Walt Whitman

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What is the theme of Whitman's "On the Beach at Night Alone"?

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One of the themes of “On The Beach at Night Alone” is the interlinking of every living thing in a vast cosmic whole. As the speaker walks upon the beach he muses how the stars, the fish, animals, and people are all part of a “vast similitude.” In other words, they may all look different, but they’re part of the same reality.

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In “On the Beach at Night Alone,” as elsewhere in his work, Whitman muses on the ultimate unity of being. Although on the surface there is great diversity in the created world, in actual fact there is a fundamental unity at work, coursing through every living thing: fish, animals, stars, and humans alike.

We are all part of what the speaker calls a “vast similitude” that obliterates the superficial distinctions between ourselves and others, which we so often take for the reality of our created condition. It is this organic unity that speaks to who and what we really are.

It’s instructive that the speaker gains this insight while he’s walking on the beach at night. At night-time everything is covered in darkness, everything looks the same, and all differences are obliterated by the cover of night.

The speaker wants us to carry his notion of vast similitude with us into the daylight hours, when all the superficial characteristics that divide us from each other and from nature will become visible once more. We must not allow ourselves to be taken in by the false light of the day; we must remain focused on the ultimate reality that joins us all together as one.

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One theme that emerges in "On the Beach at Night Alone" is the reality that darkness and hardship cannot last forever.

The poem begins with a young girl standing with her father on a beach at night. The imagery and tone are serene, yet an abrupt shift occurs in the second stanza. Suddenly, darkness overtakes the sky. The speaker uses words such as "ravening," "burial," and "black masses" to connote the intensity of the hardship that metaphorically spreads around and encompasses the world of this young girl and her father.

Sure that the darkness will "devour all," the girl begins to weep.

And then the tone shifts again. Her father assures her that he is there to comfort her through the darkness; she does not have to face it alone. And these clouds are temporary, reinforced by his comments that "the ravening clouds shall not long be victorious." He reminds her to be patient in watching for the light to return, as it always does.

Through these contrasting images of light and darkness, the poem provides hope that goodness and things that bear light are "immortal" and "long-enduring." With patience, the light will always return.

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I see the poem "On the Beach at Night Alone" speaking of patterns and cycles. Those, in turn, are symbolic of the sameness that unites everything through that repeating motion that is life.

Whitman counts down "everything" in his poem. From smaller objects to the bigger, from concepts to specifics to parallels. They are all, he says, connected by "a vast similitude." You could say it means we are all the same — being made of star stuff, like Carl Sagan said. But it's also possible to interpret it meaning that we share the same fate, or travel together on the same eternal path as every single thing with a beginning and an end. A person is born and dies, just the same as a language would. Or fish, or nations, or even suns. Between those moments, however, we have our own personal quirks and individuality; but there is also a "similitude" that links us to other beings who are the same.

There is a line in the poem that illustrates this well, I believe:

As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song

There is something very ancient and eternal about this. A mother singing to her child is far from being a lost custom — in fact, it could be the opposite. It's a happening that we can imagine taking place as far as history reaches — in both directions. You could consider the song itself, too. We think of lullaby as something with a history: passed from mother to daughter, forming a link through generations. Thus it could be symbolic of everything else, repeating throughout time. All different, but all the same.

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The theme of "On the Beach at Night Alone" is universality, or the sense that a "vast similitude" spans all people and things that have ever existed. The speaker in this poem, alone on the beach and watching "the bright stars shining," allows his mind to drift onto thoughts bigger than himself. He ponders "the clef of the universes and of the future."

Through the use of enumeratio, the poet identifies, within a parallel structure, all the many and varied things which fall under the same umbrella of "similitude." "All spheres," "all distances of place," "all souls," "all nations," "all identities," and so on. The repetition of the word all is the key to the speaker's thought. All is, ultimately, connected by being contained within the same "vast" universe which, in "past, present, future" alike "shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them."

Being alone on the beach, it seems, prompts the speaker to ponder the smallness of his own existence in the face of the faraway "stars" and the sheer extent of the wide universe of which he is only an infinitesimal part. The poet is awed by the sheer extent of what this universe spans, and has always spanned, even if some of what it spans is "in different worlds."

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