“The Wellfleet Whale” grew out of the beaching of a whale on the Massachusetts coast near where Kunitz had a home. A journal entry that Kunitz made at the time of the incident precedes the poem. In this entry, the poet reveals his connection with the whale, the emotional tie that seems to bind the two. Kunitz put his hands on the whale’s flanks and “could feel the life inside him.” The whale opened its eye and, staring directly at Kunitz, sent a shudder of recognition between the two. Then the beached creature died, closing forever the eye that was to haunt Kunitz long afterward.
The poem is divided into five sections. The earliest of them concentrates on sounds, on the “eerie medley of clicks/ and hoots and trills.” The sounds are varied, some like “furniture being smashed/ or the creaking of a mossy door.” Yet all the sounds “melt into a liquid/ song with endless variations.” Kunitz then turns to the loneliness of the vast sea, the sea that the dying whale will never experience again. He uses words such as “disembodied” and “mournful” to recaputre the atmosphere of the scene as he relives it.
Whereas the poem’s first section is largely auditory, the second section is highly visual, but it still retains some of its auditory emphasis in phrases such as “the whisper of the tide.” Kunitz describes the harbor into which the hapless whale ventures, to certain death. Its dorsal fin clips “the diamonded surface,” of the harbor’s water. Kunitz’s use of specific language, employing such terms as “dorsal” and “diamonded surface,” builds the authenticity that characterizes this poem. The lazy drift of seagulls overhead contrasts with the whale’s struggle, and these seagulls reappear toward the end of the poem when they close in to peck at the moribund body of the whale, not yet dead but totally helpless.
Perhaps the most admirable lines of the poem come at the very end as an apostrophe. Speaking to the whale, the poet, in words reminiscent of the Beowulf poet, calls the whale “Master of the whale-roads” and then calls upon the gulls to spread their wings as cover. The whale has suffered having a tourist carve his initials on its hide and others cutting strips of flesh from its dying body. The whale, “disgraced and mortal,” is no more.