The poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” is the most known work of the American Poet Walt Whitman. He was born on May 31, 1819, and since his young age he was passionate about writing and reading. He taught himself mostly everything and became interested and familiar with the works of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible.
Starting working as a printer in New York City, Walt Whitman founded later a weekly newspaper, “The Long-Islander” and later edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers, such as Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1848, he left Brooklyn Daily Eagle and became the editor of the New Orleans Crescent for three months. He developed a unique style of poetry and in 1855, Walt Whitman released the first edition of “Leaves of Grass”, a collection of poetry that consisted of twelve untitled poems. One year later, in 1856 he released the second edition of the book, which contained thirty-two poems. Most of his professional life was dedicated to writing and re-writing “Leaves of Grass”, revising it multiple times until his death. As a result, we have vastly different editions overall – a small book of twelve poems and a compilation of over 400.
The poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” is loosely connected, representing Whitman’s point of view on the philosophy of life and humanity. His poetry praises nature and human’s role in it, he was influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalist movement, although his works are classified as Romanticism.
Walt Whitman spent his last years working on revisions of his deathbed edition of “Leaves of Grass” and preparing his final volume of poems and prose, “Good-Bye My Fancy”. He died on March 26, 1892, and along with Emily Dickinson, he is considered one of America’s most important poets.
On The Beach At Night
The title of this poem is representing the calm state of mind of a human being. Being at the beach at night will make you enjoy the peace around you and listen to the waves of water, things which may be a result of meditation and rest. The night has its joys as well, seeing the stars in the sky and thinking about how great the world is.
From the first verses, we see that a father with her child are watching the autumn sky. The autumn sky means that the sky is not yet dark and that they are enjoying the sunset, with its red and brown autumn shades. The words that describe the sky and the environment are close to depicting a sunset landscape in which two human beings take part.
This heavenly landscape and state of mind is roughly interrupted by “ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading”. We see from the next verse how rough is the transition between the autumn sky and the dark-gray sky. The poet contributed to this transition with elements such as “darkness, black, ravening, burial”, doing it suddenly as no one expected, as the world and sky were falling apart. We see the appreciation of nature and its beauty, the narrator is creating this environment perfect for the reader to admire it and to reflect it in his mind. As the clouds start to spread “Amid a transparent clear belt of ethernet left in the east”, the poet makes reference to Greek mythology by mentioning “lord-star Jupiter” and “sisters the Pleiades”.
We see that the lord-star Jupiter makes its appearance faster and it is more imposing, while the sisters the Pleiades have a graduate appearance “only a very little above, swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades” meanwhile the father and the daughter are enjoying the sight, the daughter holding her father’s hand.
We are facing a beautiful landscape, gorgeous sky, same as it was in the first verses but the burial clouds are coming closer and lower. “Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all” – again that transition takes place but this time it affects the human being. The sight put her in tears “watching, silently weeps” and the father is trying gently to make her stop crying “Weep not child, weep not my darling”.
The father behavior shows that he knows what is happening and that he was once in this situation, he is aware of everything that takes place and he is trying to remove his daughter’s tears with kisses. Then he is explaining that the “ravening clouds shall not long be victorious, they shall not long posses the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition”, he understands that the clouds won’t stay there for a long time, they will not cover the shining stars and the gorgeous sky. The clouds will lose possession of the sky and the sky will be free. The stars cannot be devoured by the black clouds and that they shall emerge in the sky soon. He only asks for patience, thing which gives the reader the hope that everything will be alright.
Also the poet is trying to tell the reader to find patience in any hard situation of his life, to be calm through any storm they face and not lose his temper. Doing this will not only help you succeed but also can reveal the beauty of life. The father is telling to his daughter that soon the open star cluster the Pleiades will shine again and the beauty of the night will be revealed. The stars are considered by the father immortal and that they have a special value as they are described silver and golden “they are immortal—all those stars, both silvery and golden, shall shine out again”.
Even if the clouds are still there, we know that the stars are immortal, we know that sooner or later they will shine out again, it’s just a matter of time, the daughter is taught to remain patient and endure the struggle of watching how the dark clouds are devouring the sky until the stars will radiate their lights again. We can also predict that the stars will shine again because of the “Pleiades”, the narrator named them because he refers at them not as an individuality but as a whole star cluster that will unite eventually.
We may also think that the light of the stars enlightens the narrator, it is connected to his mind which can be now in a state of lack of inspiration or that things don’t go well in his life but at the end everything shall be good. The whole poem is related to the human being and the nature represented as the universe, the narrator has a philosophical connection with the universe, he is studying the entire cosmos revealing its beauty through the impressive light of the stars.
The poem is also about the connection and relationship between a parent and his child, the parent acts as a protector for his child, that is his main role and secondary to teach him that life is about up and downs, not everything will go well or as we want, sometimes it’s about being patient and endure the rough times. The idea of up and downs in life is depicted with the sudden changes of nature, at the very beginning we see the ups, described with colors of autumn, a lovely red sky and by the silence that sets down between the father and daughter.
The downs are reflected by the appearing ravenous clouds, by the sky going dark and by the clouds who were devouring the bright sky. We see that the author is using specific words in the idea of making the environment more terrifying, the daughter starts to weep, she’s been told to confront the situation, to believe that the sky will be enlightened by the stars. After the downs, the ups of life show again, the poet is revealing how the stars rise and shine, he is describing this in a spectacular manner as the star cluster is named as “Pleiades”, referring to the aspect of the Greek mythology. It’s a portrait of hope and infinite beauty, coming with a subtle message for the reader, to endure and not lose hope through the darkest times. We are taught to value nature and its beauty. The symbol of innocence and purity is the daughter.
The poem opens with a narrative description of an event similar to that portrayed in Hopkins’s ‘Spring and Fall,’ a father discussing a natural scene, here, the stars in the night sky, with his daughter. The father notices that the child begins to weep as she watches the ‘burial-clouds’ cover over the stars. The poem then changes from a narrative description to a dramatic presentation of the father reassuring his daughter that the stars are immortal and will endure. The last stanza of the poem concludes the father’s speech and includes two important parenthetical statements which explain that this reassurance is also a ‘first suggestion, the problem and indirection.’ Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.
- Kenneth M. Price, Ed Folsom, “The Walt Whitman Archive”, May 28 2019 https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_569.html
- Alexander Norman Jeffares, Gray Wilson Allen, “Walt Whitman – American Poet”, Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc., Jul 20, 1998, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Walt-Whitman