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Click on the names below to hear these poets read "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" (in RealAudio):

Frank Bidart

Marie Howe

Galway Kinnell

Note: Kinnell reads the 1867 version of the poem, titled "Elemental Drifts."

(For help, see a note about the audio.)


From The Atlantic's archives:

"Bardic Symbols," by Walt Whitman (April, 1860)
The earliest published version of "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life."

"Leaves of Grass" (January, 1882)
An unsigned review of the 1881 edition.

"Reminiscences of Walt Whitman," by John Townsend Trowbridge (February, 1902)
A memoir of the author's friendship with the bard from Brooklyn, which considers Whitman's unique place in American literature.


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Return to the introduction by Steven Cramer.

Go to Atlantic Unbound's Poetry Pages.
As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life
1
As I ebb'd with the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk'd where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok,
Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant,
Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward,
Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems,
Was seiz'd by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water and all the
        land of the globe.

Fascinated, my eyes reverting from the south, dropt, to follow
        those slender windrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the
        tide,
Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
Paumanok there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses,
These you presented to me you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walk'd with that electric self seeking types.


2
As I wend to the shores I know not,
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck'd,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
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.

O baffled, balk'd, bent to the very earth,
Oppress'd with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I
        have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet
        untouch'd, untold, altogether unreach'd,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and
        bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.

I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single
        object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart
        upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.


3
You oceans both, I close with you,
We murmur alike reproachfully rolling sands and drift, knowing
        not why,
These little shreds indeed standing for you and me and all.

You friable shore with trails of debris,
You fish-shaped island, I take what is underfoot,
What is yours is mine my father.

I too Paumanok,
I too have bubbled up, floated the measureless float, and been
        wash'd on your shores,
I too am but a trail of drift and debris,
I too leave little wrecks upon you, you fish-shaped island.

I throw myself upon your breast my father,
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,
I hold you so firm till you answer me something.

Kiss me my father,
Touch me with your lips as I touch those I love,
Breathe to me while I hold you close the secret of the murmuring
        I envy.


4
Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,)
Cease not your moaning you fierce old mother,
Endlessly cry for your castaways, but fear not, deny not me,
Rustle not up so hoarse and angry against my feet as I touch you
        or gather from you.

I mean tenderly by you and all,
I gather for myself and for this phantom looking down where we
        lead, and following me and mine.
Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
(See, from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last,
See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,)
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoy'd hither from many moods, one contradicting another,
From the storm, the long calm, the darkness, the swell,
Musing, pondering, a breath, a briny tear, a dab of liquid or soil,
Up just as much out of fathomless workings fermented and thrown,
A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating,
        drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much whence we come that blare of the cloud-trumpets,
We, capricious, brought hither we know not whence, spread out
        before you,
You up there walking or sitting,
Whoever you are, we too lie in drifts at your feet.



Frank Bidart is the author, most recently, of Desire (1997), a book of poems. His previous books are collected in In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-90 (1990). He has received numerous honors, including a 1998 Lannan Foundation Literary Award for poetry. He teaches at Wellesley College.

Marie Howe is the author of two books of poems, The Good Thief (1988), which was selected for the National Poetry Series, and What the Living Do (1997). She teaches at Sarah Lawrence College and New York University.

Galway Kinnell is the author of many books of poetry, including Imperfect Thirst (1994). His Selected Poems (1982) received the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. He is the editor of The Essential Whitman (1987).

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," by Walt Whitman, from Leaves of Grass (1891-92).
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