Submit Comment

show all (16)
There are no comments. Click the text to your left to make a new comment.

The title itself is a catch-all for classic poetic devices. We have an interjection, a compound adjective, consonance, assonance, repeating trochees, personification and exclamation. The quick utterance of “husky-haughty” makes a hissing sound that suggests sea water fizzling as it hits the beach. Other alliteration examples: “strange suggestions”, “racers racing”, “seek’st and seek’st ”, “chain’d and chafing” and “rhythmic rasping” give lips to the sea.


not exactly a plain list. This opens the second part of the poem–a list of the “sea’s strange suggestions”.


What better words to describe Whitman and his poetry (especially in the pre-civil war years) than unsubdued, capricious, and wilful? Looking outside the text and into Whitman’s biography brings in some interesting angles to ponder.


The waltzing dactyls in line 11 stand out from the prevailing rhythm: “something thou ever seek’st and seek’st yet never gain’st”. Interestingly, the dactyls are broken up by rhyming trochees of opposite meaning: “ever” and “never”. The poem’s lilting dance is short-lived. This strengthens the theme of constraint and freedom denied.


Lines 11-13 echo the longing sentiment expressed in a letter written to a friend in March of 1884, the same month and year that the poem made its public debut in Harper’s. “Why is it that a sense comes always crushing in on me, as of one happiness I have missed—life, and one friend & companion I have never made.” (Reynolds, 544)


Stilted language contributes to the tone and style. The pronouns “thy”, “thee” and “thou” suggest solemnity and respect as he addresses this tormented sea. Whitman is using psalm-like language to demonstrate the sea’s awesome power over him. David Reynolds writes that this “poetic” language is part of Whitman’s transformation from the rebel of the 1850s and 1860s to the more polite, mainstream poet of the post Civil War years. (Reynolds, 500). Whatever Whitman’s intentions were, the poem has a clear nineteenth century romantic voice.


The sea’s voice is appealing in vain to the sky in line 18. But it has finally found a confidant—Whitman. The use of the dash in the parentheses is powerful here because it jars the reader’s anticipation. In parentheses, where the reader expects a trough between waves, the poem shifts focus and rhythm. Whitman is back, though not as “I” but as the “phantom in the night”.


Whitman never reveals what the sea confessed, this “tale cosmic elemental passion”. This mystery is part of the poem’s beauty.


This brings the poem full circle back to Whitman. Whitman is more than a sympathetic ear or companion—his soul is kin to the sea’s. This is the most revealing line of the poem, the strongest link between the soul of the sea to the soul of Whitman. To what extent is Whitman a “kindred soul”? I propose the connection is deep—that soul of the sea is a near reflection of Whitman’s own soul.


By 1883, Whitman was a celebrated poet. In his actions and poetry, it’s easy to conclude that Whitman believed that he was greater than the rest. But all was not well in his personal life. Biographer David S. Reynolds mentions that in the 1880s, in addition to his semi-paralysis, there were “signs of severe psychological tension within the superficially stable poet.” (Reynolds 544).


When these words are applied to Whitman’s own soul, the personification is transformed into a kind of self-analysis. In looking at the sea, Whitman is also looking in the mirror:


“night” is also mentioned in line 19


Parallelism is used to heighten the tension. The sea starts out smiling, then becomes increasingly distraught with each line. The most effective use is found in the lines beginning with “thy”.


The poem’s literary devices are used to invoke the sights, sounds, and moods of the sea. The most obvious is personification. The sea has lips and dimples, it races, it smiles, it cries, it scowls, it feels lonely, it has a heart, it pants, hisses, mutters, laughs, and confesses. It is also applied to the sky (which is deaf). The heavy personification borders on the absurd, but works as a testament to Whitman’s ranting imagination


Since the soul of the sea is a kindred soul to Whitman’s own, the problem of tasteless personification is resolved. When these words are applied to Whitman’s own soul, the personification is transformed into a kind of self-analysis. In looking at the sea, Whitman is also looking in the mirror:


magnificent points altogether, you simply received emblem reader. What might you suggest in regards to your post that you simply made a few days ago? Any sure?

1 1

With husky-haughty lips, O sea!

2 1

Where day and night I wend thy surf-beat shore,

3 0

Imaging to my sense thy varied strange suggestions,

4 1

(I see and plainly list thy talk and conference here,)

5 0

Thy troops of white-maned racers racing to the goal,

6 1

Thy ample, smiling face, dashd with the sparkling dimples of the sun,

7 1

Thy brooding scowl and murk—thy unloosd hurricanes,

8 1

Thy unsubduedness, caprices, wilfulness;

9 1

Great as thou art above the rest, thy many tears—a lack from all eternity in thy content,

10 1

(Naught but the greatest struggles, wrongs, defeats, could make thee greatest—no less could make thee,)

11 1

Thy lonely state—something thou ever seekst and seekst, yet never gainst,

12 1

Surely some right withheld—some voice, in huge monotonous rage, of freedom-lover pent,

13 0

Some vast heart, like a planets, chaind and chafing in those breakers,

14 0

By lengthend swell, and spasm, and panting breath,

15 0

And rhythmic rasping of thy sands and waves,

16 0

And serpent hiss, and savage peals of laughter,

17 0

And undertones of distant lion roar,

18 2

(Sounding, appealing to the skys deaf ear—but now, rapport for once,

19 1

A phantom in the night thy confidant for once,)

20 0

The first and last confession of the globe,

21 0

Outsurging, muttering from thy souls abysms,

22 1

The tale of cosmic elemental passion,

23 1

Thou tellest to a kindred soul.