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A bard is a person who composed and recited epic or heroic poems. That being said, it seems here that Whitman wants to “tally” the greatest poets’ acheivements. Whether their worth be in the creation of victorious or tragic heroes, metre or wit, metaphors and conceits, or rhyme, Whitman would trade all of these things for the power in one wave, or one breathe. For Whitman, the poetry of nature is much more important than the poetry of these bards.


“hill” (line 3) here, Whitman’s narrator stands poised on the peak looking over a sea which contains the rising and falling tide, a representation of birth and death, the coming and departing of lives in the nation.

“vessel” (line 5)– see Second Annex: Good-bye my Fancy, “Sail Out for Good Eidolon Yacht” and “Old Age’s Ship & Crafty Death’s” ship or vessel as the self, embarking on its journey through life and towards death.

“foam-dash’d rocks” (line 5), these are the rocks that create the eddies and voices beginning in the fourth verse-paragraph.

“Indian helmsman” (line 6) Whitman chooses an interesting figure to pilot his boat of life. The indian helmsman, like the “negro woman” from Drum-Taps’s “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors” symbolize a sample of America’s racial heterogeneity. Perhaps the Indian man as shaman is a fitting figure to be the Charon on a sea of both life and death.


“sedge” (line 2)–“a grasslike plant with triangular stems and inconspicuous flowers, growing typically in wet ground” ( alliterative with salt, sense description. Grizzly in the Sedge

“voice” (line 3)– see “Fancies at Navesink, Had I the Choice” the voice of the sea emerges in contrast to the voices of the classical literary cannon. Nature is given voice here, and is personified with a particularly personal quality, inclined toward sobs and confessions.

“eddies” (line 3)–“a current of water or air running contrary to the main current; especially : a circular current : whirlpool b : something moving similar” ( Created by the dangerous “foam-dash’d” rocks of the first verse-paragraph. Whitman’s narrator himself is caught in such a dangerous spiral.

“far” (line 5)–also a reference to the great length of time that separates the narrator from the classical poets of “Had I the Choice.”

“chorus of age’s complaints” (line 8.) The preface of “The Second Annex: Good-bye my Fancy” details the decay of Whitman’s state of health. Whitman is similarly trapped in an eddy or whirlpool of ill-health. See “suicide” (line 9.)

debouche (line 12)–see debouch, “to emerge from a narrow or confined space into a wide, open area” ( “Oblivion” (line 10) promises a relief and release from the trapping eddy.


Homer is the ancient Greek epic poet and author of The Illiad and The Odessey. His characters are also referenced in Whitman’s “Wallabout Martyrs” line 1. Hector, Achilles, and Ajax are all Trojan War heroes.


Shakespeare, the famous English poet and playwright was famous for his rhyme and meter. Unlike Whitman who is the father of free verse, Shakespeare followed a strict form of stressed and unstressed syllables and rhyme schemes. It can be seen that Whitman alludes to the different techniques in writing in line 5.


Tennyson’s fair ladies refers to the famous English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “The Lady of Shallot”. In the poem “Tennyson focused on the Lady’s isolation in the tower and her decision to participate in the living world” (Wikipedia). The theme of Tennyson’s poem mirrors the theme occurring in this section of Fancies at Navesink, where Whitman is rallying for participation in the living world. Tennyson’s poem Ulysses is also referenced in The Wallabout Martyrs.


Here we are still referring to the “ebb” of the last paragraph. Embark, tide, and do your part, Whitman said in the previous passage. No part of the whole is alone; not the lost designs (from the poet’s unnamed, see “Had I the Choice” ), nor failures, aspirations, they are all part of the tide that rises and falls.

Glamour- “the quality of fascinating, alluring, or attracting, esp. by a combination of charm and good looks. “ ( The poet seems to be deceiving because of his fascinating qualities, but this is natures great poem. All the poets are blending to make up the elements that make up nature. The unnamed poet is the artist who can recreate these parts of nature. The narrator is realizing the eddies (see “Last of Ebb, and Daylight Waning”) of the poets voices are pulling him back. He recognizes the voices now as the elements of Birth Eternal. Birth Eternal referring to the ever existing cycle of life in the universe, and the existence of the poetic voice.


We return again to the same hill from “The Pilot in the Mist”, where Whitman stands admiring the symbolism of the waves as the tides of life, from which he has decided what is “the mystic human meaning”. Mystic is defined as “involving or characterized by esoteric, otherworldly, or symbolic practices or content, as certain religious ceremonies and art; spiritually significant; ethereal” ( The spiritual human meaning has come to Whitman through the combination of nature and poetry. The “law” Whitman refers to is the law of nature. The swells and ebbs are the births and deaths. The “brain” is the physical body, and “the voice that chants” is the poetic soul. And in the midst of the all encompassing world, every thought he has conveyed and every poem he has written may be so small it’s just a “drop”, but is important as one of many drops that make up the entire wave (“By That Long Scan of Waves”). The poetic voice is in constant harmony with the laws of nature and eternity.


For this poem, I think it best to first look at the title of the section Sands at Seventy, and the title of the subsection Fancies at Navesink. This poem is part of a section called Sands at Seventy, where Whitman metaphorically looks out on his coming future—his seventieth birthday. This poem was actually written in 1885—four years prior his momentous birthday—so it fits the title of Sands at Seventy in terms of theme not chronology.

Now, let’s look at the title Fancies at Navesink. This is literally Whitman’s thoughts as he looks out on the New York Bay. So far, we have a man metaphorically looking out on his approaching future and literally looking out on a bay.

I think we’re ready to look at the actual poem now. “Then last of all” (1) denotes finality, finale, end, conclusion, which I take to mean the conclusion of the day and this subsection of poems.“Caught from these shores, this hill” (1) refers to the sea-side mountain of Navesink, which is an entrance to New York Bay. “Of you O tides,” (2) the tides are the only “you” in the poem, and are the source of power, mystery, and are approaching the speaker, catching him “from these shores, this hill” (1). “The mystic human meaning:” (2) is a phrase modifying the “you” as in “O tides” and therefore defines the tides as a mystery, which the speaker doesn’t understand, but recognizes its meaning, its importance for him and all human kind. “Only by law of you,” (3) indicates human meaning comes from an inhuman, mystical, natural force. “Your swell and ebb,” (3) are traits of the tide and serve as further proof “you” is indeed the tides. “Enclosing me the same,” (3) is basically the speaker saying “I don’t understand it, but it’s unstoppable, so I might as well deal with it.” “The brain that shapes, the voice that chants this song” (4) closes the poem without trying to identify the “mystic[al] human meaning” (2).
Bottom line: Whitman is saying, “The mystical human meaning is part of my life. It has enclosed me, invaded my thoughts and inspired me to form and sing a song about it. My song doesn’t try to explain the meaning; I don’t understand it. I’m simply writing of its existence and inevitability.” This poem is a musing about unanswerable questions and the sense of awe those mysteries invoke in the poet. It fits perfectly in a section of poetry about a poet who is rapidly approaching his seventieth birthday–and, eventually, death–and has questions he can’t answer.


Centripetal: proceeding or acting in a direction toward a center or axis (

Centrigual: proceeding or acting in a direction away from a center or axis (

Rapport: relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity (


Now that we’ve established the definitions of the key words in this section of “Fancies at Navesink” we can get into what Whitman is speaking about:

He is speaking about the universe as if it were a ship with the forces of space. Centripetal and centrifugal are exactly the opposite of one another, signifying that Whitman is experiencing the opposite sensations within one event.

He also experiences that rapport of the sun, moon, earth, and constellations; that is the combination of all of these atrological factions together at one time.

Whitman continues to ask questions regarding the messages that constellations (specifically Sirius, the Dog Star, and Capella, the constellation found between Perseus and Gemini) are sending to him. He asks if there is a central “heart” to everything in the universe.

Perhaps Whitman believes that the ship is a representation of humankind and those that are on the ship are the central heart that keeps the ship sailing.


The definitions that will be of importance are centrifugal, centripetal, and rapport.


Centripetal: proceeding or acting in a direction toward a center or axis

Centrifugal: proceeding or acting in a direction away from a center or axis

Rapport: relation marked by harmony, conformity, accord, or affinity

Sirius: a star of the constellation Canis Major that is the brightest star in the heavens —called also Dog Star

Capella: star of the first magnitude in Auriga (star found between Perseus and Gemini)

***All definitions found from***


(note: not all of this section of the poem is included on this page)

“resumed upon myself” (line 1)–the narrator turns here to personal reminiscence.

“scenes ephemeral” (line 3)–see Specimen Days, 1876 onward. Remembrance of extensive time spent in nature in New Jersey.

(line 4)–see Specimen Days, War Memoranda


Words of interest: throbs, dilates, jibs, freighted, flaunting, flag


throbs: to pulsate or pound with abnormal force or rapidity

dilates: to become wide : swell

jibs: the small triangular headsail on a sloop

freighted: to load with goods for transportation

flag: a usually rectangular piece of fabric of distinctive design that is used as a symbol (as of a nation), as a signaling device, or as a decoration

***all definitions from***


Whitman has some more nautical symbolism in this section of “Fancies at Navesink”. This time, he is actually describing the way the ship looks, whom or what it is carrying, and the throbing/dilation of the waves on which it is carried.

There is also patriotic symbolism here through the use of the words “pennants” (from the line “steamers’ pennants of smoke”) and flag (from “Flaunting from many a spar the flag that I love”). Although there are sailors on the ship and the ships create smoke on the way to war or wherever, each ship carries the national symbolism of its country, America (which Whitman is absolutely proud of).

1 0


2 3

Steaming the northern rapids (an old St. Lawrence reminis-
A sudden memory-flash comes back, I know not why,
Here waiting for the sunrise, gazing from this hill;)*
Again tis just at morning a heavy haze contends with day-
Again the trembling, laboring vessel veers me I press through
foam-dashd rocks that almost touch me,
Again I mark where aft the small thin Indian helmsman
Looms in the mist, with brow elate and governing hand.

3 2


4 2

Had I the choice to tally greatest bards,
To limn their portraits, stately, beautiful, and emulate at will,
Homer with all his wars and warriors Hector, Achilles, Ajax,
Or Shaksperes woe-entangled Hamlet, Lear, Othello Tenny-
sons fair ladies,
Metre or wit the best, or choice conceit to wield in perfect
rhyme, delight of singers;
These, these, O sea, all these Id gladly barter,
Would you the undulation of one wave, its trick to me transfer,
Or breathe one breath of yours upon my verse,
And leave its odor there.

5 3


6 1

You tides with ceaseless swell! you power that does this work!
You unseen force, centripetal, centrifugal, through spaces
Rapport of sun, moon, earth, and all the constellations,
What are the messages by you from distant stars to us? what
Sirius? what Capellas?
What central heart and you the pulse vivifies all? what
boundless aggregate of all?
What subtle indirection and significance in you? what clue to
all in you? what fluid, vast identity,
Holding the universe with all its parts as one as sailing in a ship?

8 0


9 1


10 0

Last of ebb, and daylight waning,
Scented sea-cool landward making, smells of sedge and salt
With many a half-caught voice sent up from the eddies,
Many a muffled confession many a sob and whisperd word,
As of speakers far or hid.
How they sweep down and out! how they mutter!
Poets unnamed artists greatest of any, with cherishd lost
Loves unresponse a chorus of ages complaints hopes last
Some suicides despairing cry, Away to the boundless waste, and
never again return.
On to oblivion then!
On, on, and do your part, ye burying, ebbing tide!
On for your time, ye furious debouché!

11 1


12 2

And yet not you alone, twilight and burying ebb,
Nor you, ye lost designs alone nor failures, aspirations;
I know, divine deceitful ones, your glamours seeming;
Duly by you, from you, the tide and light again duly the
hinges turning,
Duly the needed discord-parts offsetting, blending,
Weaving from you, from Sleep, Night, Death itself,
The rhythmus of Birth eternal.

13 1


14 0

Proudly the flood comes in, shouting, foaming, advancing,
Long it holds at the high, with bosom broad outswelling,
All throbs, dilates the farms, woods, streets of cities workmen
at work,
Mainsails, topsails, jibs, appear in the offing steamers pennants
of smoke and under the forenoon sun,
Freighted with human lives, gaily the outward bound, gaily the
inward bound,
Flaunting from many a spar the flag I love.

15 1


16 0

By that long scan of waves, myself calld back, resumed upon
In every crest some undulating light or shade some retrospect,

17 2

Joys, travels, studies, silent panoramas scenes ephemeral,
The long past war, the battles, hospital sights, the wounded and
the dead,
Myself through every by-gone phase my idle youth old age at
My three-score years of life summd up, and more, and past,
By any grand ideal tried, intentionless, the whole a nothing,
And haply yet some drop within Gods schemes ensemble some
wave, or part of wave,
Like one of yours, ye multitudinous ocean.

18 0


19 0

Then last of all, caught from these shores, this hill,
Of you O tides, the mystic human meaning:
Only by law of you, your swell and ebb, enclosing me the same,
The brain that shapes, the voice that chants this song.