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Originally written for the illustrated Magazine of Art in 1887, “Twenty Years” was illustrated by Walter Paget, whose brother, Sidney Paget, was the illustrator for the Sherlock Holmes stories. A digital image of a copy of the original issue can be found here:


“Twenty Years” tells of a meeting with a sailor who left the area as a boy and has now returned after 20 years of circling the world [Whitman first writes of time having “circled round and round” then immediately after speaks of the sailor “circling round and round” the globe].

But rather than focus on the adventures that transpired during the sailor’s time at sea, Whitman focuses on how Time has changed the area while the sailor was gone: “How CHANGED the place — ALL the old land-marks gone — the parents DEAD” [emphases mine].

And even this focus on the 20 year-period is short-lived, as the poem quickly shifts to the sights and sounds of the scene.

Though it is convenient for Whitman to explain detailed sights in a poem that he knew would be illustrated, the suddenness of the shift goes along with the theme of great change: Just as surely as Time leaves nothing unchanged [whether the land or the people], so Whitman’s focus within the poem need not stay steady.

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Down on the ancient wharf, the sand, I sit, with a new-comer
He shippd as green-hand boy, and saild away, (took some sud-
den, vehement notion;)
Since, twenty years and more have circled round and round,
While he the globe was circling round and round, and now
How changed the place all the old land-marks gone the
parents dead;
(Yes, he comes back to lay in port for good to settle has a well-
filld purse no spot will do but this;)
The little boat that sculld him from the sloop, now held in
leash I see,
I hear the slapping waves, the restless keel, the rocking in the
I see the sailor kit, the canvas bag, the great box bound with
I scan the face all berry-brown and bearded the stout-strong
Dressd in its russet suit of good Scotch cloth:
(Then what the told-out story of those twenty years? What of
the future?)