;

The change onward from ours, to that of beings who walk other spheres.

The poem concludes with a consideration of all beings living in “this sphere.” As the speaker has come to understand more about the creatures of the sea, they have also come to see how similar, and different, they are from the creatures that live above land, both humans and non-human animals alike. This realization has made the speaker consider life that may reside in “other spheres” that humankind has yet to encounter or understand.


About Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and lived with his parents and eight other sibling in New York City. By the time that Whitman was twelve he had started to become interest in the written word as he learned the printer’s trade. He would work in this trade until he became a teacher at the age of seventeen in 1836. His teaching career would continue until 1841 when he turned to journalism.Throughout the 40’s Whitman founded, worked at, and edited multiple New York papers. In 1855 Whitman copyrighted the first edition of Leaves of Grass and then released a second edition a year later.

Whitman worked as a nurse during the Civil War and traveled throughout the New York area recording what he saw. He struggled for most of his life and only found the acclaim he has today after his death in 1892.

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