Walt Whitman’s ‘On The Beach At Night Alone’

On the beach at night alone, 

As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,

As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.

 

A vast similitude interlocks all,

All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,

All distances of place however wide,

All distances of time, all inanimate forms,

All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in different worlds,

All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the brutes,

All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,

All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe,

All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,

This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,

And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

‘On The Beach At Night Alone’ demonstrates Whitman’s characteristic poetics in a really succinct fourteen-line poem (although this is not a sonnet – Whitman breaks the constraints of traditional poetic form with his long lines of free verse and unregulated structure).  In this poem we can see Whitman’s use of the catalogue form, with over half of the poem’s lines beginning with ‘All’ – as he brings everything in existence into a relationship of equality through the repetitive parity of each line’s structure. As in ‘Song of Myself’, he names things metonymically, so that everything he names stands for all others of its type: ‘the fishes’ means ‘all fish’, and this is made explicit through the repetition of ‘all’ throughout the poem.  The nouns used in this poem are more generalised and abstract than the concrete specifics of ‘Song of Myself’, where he attempts to list everything about the newly developing American culture* by name.  All ‘suns, moons, planets’ takes us immediately to the cosmic level of existence; and ‘All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes’ speak of the earth’s physical processes and life cycles, making the planetary and ecological equal to these cosmic processes and equal again to all ‘souls’, ‘nations’ and ‘identities’ – all people.  Through the democracy of form, demonstrated in the list-poem and its equality of grammatical structure, all life and all things are brought into an equal relation.

In the poem, it is the sound of the sea, ‘singing her husky song’ that reminds Whitman of the universal harmony that exists at an atomic and ecstatic level.  The ‘clef’ – musical notation indicating pitch, and also French for ‘key’ – of the ‘universes’ (plural) brings all things into sonic harmony through its sound vibration.  Thinking back to ‘Song of Myself’, Whitman’s first lines of published poetry declare: ‘every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’. When Whitman is writing about the relationship between people and things, he’s thinking on an atomic level, where the literal vibrating particles that make up one thing are equally present in and to all other things.  So when, in this poem, he writes, ‘A vast similitude interlocks all’, he’s not necessarily suggesting that the equality between all things makes everything the same, all blurred into a non-descript and indistinct ‘oneness’ where nothing has individuality or a life of its own.  On an atomic level, or at the level of the soul also evoked by the language of this poem, what makes us each individual and separate is also what connects us.  We are made of the same substance.  This ‘vast similitude’ – suggesting an infinite similarity, but also comparability, nearness, affinity, community, kinship and relatedness – ‘interlocks’ all: implying that it is this affinity of our very molecular structure that binds us all in interconnected inter-relationship with one another.

Whitman’s poem goes further: not only are we bound in cosmic relation to all that co-exists with us right here and now, ‘All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any globe’ are also bound by the same energetic force (which may be thought of in terms of sound-vibration/harmonious note, atomic structure or the substance of the soul – this poem evokes all three).  This poem reaches out way beyond the moment of a particular person (Whitman) standing on a particular beach on a particular night. References to ‘any globe’, ‘different worlds’ and multiple ‘universes’ alert the reader to at least a cosmic reading of existence, if not a multidimensional one.

The final two lines provide the turn, for me, enabling a sophisticated metapoetic reading of this poem.

This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,

And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

Whitman returns to the idea that began his list, the ‘vast similitude’ that ‘spans’ all things, and which closes the poem in on itself so that it ‘compactly hold[s] and enclose[s] them’.  The poem itself, here, is the thing that holds and encloses all these other things, and what it is holding and enclosing is words.  While all disparate living things are made of atoms or cosmic vibrations or soul energy and brought into a living relation through the interconnection of their smallest particles, the enclosing form of the poem is made of individual words and sounds and letters – which stand in equal relation to one another and are interconnected and interchangeable.  This for me, then, can be read as a metapoetic reflection on the democracy of language’s materiality.  What the poem ultimately contains is not those things that are named in the list-lines, but the words that refer to those things (or to the abstract idea of those things).  What those words are made of is individual letters – like atoms – none superior to any other, which combine in certain patterns to form individual words but are none-the-less interchangeable, common and shared between multiple words.  This connects all written words as infinite variations in shape and structure arising from combinations of the same twenty-six alphabetical graphemes at their most basic level.  The poem contains this ‘vast similitude’ of words made out of interconnecting letters.  It’s ‘compact’ form means that it is a finite structure that ‘encloses’ its content within itself.  Yet this is a finite structure that opens itself to infinity in both form and content. Its content invites us as readers to perform an imaginative leap towards the infinite, while its form – its basic construction of words and letters – makes it infinitely interconnected with all other written texts however similar or different.  So, what the poem suggests in its content, it also performs in its form.

This poem, for me, opens up Whitman on a whole new (metapoetic) level.

 

 

 

Postscript:

* Whitman’s immersion in, and centrality to, the development of the American psyche raises questions and problems arising from his prose writing, which stands in paradoxical contrast to the universality and democracy of his poetry.  In some of Whitman’s prose, and his poem ‘Pioneers! O Pioneers!’ – explored here in this essay by CAConrad – he is distinctly racist, violent and imperial in his attitude towards People of Colour and Native American people, particularly following the Sand Creek Massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahoe men, women and children.  This paradox, I feel, stands at the traumatic heart of the expansion and development of white American culture, and continues to inflict harm on both itself and its ‘Others’.

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