Study Guide

As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life Man and the Natural World

By Walt Whitman

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Man and the Natural World

A few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift. (23-24)

The speaker gathers himself the way the dead leaves gather on shore; he's merging with nature. He then starts to see himself as just another part of nature, no different than the drift. But does this feeling give him peace or does it make him feel insignificant?

Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all. (33-34)

Here, nature is more of an adversary—or at least, a disciplinarian. The speaker has begun to feel ashamed for his previous identity, and thinks that nature itself finds it abhorrent. But is that just the speaker projecting his own feelings onto nature? Here, he places himself outside of nature, and later he finds himself feeling more hopeful and unified with it.

You oceans both, I close with you,
We murmur alike reproachfully rolling sands and drift, knowing not why,
These little shreds indeed standing for you and me and all. (35-37)

"Both" oceans represent both sides of the speaker. Now, they have begun to converge into one body of water, just as the speaker has begun to feel more at one with the warring parts of his identity. But how can you tell which ocean is which, if they have combined? The water mixes and the two sides are indistinguishable.

You friable shore with trails of debris,
You fish-shaped island, I take what is underfoot,
What is yours is mine my father. (38-40)

Here again the speaker addresses nature as "you." Is nature the true addressee of this poem? Later, in line 40, he addresses a "father." It's hard to tell, in fact, whom he intends the poem to address, and that's probably on purpose. After all, most of the poem emphasizes our unity with nature. Perhaps, then, the speaker's addressing everyone (and everything).

Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,) (51)

This hopeful line comes after several stanzas of intense self-doubt. Now, the speaker imparts hope to us. Life is like an ocean, he says; the flow goes in and out, just like hope and despair take turns in our lives. So, when the ocean is ebbing, he doesn't despair. He knows the tide will return.

Me and mine, loose windrows, little corpses,
Froth, snowy white, and bubbles,
(See, from my dead lips the ooze exuding at last,
See, the prismatic colors glistening and rolling,) (57-60)

Here the speaker unites himself with things in nature not usually associated with the living, like fields, corpses, and froth on the water. He even calls himself "dead" and describes his decay as "prismatic" and beautiful. By uniting himself with nature, he's part of the living and the dead, since nature comprises both.

A limp blossom or two, torn, just as much over waves floating, drifted at random,
Just as much for us that sobbing dirge of Nature,
Just as much whence we come that blare of the cloud-trumpets, (66-68)

The nature imagery is strong in these lines. It seems like nature is throwing a funeral; it has scattered blossoms over the waves and plays a "sobbing dirge." But it also blares the "cloud trumpets"; just as often as nature laments, it celebrates. This reminds us of the speaker's assertion that life is like the ocean, containing both (and maybe endless) possibilities. Don't mourn forever, he says.

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