As I ebb'd with the ocean of life, As I wended the shores I know, As I walk'd where the ripples continually wash you Paumanok, Where they rustle up hoarse and sibilant, Where the fierce old mother endlessly cries for her castaways,
Something seems familiar about these opening lines. Chances are, you didn't get far into reading the poem without noticing the anaphora, or the repetition of phrases at the beginning of each line.
And the repetition is appropriate, considering that the poem is about water. To "ebb" is to move out to sea, to recede. It's usually used to describe the ocean tide as it goes out.
The repetition here reminds the reader of the way a boat bobs up and down, again and again, on the waves (sail over to "Sound Check" for more on this effect).
"But Shmoop," you might be saying, "this isn't really about the experience of being on the open sea."
You're right, we say back. The speaker is talking about the "ocean of life."
In fact, Whitman is using figurative language in the first line. It's a metaphor, to be exact. This body of water that the speaker is experiencing is a lot like life.
For one, it's full of shores that he's familiar with, like that of Long Island, New York, where Whitman is from originally.
In this poem, he refers to it by its original name, the one given to the area by Native Americans: "Paumanok."
The speaker calls this place home.
And the ocean of his home has a voice, too; he calls it "hoarse" and "sibilant" (making S- and Sh-sounds), which indicate that it can speak to him.
It isn't just the ocean that speaks; a "fierce old mother" weeps over those she's lost at sea.
To the speaker, then, the sea has plenty to say.
Wonder what it'll say next? Read on.
I musing late in the autumn day, gazing off southward, Held by this electric self out of the pride of which I utter poems, Was seiz'd by the spirit that trails in the lines underfoot, The rim, the sediment that stands for all the water and all the land of the globe.
The speaker is now staring off into the distance.
He lets us know that he's a poet, one with an "electric self" that makes him prideful enough to write poems. Um, say what?
Electricity is basically just energy, right? So the speaker's filled with all of this energy, and it spurs on his words.
He's then "seized" by spirits that lead him wherever he goes, on the "trails" that are under his feet.
This line leads around all of the earth: around both the water and the earth that surrounds it.
It sounds like someone's got a case of wanderlust.
The poem does, too. It wanders here and there without any sense of meter or rhythm.
That's called free verse, and Whitman was a big fan of the form.
Fascinated, my eyes reverting from the south, dropt, to follow those slender windrows, Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten, Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide, Miles walking, the sound of breaking waves the other side of me,
The speaker follows these lines, similar to a line cut into crops, as they trail across the land.
It's safe to say he's turned his attention away from the sea for a while.
He walks the coast line, noticing the bits of earth mixed with the debris washed ashore from the sea.
It's junk, basically...but not to the speaker.
In these imagery-packed lines, the speaker walks for miles.
But just what is he doing? Let's follow him…
Paumanok there and then as I thought the old thought of likenesses, These you presented to me you fish-shaped island, As I wended the shores I know, As I walk'd with that electric self seeking types.
The speaker's surveying Paumanok, the place he calls home.
And while he might be there in the present, he's also there in the Paumanok of his past.
Anyone who has revisited their hometown can probably relate. Going home means dealing with quite a few memories and familiar places.
But that's not all he sees. As he walks on the shores he knows so well, he sees others like him.
These "others" are described as "self-seeking." Great—so what does he mean?
That they, too, are seeking to find themselves—via wandering.
And, like the speaker, they are "electric" with this special energy.