Bardic Symbols

The author’s first Atlantic poem

Walt Whitman, ultimately revered as “America’s Bard,” began his career as an obscure newspaperman. In 1855, seeking to expand his audience, he mailed his self-published collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who replied with a laudatory note. Emerson was dismayed to discover that Whitman went on to publish the note in several newspapers, as well as having it printed up in a new edition of Leaves of Grass. But Emerson’s tribute notwithstanding, the book was met with widespread indifference.

In “Bardic Symbols,” his first poem in The Atlantic (later republished as “As I Ebb’d With the Ocean of Life”), Whitman lamented his failure to make a mark and described his work as “insolent poems.” Even The Atlantic was squeamish about his uninhibited effusions: James Russell Lowell, the editor, talked Whitman into striking two lines that he deemed too disturbing (“See from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last! / See the prismatic colors glistening and rolling!”).

Whitman would go on to find renewed purpose through his experiences in the war. After his brother was injured at Fredericksburg in 1862, he traveled to Washington, where he was so overwhelmed by the horrors at the hospital that he decided to stay on as a volunteer nurse. Three years later, he would publish Drum Taps, considered the most important collection of poems to come out of the war.

—Sage Stossel

Elemental drifts!
Oh, I wish I could impress others as you and the waves have just
         been impressing me!


As I ebbed with an ebb of the ocean of life,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked where the sea-ripples 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,
Alone, held by the eternal self of me that threatens to get the better
         of me and stifle me,
Was seized by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot,
In the ruin, the sediment, that stands for all the water and all the
         land of the globe.


Fascinated, my eyes, reverting from the south, dropped, 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
These you presented to me, you fish-shaped island,
As I wended the shores I know,
As I walked with that eternal self of me, seeking types.


As I wend the shores I know not,
As I listen to the dirge, the voices of men and woman wrecked,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that I see or
         touch, I know not;
I, too, but signify a little washed-up drift,—a few sands and dead
         leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the leaves and drift.


Oh, baffled, lost,
Bent to the very earth, here preceding what follows,
Terrified with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil upon me,
         I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real me still stands
         untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written
         or shall write,
Striking me with insults, till I fall helpless upon the sand!


Oh, I think I have not understood anything,—not a single object,
         -- and that no man ever can!


I think Nature here, in sight of the sea, is taking advantage of me to
         oppress me,
Because I was assuming so much,
And because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.


You oceans both! You tangible land! Nature!
Be not too stern with me,—I submit,—I close with you,—
These little shreds shall, indeed, stand for 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
         washed 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 wondrous
         murmuring I envy!
For fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it, and utter
         myself as well as it.


Sea-raff! Torn leaves!
Oh, I sing, some day, what you have certainly said to me!


Ebb, ocean of life! (the flow will return,)—
Cease not your moaning, you fierce old mother!
Endlessly cry for your castaways! Yet 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,—
I gather for myself, and for this phantom, looking down where we
         lead, and following me and mine.


Me and mine!
We, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
Tufts of straw, sands, fragments,
Buoyed 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
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-
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.