Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Walt Whitman at Bear Mountain” employs a travel or journey theme. Like the trip itself, the poem initially has no apparent order. The leaps at first seem illogical, but the sights along the way eventually bring meaning to the verse tour. Simpson moves the reader from New York, to “the Mississippi panorama,” to “[t]he Open Road,” to “the high Sierras,” to the “lonely road,” to the ruins of ancient societies that decayed from within before being destroyed from without, to crumbling structures, and finally to the bay, another allusion to Simpson’s “In California.”

The statue of Whitman that introduces the poem actually exists; it is one that the American sculpture Jo Davidson (1883-1952) designed at the request of Averell Harriman. Harriman, U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, secretary of commerce under President Harry S. Truman, and governor of New York from 1954 to 1958—wanted to commemorate his mother’s gift of ten thousand acres and $1 million for the creation of Bear Mountain State Park and the adjacent Harriman State Park; he commissioned Davidson to design the statue. The first exhibit of the sculpture was at the 1939 New York World’s Fair; the formal dedication was in Bear Mountain on November 17, 1940.

Across from the statue and carved into a granite ledge are stanzas from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road.” The first line reads, “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road.” The statue depicts Whitman walking surely and...

(The entire section is 615 words.)