Walt Whitman Commentary

The World Below the Brine

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf, Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water, Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom, The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

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“The World Below the Brine” was originally published in the 1860 edition of Walt Whitman’s famous Leaves of Grass. Initially the poem was published in Whitman’s “Sea-Shore Memories” grouping, but was later transferred to the “Sea Drift” grouping in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass.

The poem follows a single stanza format, and Whitman relies on his use of free verse to build imagery of the life within the ocean. “The World Below the Brine” is an accumulative piece in which line after line the reader acquires more detail to the scenery; ultimately adding to the significance and weight of the last couple lines in which Whitman brings the poem full circle. By using this method Whitman draws uses his poem to draw parallels between the overarching theme of the poem and the outside world the reader finds themselves living in: a world guided by science.

“The World Below the Brine” was published during revolutionary times in the scientific fields, most notably were the findings and publishings of Charles Darwin and his new ideas on the evolution of human beings. As James Wohlpart believes, “The World Below the Brine represents, “his acceptance of nineteenth-century geological and biological descriptions of the evolution of humans.” This thinking coupled with the last line, “The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.” truly indicate Whitman’s rationalizing with the changing world.

Whitman uses “The World Below the Brine” not only to offer his reader a glimpse into the life that lives just under the surface of the ocean, but his comparison of their life to the lives of his reader creates a poem that delves much deeper than just the surface.

Fletcher Rice

Bibliography and Further Reading“The Walt Whitman Archive.” Twentieth-Century Mass Media Appearances – The Walt Whitman Archive, Web. “Walt Whitman.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Web. Whitman, Walt. “The World Below the Brine by Walt Whitman.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Web.

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