LBB 10: on the Beach at Night Alone

This book from the Penguin ‘Little Black Classics’ series takes a small selection of poems from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, one of America’s most well-known poets. Leaves of Grass was, as a collection, published in several different editions and radically expanded and amended between 1855 and 1892, the year Whitman died. This Penguin edition makes a small selection from this collection. 

1. Birds of Passage

The poems in the Birds of Passage section, which starts this selection, had a rusty, dusty, frontierland feel about them. There is the hum and bustle of adventure, and of transformation of the fallen individual into the best version of themselves in this, the best of all possible worlds.  In ‘Song of the Universal’ those arriving on the shores of the East Coast, “the bulk, the morbid and the shallow/ […] the bad majority, the countless frauds of men and states” are changed by a “mystic evolution […] health to emerge and joy, joy universal.” America, “the scheme’s culmination” is a place of freedom and equal opportunity, “all eligible to all”. 

Intermixed with this utopian narrative are the twin ironies that the American Dream was, at least in the time of the settlors, predicated on the displacement of the American Indians from their homes and also on the enslavement of many African Americans. This is a military  conquest into the Edenic land of limitless possibility and adds a bitter taste to such hyperbolic passages as “Nature’s amelioration blessing all,/ The blossoms, fruits of ages, orchards divine and certain/ Forms objects, growths, humanities, to spiritual images ripening”.  

The sense of blood split on virgin turf is brought out explicitly in ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’ The pioneers cheer “All the past we leave behind/ We debouch [ie emerge from a confined space into a wide, open area] upon a newer mightier world, varied world,/ Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labour and the march,/ Pioneers! O pioneers”. The march of progress becomes literal as well as metaphorical; it is the trampling underfoot of leaves and grasses, “the virgin soil upheaving,/ Pioneers! O Pioneers”. 

Whitman tends to eschew meter in his poetry in favour of words which fit the sound to his sense. However ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!” has a strong beat and tempo, marking the tramp, tramp of the pioneers’ boots – “On and on the compact ranks”. This beat breaks down in the heat of battle, as many of the pioneers themselves fall underfoot. The lines taper to weak, inconclusive endings with less clear or strong stressed beats – “with the places of the dead quickly fill’d […] Are there some of us to droop and die? Has the hour come?” – perhaps showing a hollowness at the heart of the American Dream (and in the hearts of those who follow it). 

2. Sea Drift

In the latter section of this Penguin collection, Sea-Drift, the poems open up, becoming more visionary and melodic. In poems such as ‘As I Ebbed with the Ocean of Life” (my favourite in this collection) the ebb and flow of the sea comes to act as a powerful metaphor for man’s search for meaning. The anaphora of “As” at the start of the second section crashes likes waves on the resolution: “I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift,/ A few sands and dead leaves to gather,/ Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.” This life, these “Tufts of straw, sands, fragments”, eventually wash up on the ‘shores’ of the poem’s reader, who is addressed directly in the final line: “Whoever you are, we too lie in drifts at your feet.” 

There is also a noticeable epic impulse, or undercurrent, flowing through this collection of Whitman’s poetry. In ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ the poet-speaker sings: “I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter”, echoing the declarative opening of The Iliad: “Sing, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles” and showing Whitman consciously placing himself in the company of Homer, Virgil and Dante. The Longman Anthology of Poetry notes that Whitman was “influenced by the long cadences and rhetorical strategies of Biblical poetry.” Whitman handles this knowledge of the literary tradition he is writing into lightly,  and it is also clear he is aiming for a demotic register. I thought this article comparing Whitman’s place in the literary ‘tradition’ with T S Eliot’s was very interesting. There has been lots written about Whitman’s use of biblical language elsewhere if you want to seek it out. 


After a slow start I came to enjoy reading this collection, having known very little of Whitman beforehand. The mix of the beauty of the land and the blood baked into its soil, the palimpsest of an oppressed history mingling with the consciousness of present beauty, comes out strongly in this collection and challenges you, the reader, to position yourself and to order your thoughts about the subject matter. 

PS This is the tenth  in my series of reviews and reflections on the Penguin Little Black Classics series. Each month I read a new one and post my thoughts on this blog. For the full list of posts, please click here.

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