Walt Whitman

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What are the literal and symbolic interpretations of Walt Whitman's "After the Sea-Ship"?

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The literal reading and interpretation of Walt Whitman’s “After the Sea-Ship” is a very detailed description of the impact that a sailing vessel has on the ocean. In characteristically lush and detailed language, Whitman describes what becomes of the ocean during and after a ship sails by.

There are probably very many ways to interpret this poem figuratively because it is so bold and expansive, and yet without a clear moral message. One symbolic interpretation could be of the passing ship as a metaphor for what mankind has done to the earth. That is, the ocean was doing what the ocean does, its usual waves and flows, and then a manmade vessel came by and made it dramatically choppy. “Where the great vessel sailing and tacking displaced the surface” points to just such a reading. Mankind has changed how the earth and sea behave day-to-day.

However, this poem is ecstatic in tone (typical for Whitman), which makes way for another, more uplifting, reading, that of the water as metaphor for the way we are changed by the world around us, and how we might embrace that with joy. The impact that one thing can have on another, one person or beast or natural phenomenon can have on another, is enormous, and Whitman reminds us of that here.

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A literal interpretation of "After the Sea-Ship" will focus on the poem as a description of a ship's wake on the open ocean. Essentially, this is the entire content of the poem - a rather brief and ebulient description of how the water looks and acts in the wake of a ship that has passed.

The ship receives almost no description while the water is treated with characterization and specific, detailed description.

Symbolically, the poem is open to intepretation with the most likely and compelling interpretation being one which sees the ocean as a grand natural force, or even as a symbol for nature at large. The sea is not only undisturbed by the ship, emotionally speaking, the sea seems to take joy in the passing of the ship and to be characterized by great equanimity (evenness of temper).

To read further into the text, we might argue that the sea plays a role as background to life and so is symbolic of a temporal space within which life takes place. This space exists before life and also after life, with life being symbolized by the passing ship, and the sea then becomes associated with a temporal expanse that includes death. Death, however, is not dark and dreary but is instead, as the water is "frolicsome" after the passing of the ship, death is for Whitman a part of the wonder of existence.

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