Literature Study GuidesLeaves Of GrassAs I Ebbd With The Ocean Of Life Summary

Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life | Summary



Whitman's speaker goes to the shore in autumn in a thoughtful state of mind. He picks his way through the driftwood and sea trash and equates himself to them. He is upset he has "dared to open [his] mouth." He begs his father Paumanok to answer him something. The ocean of life ebbs, but the flow will return. He begs his mother the ocean not to deny him, even if he is like all the rest, "spread out before you ... whoever you are, we too lie in drifts at your feet."


In metaphorical terms, Whitman considered Paumanok (Native American term for Long Island) his father (and he addresses it here as "father") and the ocean his mother. He comes back to this shoreline because it represents a place of emotional stability for him. His speaker is voicing his doubts about his calling as a poet, lamenting, "I too but signify at the utmost a little wash'd up drift." He realizes all he has done so far is "blab," and he has not yet reached his greatness.

As in many of his poems, Whitman employs the literary device of anaphora. In this poem, he starts off the first few lines of Sections 1 and 2 with the word "as." The anaphora sets up a rhythm, but it also emphasizes the fact that Whitman's speaker is actively seeking solace from his "father" and "mother." The next major anaphora occurs in the entire second stanza of Section 3. This is the climax of his appeal to his "father," and every line starts with "I." His last anaphora happens at the resolution, two lines that begin with "just as much," wherein he finally surrenders his "electric self" and his "pride" to become a collective "we" that lies "in drifts" at the feet of life.

Whitman's work is characterized by the theme of nature being a unifying, democratic force, and the ocean serves here as both a life-giving mother and an arbitrary power that washes ashore everything in equal measure, including poets.

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