(Poem #498) The World Below the Brine
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 openings, and pink turf, 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, 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, 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, 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.
Today's poem is striking for the sheer density of its imagery, and the skilful way it has been used to create an impression of a rich, crowded undersea world, teeming with life and motion. Whitman's nature poetry stands in sharp contrast to that of earlier poets, in that he makes little attempt to 'tame' his subject and capture it neatly in the precise geometrical framework of a poem. Rather, he sees the world as alive and chaotic, and is content to let that life and vividness overflow and spill through the page, leaving always the impression of something far vaster than we can conceive. Construction: Like a lot of Whitman's poems, this one is beautifully crafted. The predominant technique here is the list of images, presented in rapid succession so that no one image stands out; the effect being to force the reader to concentrate on the whole, the canvas of the poem on which each individual item is merely a brushstroke. Note how the poem is built up out of ever more complex layers - vegetation, colour, life, interaction - until he reaches the last two lines, and figuratively takes a step back, looking at the completed work and musing on its relation to 'our' world. Assessment: It is virtually impossible to assess Whitman's influence on the various prosodies of modern poetry. Such American poets as Hart Crane, William Carlos Williams, and Theodore Roethke all have used Whitman's long line, extended rhythms, and "shaped" strophes. -- EB Links: Check out the other Whitman poems in the archive: [broken link] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet.html Biography and criticism at poem #54 For a vaguely similar, but far 'paler' poem, see poem #140  note that i'm not using the word in a negative sense -martin