The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day, The simple, compact, well-joined scheme – myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme, The similitudes of the past, and those of the future, The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings – on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river, (lines 6-9)
Like a kid with a hankerin' for a candy bar, the speaker craves "sustenance" from the things of the world. This spiritual hunger can never be satisfied, so it's a good thing that, you know, the world doesn't disappear or anything. Everything is connected through some grand "scheme" or design.
I watched the Twelfth Month sea-gulls – I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies, I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow, I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south. (lines 29-31)
The sea-gull could be a symbol for the soul, suspended between Heaven and Earth (or, in less religious terms, between the spiritual and material worlds). Like the Soul, the sea-gull is only partly visible, with the "rest in strong shadow" of darkness or mystery. Remember that the next time you're tempted to throw sand at that sea-gull stealing your sandwich on the beach.
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams, Looked at the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of my head in the sun-lit water, (lines 33-34)
Beams of sunshine divided into "fine centrifugal spokes" surrounding his head? Sounds like a halo to us. For a poet who doesn't mention religion a lot, he sure uses a lot of religious imagery.
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me, In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me, In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me. (lines 62-64)
Most of the time, the speaker just accepts things as they come and doesn't ask questions. But every once in a while, he becomes overwhelmed by the strangeness of the world. He questions the way things are, and probably his own emotions, as well. It's a funny thing about these "questionings": everyone has them, but everyone likes to think that no one else has them.
It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil, I am he who knew what it was to be evil, I too knitted the old knot of contrariety, (lines 72-74)
The speaker accepts evil as a necessary or inescapable part of the world. As a poet, Whitman protests against the feelings of guilt and shame that came down through the tradition of Protestant religion in America. He's like, "It's OK to be a little evil!"
Every thing indicates – the smallest does, and the largest does, A necessary film envelops all, and envelops the Soul for a proper time. (lines 98-99)
Whitman's view is one that a biologist would probably approve of: we learn about the world by observing nature. The small things can provide just as much knowledge as the big things do. In the end, he seems to be saying, there is no big or small. Everything is contained by this "necessary film" which envelops the world – or, as we like to think of it, which coats the world like grease on a pan.
We descend upon you and all things – we arrest you all, We realize the Soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids, (lines 137-138)
Like a fighter pilot closing in our target, we've got those slippery "things" in our sights. The speaker suggests that understanding the world is a matter of perception – that is, of seeing things in the right way.
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers! you novices! We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward, Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or with- hold yourselves from us, We use you, and do not cast you aside – we plant you permanently within us, We fathom you not – we love you – there is perfection in you also, You furnish your parts toward eternity, Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the Soul. (lines 141-147)
The speaker calls material things the true clergy – "ministers" and "novices" – of the spiritual world. For most of the poem, philosophical discussions like this one have been layered into the description of the view from the ferry. But here the spiritual element takes over completely. The physical world provides the "parts" – the building blocks – for traditional religious concepts like eternity and the Soul. This view would put the speaker at odds with many traditional Christian theologians, who would say that the soul exists apart from the world.