I’m still making my way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, “Inscriptions”. The next poem is “In Cabin’d Ships at Sea,” and because I missed last week, I’ve thrown in the next poem as well since it’s a short one.
In cabin’d ships at sea,
The boundless blue on every side expanding,
With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves,
Or some lone bark buoy’d on the dense marine,
Where joyous full of faith, spreading white sails,
She cleaves the ether mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under
many a star at night,
By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read,
In full rapport at last.
Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts,
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said,
The sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,
We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,
The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the
briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.
Then falter not O book, fulfil your destiny,
You not a reminiscence of the land alone,
You too as a lone bark cleaving the ether, purpos’d I know not
whither, yet ever full of faith,
Consort to every ship that sails, sail you!
Bear forth to them folded my love, (dear mariners, for you I fold it
here in every leaf;)
Speed on my book! spread your white sails my little bark athwart the
Chant on, sail on, bear o’er the boundless blue from me to every sea,
This song for mariners and all their ships.
I thought this was some lovely writing about ocean-imagery. I think this poem is an extensive metaphor comparing Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lone book, to the “lone bark cleaving the ether” — the lone boat at sea trying to reach both those on land and at sea. Is this another way that Whitman is trying to create a Democratic poem? A poem for everyone, mariners and landlubbers alike? In fact, Whitman even says “Speed on my book!” What a lovely image of a little book boat with white sails for pages and Whitman’s love folded into each page.
From what I remember from 10th grade American literature, in the early years of the United States as a nation, its artists, writers and thinkers struggled to break out from the shadow of high European culture. We still see this today in our obsession over finding the next Great American Novel (just look at the Pulitzers which searches for at least one definitive work every year!) Well, in “To Foreign Lands,” Whitman is officially taking the world up on its challenge to create the definitive American work. I’m guessing the foreign lands that Whitman refers to would be our European neighbors. Doesn’t this remind you of Ashlee Simpson’s song Shadow? It must be hard living in the shadow of your classier, well-established older sister-continent!
“To Foreign Lands”
I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.
So far, it seems that all the poems in the “Inscriptions” section of the book is part of a larger manifesto or map of Whitman’s aspirations for Leaves of Grass. I’m becoming quite curious on his writing process. While his poems are individually interesting, I am having a hard time imagining any of these published independent of one another. Or were all of the poems published all at once in this book? I’ll have to look this up and report back next week.
As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! Are you just tuning in? You’re in luck – since this is only the fourth poem, it’s really easy to catch up on Whitman Wednesday posts!