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.
“The World Below the Brine” was published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. Whitman published the poem in the group “Sea-Shore Memories” but was later included in “Sea Drift” in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass.
The poem follows a single stanza format and Whitman uses free verse to build imagery of life within the ocean. “The World Below the Brine” is an accumulative piece in which line after line the reader acquires more detail––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 parallels between the overarching theme of the poem and the human world: a world guided by science.
“The World Below the Brine” was published during a period of rapid changes in in science, most notably Charles Darwin’s and his new ideas on the evolution of human beings. As James Wohlpart writes, “The World Below the Brine represents Whitman’s “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” indicate Whitman coming to terms with the changing world.
“The World Below the Brine” offers Whitman’s reader a glimpse into the life that lives just under the surface of the ocean, and his comparison of their life to the lives of his reader creates a poem that delves much deeper than just the surface.
Bibliography and Further Reading Robert J. Scholnick, Science (Criticism), The Walt Whitman Archive; Twentieth-Century Mass Media Appearances, The Walt Whitman Archive; James A. Wohlpart, “From Outsetting Bard to Mature Poet: Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle’ and the Sea-Drift Cluster.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (1991)
Credits Composed by Fletcher Rice, Fall 2018. Reading by Fletcher Rice