What does the whale symbolize in the poem "The Whale in the Blue Washing Machine"? 

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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This poem by John Haines of Alaska, who "transforms individual experience into universal terms," as one critic writes, ties a spiritual depth of feeling to the elemental force of something so large as a whale:

There are depths even in a household
where a whale can live....

The controlling metaphor of the poem is the figurative and elemental connection between the speaker's spirit and the that of the whale. For, the word "depths" suggests that just as the whale swims in the depths of the ocean, the speaker feels the depth of melancholy and "wail[ing]" (line 17) of emotion that the whale shares as he peers through "steamy windows." Indeed, with the homophone "wail," there is an aligning of the spiritual of Nature with that of man. Therefore, the whale can be perceived as being a symbol of the human spirit in its most elemental needs, such as, perhaps, a yearning for love.

That the whale is symbolic of the man's spirit is played out by the whale's roaming about the house, just as does the speaker. The enjambment in lines 3 and 4--"from room/to room--" suggests this unity of spirit as the whale follows the path of the speaker. Like the speaker, "his pulse beat sounds at night" and he, too, is "watching and listening," for the sound of an "unchained buoy"--could this "buoy," too, be a homophone [boy]? At any rate, the feelings of both the whale and the speaker are unrequited as the darkness and fog envelop them in melancholy at the crest of the waves of emotion.

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