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Think of him as a poetic Uncle Sam. That's because Walt Whitman was one of the first American poets who really considered what it meant to be American.
Sure, America hadn't really even been an official nation for that long when Whitman was writing (he lived from 1819-1892), so maybe that isn't saying much. But when Whitman, a free-wheeling, traditional-voice eschewing, travel-loving poet decided to be America's bard, nobody had seen anything like it.
He traveled all over and tried to capture the American experience. But he also tried to capture what it felt like to be an American, an individual in a vast and ever-changing landscape. And, for him, this search for identity involved lots of communing with the natural world.
This famous poetic search resulted in 1855's Leaves of Grass, his most famous collection of poetry. And within it, "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" occupies special space as part of a section entitled "Sea Shore." In this section, all the poems deal with (you guessed it) the sea. But they also deal with what it means to be human. The poem's speaker visits his hometown, where he is confronted with some big questions about life, identity, and his place in the universe.
Because of their ambitious, questioning, and stylistically unique nature, "As I Ebb'd" and the rest of Leaves of Grass is still considered some of the first and most important poetry in American history.
It sounds like all that questioning paid off.
Ever find yourself knee-deep in self-doubt? Suddenly unsure of who you really are and what you are really supposed to be doing in the world? Ever visit the place where you grew up and find yourself feeling totally different than the version of yourself who used to live there?
It's kind of like being lost at sea, and this feeling has a name. This kind of uneasiness is called an existential crisis and, at one time or another, everyone faces one. Trust us; you're not alone.
Even famous poets like Walt Whitman have existential crises (or two). He gets it. Just take a look at his poem "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life," in which a poet finds himself standing on the shore of his hometown beach, feeling suddenly…adrift. Suddenly all of his past accomplishments seem silly, and he isn't sure of his place in the world.
Suddenly, everything he thought he knew seems wrong.
It's a pretty unsettling feeling, and not one that Whitman often spent too much time writing about. This relatable but dark subject matter makes the poem special, and the hope-filled conclusion the poet arrives at makes it one worth reading—especially if (or when) an existential crisis creeps up on you.
All Whitman, All the Time
The Whitman Archive can satisfy all your Whitman needs.
Take a virtual ticket to the New York that Whitman knew.
It may not be Spielberg, but we think the visuals go pretty well with the poem.
It doesn't get much more American, or experiential, than Whitman.
Our Stamp of Approval
Come for the somber reading; stay to admire the Whitman stamp.
Here he is—the poet himself.
Man of Steel
This steel engraving of the poet is used inside many editions of Leaves of Grass.
Here's a wealth of Whitman reviews. Everyone's a critic.
Walt Whitman Quarterly Review
Enjoy this motherload of Whitman articles and interviews.
The Complete Poems
Here you can get all the Whitman you can handle.
The Original Leaves of Grass
Whitman tinkered with it for years, but here's the first published edition.