Study Guide

As I Ebb'd With the Ocean of Life Part Two

By Walt Whitman

Part Two

Lines 18-21

As I wend to the shores I know not,
As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck'd,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,

  • We're back, and with plenty more anaphora to boot.
  • These lines closely mirror the opening lines in Part One.
  • Now, the speaker is walking on shores that he doesn't know—no more Paumanok, no more hometown.
  • He hears a "dirge," or funeral march, and the voices of people drowned in a shipwreck. Yikes.
  • He also breathes in the water's smell as the ocean rolls towards him. It gets closer and closer with each breath.
  • This part of the poem definitely has a different tone. It's a lot more somber, without any of the comforts of home.

Lines 22-24

I too but signify at the utmost a little wash'd-up drift,
A few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.

  • Now, the speaker's talking about himself.
  • He says that he's little more than what washes ashore on the sea. He's the equivalent of a bit of sand and a few dead leaves. (That's pretty emo, even by today's standards.)
  • All these things merge and create him.
  • Or, confusingly, they just include him in their existence. It's as if they are sharing their world with the speaker.
  • He's feeling very connected to nature at the moment, which is pretty fitting for a Transcendentalist like Whitman. Those folks were way into feeling one with nature.
  • It's also where, they believed, we'd find God.

Lines 25-28

O baffled, balk'd, bent to the very earth,
Oppress'd with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,

  • The speaker seems to be having a crisis here.
  • For starters, he has no idea who he is. That's not good.
  • His sense of self just baffles him; it even makes him feel oppressed. He's having such a crisis now that he doesn't even know why he opens his mouth.
  • All the talking he's ever done hasn't helped him figure out his own sense of identity.
  • Questions of identity are pretty common in Whitman's poetry, actually, but rarely does he adopt such a bleak tone.
  • One thing the speaker does know, though, is how to use alliteration, or the repetition of initial consonant sounds.
  • For example, "baffled," "balk'd," and "bent" all repeat the initial B sound. Try saying that five times fast.
  • Though he didn't use a particular form, Whitman had many tricks, like alliteration, to add a little sonic pleasure to the poem.
  • Check out "Sound Check" for more.

Lines 29-32

But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch'd, untold, altogether unreach'd,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.

  • Where before he wrote poems out of pride, the speaker now believes he writes poems out of "arrogance."
  • And these poems don't represent the real him, who has not yet been seen, touched, or heard from.
  • The poems just represent his ego. The world has yet to truly see him, he thinks.
  • This other, more authentic self stands far away and mocks, with fake congratulations, the poet's worldly "success."
  • The speaker can hear his "real" self laughing in a mocking tone, making fun of everything the poet has ever written—ouch.
  • The other self also calls the speaker's attention to the sounds of the sea and the image of the sand.
  • But remember, there aren't actually two selves. The speaker is facing a lot of self-doubt.
  • We've all been there, right? It seems that he thinks his successes and accomplishments are all silly, and wants to instead call his own attention to nature, which is more important.
  • Notice the use of alliteration again, in line 29. The speaker must really want us to pay attention to this line.

Lines 33-35

I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
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.

  • During this existential crisis, the speaker feels like he's not only never really understood himself. In fact, he feels like he has never really understood anything—not "a single object" on this earth.
  • And what's more, he doesn't think any man (as in any human) ever can understand anything, either.
  • What's more, nature punishes him for thinking otherwise, "stinging" him with sand from the water.
  • It's the first, and only, time in the poem that he is in opposition with nature—but perhaps he's only at opposition with himself. Let's head on over to part three to find out.

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