Walt Whitman is one of the most influential American poets. He was born in 1819 in Long Island, but his family soon moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman spent almost all his life. New York was the city he admired, and at the same time saw clearly all its disadvantages. His family was rather poor, so since his early years he experienced hardships and learnt what it meant to be a person of low social status. One of his first jobs was at the printers, but later he redirected his career into the sphere of journalism. He worked in various newspapers and became the editor of ‘The Brooklyn Eagle’. After publishing ‘Leaves of Grass’, Whitman’s life became more connected with literature than journalism, but he always was very passionate about important social and political issues. The most famous collection of Whitman’s poems, ‘Leaves of Grass’, was praised by Emerson but the public was not unanimous in its reaction. The book was criticized for being too radical and referring to some “trashy, profane” issues (Reynolds, 2005). In ‘The Leaves of Grass’ Whitman freely talks of homosexuality, the physical beauty of body, love without the approval of church, etc. The significance of this book for American literature is immense and some critics even “placed ‘Leaves of Grass’ among the classics of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare” (Loving, 2000).
One of my favorite poems by Whitman is ‘On the Beach at Night’. It explores the themes that the poet frequently refers to in his works – the interconnections between seemingly different people, the responsibility of the poet for psychological and philosophical well-being of society, the links between death and life, etc.
In this poem Whitman speaks to a child standing with her father on a beach. The general atmosphere is quite dark and the clouds seem to take control of the sky. The child is crying, but the poet being the lyrical narrator explains that there are no reasons to weep as the life is diverse and some things are more important than this dark night.
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The focus of this poem is the monologue of the narrator addressed to a weeping child. “Whitman had a messianic vision of himself as the quintessential democratic poet who could help cure the many ills of his materialistic… society” (Reynolds, 2005). However, in this poem Whitman expands this social and political responsibility even further. He is desperate to sooth the pain of the child and shows her that there is always some light ahead. Whitman writes, “With these kisses let me remove your tears, / The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious” (Whitman). The poet explains to the child that stars are important, but at the end of the poem he makes another ‘suggestion’ that “something there is more immortal even than the stars” (Whitman). However, there is no univocal answer to what it actually is. The poet allows the readers to find their own answer to this question. In my opinion, Whitman suggests that life in itself is more immortal than everything else.
To support this idea, Whitman uses many devices and techniques. For example, there are numerous examples of alliteration in the text of the poem. The repetition of the letter ‘w’ in such words as “Watching… weeps… Weep …Weep…With” (Whitman) imitates the sound of wind that blows on a beach. The epithets used by Whitman are also very impressive. The word-combinations like “ravening clouds”, “long-enduring pensive moons” allow the readers to imagine the atmosphere of that night in details (Whitman).
To conclude, Whitman’s poetry, even despite the fact that it sometimes deals with tragic and unpleasant things, is very optimistic in its nature. It creates a feeling that the person is not alone in this world and he would be supported, first of all, by the poet who once wrote the lines the reader is looking at now and then by the rest of humanity that consists in fact by the same people who usually have the same joys and sorrows.
"On the Beach at Night" by Walt Whitman
On the beach at night,
Stands a child with her father,
Watching the east, the autumn sky.
Up through the darkness,
While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.
From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,
Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,
Watching, silently weeps.
Weep not, child,
Weep not, my darling,
With these kisses let me remove your tears,
The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,
Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge,
They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.
Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?
Something there is,
(With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)
Something there is more immortal even than the stars,
(Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)
Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter
Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,
Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.