Walt Whitman: the Rhythm of the Sea

In Specimen Days, Walt Whitman explains how the rhythm of his writing developed from his experience of nature. Cover of Leaves of Grass

From his earliest days, Walt Whitman loved the sea: the toss and rush of the wind-blown waves, the vast expanse of the open ocean, the booming of the surf against the shore. As a boy he planned to write a poem about the sea that would capture all the moods and sounds and sights of the sea and shore. As an adolescent, he knew he couldn’t accomplish that goal in a single poem, so he decided to write a book with the ocean as its theme.

Later he realized that the sea and shore is too great a subject for a poem or a book or even an epic literary project. He concluded that instead of writing about the sea he must let the sea reside within him, empowering his writing with its rhythms and open space and depth. His writing must show that “we have really absorbed each other and understand each other.”

He expanded the idea to include all the great human perceptions of nature: mountains, rivers, forests, prairies. Instead of trying to capture his experience of the entire region in a single piece of writing, he would let his experience of the mountains or rivers or prairies, flow into his words in whatever he was writing.

As Whitman wrote in the 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass, a poet’s role is far more than describing the general beauty of nature. “The land and sea, the animals, fishes and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains and rivers, are not small themes–but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects–they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.”

Man walking alone on sunset beach

Photo by Michal Bednarek

In his poems, Whitman not only indicated the path for experiencing the unity of nature and our own lives but also provided music for the journey in the rhythms of nature incorporated in his words and structure. The rhythm of writing provides its soundtrack and that music links the words’ meaning to our lives, our souls.

In his famous poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” he is writing about a time in his life when he realized his calling to be a poet. The rhythm of the sea flows in the lines and empowers them:

And thenceforward, all summer, in the sound of the sea,
And at night, under the full of the moon, in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals, the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.

Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up, sea-winds, along Paumanok’s shore!
I wait and I wait, till you blow my mate to me.

Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down, almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.

Even the mockingbird sings with the rhythm of the sea in his song–a good idea for any poet.

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2 Responses to Walt Whitman: the Rhythm of the Sea

  1. Mary Mageau says:

    I enjoyed this inspiring blog post. Walt Whitman’s ideas about the rhythms, words and structure of his own writing, were so empowering for anyone attempting to write in this genre. Whitman’s work is elegant and expressive and he does it all so beautifully.

  2. Yes, one of my favourites of his is Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. As a birdwatcher I relate to his love of the mocking birds on the sea. You can feel his empathy for the deserted bird in ‘we two together no more.’ The songs and calls of birds became personified and an inspiration for him to sing his ‘songs.’

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