Whitman begins the “Sea-Drift” section with the poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” It is a song of “reminiscence” of the poet’s childhood and how it would influence his later life. Whitman uses memories of his boyhood – patches of “briers and blueberries,” of birds that once sang to him, and from an image of the moon “late-risen and swollen as if / with tears” to paint a picture of a bucolic upbringing. For his boyhood self, the world is full of wonder and he understands that there is the beginning of a yearning in his heart. He flashes forward to the present but admits that even as a man there is still a boy inside of him.
Whitman then recounts a story from his childhood. One summer, while staying on Paumanok, two birds, “feather’d guests from Alabama,” make their nest by the sea. Quietly, the boy goes each day to observe them, “Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.” The birds sing a song of joy because they are together. Neither north winds nor south winds, day nor night, can make them care for the world. All that matters is their love for each other.
One day, however, the boy finds that the female bird does not return to her nest. In fact, the female bird never appears again. After this, the boy hears a new song from the male bird, now “The solitary guest from Alabama.” The he-bird cries out to the winds to blow his mate back to him. Each night he would sing this song and “pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.” The he-bird’s song is a sorrowful one. One night, he thinks that he sees his mate “fluttering out among the breakers,” but it is not her. The bird cries to the sea and to the land to return his love, but it is useless.
The world continues on, however, and Whitman hears the “moans” of the “fierce old mother” sea each day. He sees the “yellow half-moon” as it sags over the sea and he is ecstatic with love now loosed by the bird’s sad song. He does not know if the bird is a “Demon or bird,” because it has spoken such truth that has penetrated his soul and “A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.” The song is death and he hears it in the sea each day and night. It is that bird’s song, Whitman says, that sparked his own songs, songs of death (the “sweetest word”).
Whitman then recalls a different time in his life in “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life.” In this poem, Whitman speaks of difficult times. He walks along the shores of Paumanok, hearing the “fierce old mother” crying out for all her castaway children and is struck 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.” His eyes follow all of refuse washed ashore and thinks of “the old thought of / likenesses….”
As he walks, he reflects on all the old spirits of the beach and of the sea and he is struck with the realization that he is much like the “wash’d up drift” that his eyes follow. Whitman suddenly feels oppressed by the inadequacies of his work because he has “not once had the least idea who or what” he is or what his work means. He calls his poems “arrogant” and declares that his real self cannot be revealed by these poems or by anything else. It is not just himself that he has not perceived correctly, however, but no thing, “not a sing /object…no man ever can….” Whitman then releases himself to Paumanok, to the nature, and to the ocean. He begs for nature to be gentle to him and to continue to reveal itself to him for his intentions are well meant.
The poem “Aboard at a Ship’s Helm” sees the poet aboard a ship, watching a young pilot guide the ship “with care” through a fog. There is a warning bell and Whitman praises the bell for giving “good notice” of danger ahead. The pilot turns the boat away from danger and “The beautiful and noble ship with all her precious wealth / speeds away gaily and safe.” The “precious wealth” that Whitman speaks of is “the immortal ship,” the “ship aboard the ship,” the soul. Now on the beach and listening to the sea Whitman is reminded of “All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future.”
Whitman begins “By the Roadside” in Boston watching a military parade. He yells for “Jonathan,” a common name for a New England Yankee, to clear the way for the “President’s marshal…for the government canon…for the Federal foot and dragoons…..” He sees the American flag march down the street while Yankee Doodle plays. War veterans, some with missing limbs, hobble down the street. The show calls “the dead out of the earth!” Whitman proclaims that there is “one thing that belongs here” and he says that he will whisper it to the Mayor who will go to Parliament and “Dig out King George’s coffin” and bring his bones back to Boston. The people will then reconstruct the bones and place a crown on the skeleton’s head. Whitman tells Jonathan that he is a “made man from this day….”
The poems “Gods” and “Germs” take on a metaphysical bent. Whitman cries for the “Ideal Man” to become his God. He asks death, “all great ideas, the races’ aspirations,” and all great deeds of mankind to become his Gods. He then calls on all the wonders of the earth, the “Forms, qualities, lives, humanity, language, thoughts” as “the virtue, the germs of all.” These, Whitman proclaims, are the beginnings of all creation and being.
“When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” is Whitman’s critique of organized knowledge. He listens to this “learn’d astronomer” and the facts and figures this person uses in his teaching. This knowledge makes Whitman feel “tired and sick and he wanders off to be by himself where in “the mystical moist night-air” he looks up and observes the stars. Whitman’s reaction to such learning seems to be nihilistic in “O Me! O Life!” He despairs over the “cities fill’d with the foolish” and for those that seek the light of understanding but struggle to ever obtain it. The answer to this despair: “that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a / verse.”
Whitman’s poems then turn to the political and social. He speaks directly to the President in “To a President,” telling him that he has not lived up to the responsibilities of his office. He has not “learn’d of Nature – of the politics of Nature….” “To Rich Givers” is a poem of thanks to those that have supported and given shelter to him as he has travelled across the United States.
In a series of short poems, Whitman combines his metaphysical thoughts with his social and political realism. “Roaming in Thought” is a meditation on the universe brought about by reading Hegel. “A Child’s Amaze” remembers his awe as a young boy listening to a preacher’s sermons on God. “The Runner” is an observation of a man with “sinewy…muscular legs” as he runs along a roadside. Whitman sings odes to mothers and their children, to beautiful women, and to the thoughts of justice and equality of all humanity.
Whitman ends the section with an indictment of the country’s political culture. In “To the States: To Identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidentiad,” Whitman proclaims that the administrations of former presidents have failed the country. He indicts the Congress and the judiciary for their failings in holding together a divided country. Whitman declares that he will sleep awhile, “for I see that these States sleep….”
“Sea Drift” chronicles a kind of mystical evolution that Whitman sees occurring in the world around him. The passage of time is an important theme. The lead poem, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” is a recollection by the poet of his childhood and of the critical moments which inspired his own art. Whitman’s boyhood is forever tied to his Paumanok (Long Island) and the sea culture that is found there. Thus, Whitman’s childhood is tied up within the sea and the endlessly rocking cradle is a metaphor for the ocean. This is not only a reference to Whitman’s own beginnings, but also to the beginnings of creation. In this poem, the past and the present are always related. One always influences the other.
“Out of the Cradle” has been called Whitman’s masterpiece of free verse. As an ideal, the subject and the form of free verse should give support to each other. This poem is an excellent example of Whitman’s mastery of this technique. The opening lines of the poem recreate the creation narrative. The endlessly rocking cradle is the “formless depths” of the Book of Genesis; the poet is Adam, the first man, being formed from the earth. The seashore is Whitman’s own Eden.
The story of the he-bird and she-bird is a story of awakening told in two parts. In the first part, the two birds sing of their joined love for each other. These are songs that teach the young poet of celebration. The reader remembers the opening “Inscriptions” and the celebratory songs of love written there. The second part of the bird story is more difficult to hear. The he-bird has lost his love and the song now sung is full of grief and longing. This is an instructive song as well, however, as the boy learns that love is a multifaceted thing. It is dangerous and sometimes painful, yet it is full even then. These two songs complete the “aria” with which Whitman closes “Out of the Cradle.” The completion of the life-cycle is death and, ultimately, this is what Whitman finds in the sea. The sea is the “old mother” which rocked him and nurtured him, yet it is also a reality of the end of life. Whitman closes in reflections: it is his witness of this life, love, and death that creates him as a poet.
In contrast to “Sea-Drift” or “Song of Myself,” there is no one unifying theme of “By the Roadside.” Instead, it is a collection of poems on various themes. If there is one connecting idea, it is that the poet is an observer of life, bestowed with a special knowledge of people and events that others are not privileged to or have forgotten. This is evident in the opening poem taking place during a Boston patriotic parade. As he watches the flags and soldiers march through the streets, Whitman knows that he has a fundamental understanding of democracy that is missing in this parade. He decides to whisper this understanding to the mayor who, given this powerful knowledge, takes the drastic measure of digging up King George’s bones in a kind of ritualistic reenactment of the Revolutionary War. This understanding is the knowledge that democracy lives continually. It is not simply an act, such as war, to be memorialized. Understanding this makes all citizens “made” men.
This theme is given variation in “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and “O Me! O Life!” The unifying meaning here is that the poet, Whitman, has a crucial understanding of things that he knows his observed subject does not. “Learn’d Astronomer” is an indictment of an education system that only teaches numbers and figures and which hides truth more than reveals it. This deficiency in learning becomes a sickness for all of the citizenry and Whitman witnesses cities filled with foolish people. They have only an inkling of true knowledge and the reader can hear Whitman’s own desire to impart his vision of truth amongst the people.
Through Leaves of Grass, Whitman maintains a high regard for the power of institutions, even if he is distrustful of institutions themselves and chooses not to be a part of them. This regard for political institutions is evident in the closing poem, “To the States: To Identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidentiad.” Whitman’s tone is critical in this poem but only because he recognizes the profound influence and power that the office of the President exerts over the future of the nation. The poem is an indictment of the Buchanan administration who Whitman accuses of “sleeping” through the growing divisions in the states: divisions which would eventually lead to war. His poem is a cry for the next three Presidents to right the ship and uphold justice in a tired and divided nation.