Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Of morning, pierce the Barcan wilderness,
- All right, buckle your seatbelts, because we’re about to go off on another crazy poetic journey.
- The speaker first imagines us flying off to the deserts of North Africa ("the Barcan wilderness"). He’s having some fun with his ability to transport us suddenly to far away lands, and to call up images of strange, exotic landscapes. It's sort of like BBC's Planet Earth documentary series.
Or lose thyself in the continuous woods
- Now we fly off in the other direction, across the continent of North America, to the western coast.
- In Bryant’s day, people didn't associate the West Coast with cities like LA, San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. It was still a serious wilderness of endless trees ("continuous woods"). In its way, the American West in the early 19th century was as untamed as the African desert.
Where rolls the Oregon, and hears no sound,
Save his own dashings—yet the dead are there:
- The speaker puts us on the shores of "the Oregon," which is an old name for the mighty Columbia River. He asks us to imagine that the wilderness around is so silent that there’s no sound except the noise of the river ("his own dashings").
- Now the payoff for this little trip: even in the western woods, so far away from civilization, there are still dead people in the ground. That’s the one reality you can’t escape: death.
And millions in those solitudes, since first
The flight of years began, have laid them down
In their last sleep—the dead reign there alone.
- In fact, there aren’t just a few dead people in these wild, far-away places ("solitudes"). Since the beginning of time, "millions" of people have gone underground for the big sleep. Even in places that seem completely empty of people, the dead rule there alone.
- Basically, dead people are here, dead people are there, dead people are everywhere.