Patrolling Barnegat

Glossary

3 demoniac laughter: i.e. the sound of the sea and the gale is like the laughter of a person possessed by a demon or evil spirit.

4 trinity: the trinity, or threesome, of “Waves, air, midnight” combining together. “Trinity” is, of course, a word with a religious meaning: the three persons of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). The trinity here, of waves, wind, and midnight, is a kind of weird equivalent three-in-one.

5 combs: waves.

9 red signal: i.e. a rocket flare, sent up from a ship in trouble in the rough seas.

10 wending: comes along, returns.

Commentary

Contrary to what it says in the AQA anthology, this poem was probably written in 1880 (not in 1856 as stated). It was written, in other words, when Walt Whitman was in his sixties, and had retired to Camden, New Jersey, near which there is the stretch of coast to which the poem refers: the spit of land known as Barnegat.

The poem is an extraordinary evocation of this piece of coast, during a fierce storm, at midnight. The huge waves, the wild blowing of the wind, and the time (midnight) seem to form a frightening “trinity” that nonetheless exhilarates the poet. The storm at night is terrible, but also exciting. The spit of land seems to form a “midnight edge” (12) in more than one sense: an edge between sea and land, but also between normal life and these extreme conditions – ultimately, perhaps, an “edge” between life and whatever is beyond.

Whitman experiences nature in a profoundly religious way, but not exactly with Hopkins’s kind of excitement or with Hopkins’s sense that nature is created by God. For Whitman, the forces of nature are more ambiguous – he is not so certain whether they are good or bad.

The poem is Romantic in the sense that it enjoys the terrifying energy and dynamism of the midnight storm. There is no “classical” sense of order or poise here, for everything is a mass of energetic movement: the “shouts” of the gale “pealing” (like bells) (3), the waves “careering” (5), the snow “slanting” in the wind (6). The poem is impressionist, on the other hand, in the way it uses language to try and convey the sheer energy and violence of the elements.

So, in terms of metre, rather than any tame or controlled iambic pentameter, here we have a kind of free verse, relying on creating six strong stresses in each line:

Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running,
Steady the roar of the gale, with incessant undertone muttering, (1–2)

The poet probably wanted it read with an incantatory, chanting roll, bringing out the six strong stresses in each line. It is very hard to imagine reading the poem fast: it is like a grand and weird chant. The rhymes, which are mainly half rhymes, consist of present participles, i.e. words ending in “–ing” (running, muttering, pealing, lashing, etc.), and since these are all active verbs, describing actions, working altogether they all create a huge sense of movement and energy. The language, in other words, is very enactive of what it describes.

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