Sunday, 27 December 2009

Patrolling Barnegat - Walt Whitman

'Patrolling Barnegat' is a poem that explores nature in all its fury, during a storm at sea. Whitman begins with the repetition of 'wild', leaving us in no doubt as to the mood of the poem. The focus is immediately made clear by the words 'storm' and 'sea'. The personification in the second line, 'roar of the gale', describes the ferocity of the wind, but there is also an 'incessant undertone muttering' – a more subtle sound that never lets up. Sound is again emphasised in the third line with 'Shouts of demoniac laughter'; this is no happy sound, but one associated with evil that is 'piercing' the air every so often.

The cluster of three – 'Waves, air, midnight' – at the start of line four add to the atmosphere, as we now know that this is occurring in the darkest hour. These three are referred to as the 'savagest trinity', a most dangerous combination. Line five tells us that the 'milk-white combs', the crests of the waves, can be distinguished among the shadows, and they are 'careering,' giving a sense of wild, uncontrolled movement. In line six Whitman uses alliteration to create an image of snow falling on the shore: 'On beachy slush and sand spirts of snow fierce slanting'; the repetition of the s gives an impression of the sound of melting snow hitting the ground.

Line seven reminds us of the darkness with 'murk' and the severity of the gale in the phrase 'easterly death-wind' – lives may in fact be in danger. The final word of this line, 'breasting', signals the presence of the coastguards confronting the wind. In line eight they are moving forward, 'watchful and firm' through the 'cutting swirl and spray' of the wind, snow and waves. Line nine is a snatch of conversation in parentheses, as an object is spotted in the distance that may be the wreck of a ship. Someone asks if the red light is flashing, as conditions make this difficult to ascertain.

In line ten the 'slush and sand' of line six are reiterated, and the coastguards are described as 'tireless' as they trudge along until daybreak. Line eleven tells is that they make their way through the storm 'steadily' and 'slowly', and once again the sound is described as a 'hoarse roar', rough and fierce. It is relentless, 'never remitting', echoing the 'incessant ... muttering' of the second line. Line twelve emphasises again that it is midnight, and echoes the alliterative 'milk-white combs careering' of line five.

In line thirteen a direct reference is finally made to the coastguards who are the subject of the poem. They are seen as 'a group of dim, weird forms', a description that again underlines the darkness and difficult conditions which make it impossible to see clearly. They are 'struggling, the night confronting', emphasising just how hard it is for them to move along the shore during a storm and in darkness. The final line of the poem refers again to the 'savage trinity' of line four, in other words the waves, the air and the night. The patrollers are watching all of these 'warily', vigilant, knowing that disaster may strike at any moment.

Were it not for the snatches of conversation in line nine, the poem would consist of one long sentence, creating the impression of the constant wildness of the storm, unceasing. Even in line nine, the exclamation mark and the first question mark are not followed by capital letters, as though separate sentences were not intended. There is no real rhyme scheme, but each line ends with an -ing form, emphasising the movement as the waves lash on the shore and the wind blows mercilessly.

Walt Whitman has painted a picture of nature at its harshest and shown how those who patrolled Barnegat Bay in New Jersey braved such adverse conditions, ever watchful for those in danger at sea.

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