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The World Below the Brine -- Walt Whitman

       
(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.
-- Walt Whitman
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'[1] poem, see poem #140

[1] note that i'm not using the word in a negative sense

-martin

4 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Julian Tepper said...

Re: " ... 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."

My reaction to the last two lines ("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.") was somewhat
different. For me, it was as if we were, first, stepping out of the deep onto
earth and, then, to contemplate, stated as if it were a certainty, life on other
planets. And, it then seemed as if Whitman had in mind that the sea, the earth
and other planets stood on their own as a separate worlds. Or, stated somewhat
differently, the sea, even though part of Earth (the planet), is a different,
otherwise inhabited (flora and fauna) world from the part of Earth that we,
humans, inhabit, perhaps just as different as the worlds of other planets.

JT

Nina Caffarelli said...

I think it represents the diversity of our world. He decribes a microcosm filled with many different creatures and plants.

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