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Analysis of Poem "Patrolling Barnegat" by Walt Whitman

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman and "Patrolling Barnegat"

"Patrolling Barnegat" is an unusual poem that seizes the reader immediately and sweeps them along into a raging storm 'along a midnight edge'.

There is no respite from the elements. The speaker is certainly out there, perhaps walking on a beach, or on cliffs above, being batted by the wind and rain as they look out over the surf.

This is a dynamic scenario which is also a little bit frightening because there may be someone out there in the shadows—people on patrol perhaps?

As always with Whitman, there is more to this poem than meets the eye. The title half suggests that this is some sort of military operation—which makes the patrolling more feasible—and yet some of the language hints at a religious aspect too.

Barnegat is on the Atlantic Coast of the USA, in New Jersey. Whitman lived near here during the latter part of his life and it's thought he wrote the poem around 1880. It was first published in Harper's Monthly Magazine in April 1881 so didn't appear in the initial publication of his ground-breaking book Leaves of Grass (1855).

  • "Patrolling Barnegat" has fourteen lines, which all end in -ing, making it a most unusual type of sonnet.
  • Sonnets are traditionally associated with love but it's difficult to relate this subject to Whitman's stormy scene - except to say isn't love sometimes wild, unpredictable and all consuming?
  • If the military patrol is taken to be a symbol of Whitman's past involvement in the American civil war, and the savage trinity a symbol of religious power then there could be grounds for thinking the poem an exploration of the poet's past struggles.

Whitman's poetry as a whole embraces all of humanity, all of the cosmos. That was the objective of his work, to give everything a soul by acknowledging the complete spectrum of life, from compost to the body electric and beyond to the higher self.

"Patrolling Barnegat" describes nature at her most violent and threatening, introducing that aspect of mystery, taking the reader into an ever-present, sensual, swirling world.

"Patrolling Barnegat"

WILD, wild the storm, and the sea high running;

Steady the roar of the gale, with incessant under-tone muttering;

Shouts of demoniac laughter fitfully piercing and pealing;

Waves, air, midnight, their savagest trinity lashing;

Out in the shadows there, milk-white combs careering;

On beachy slush and sand, spurts of snow fierce slanting—

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Where, through the murk, the easterly death-wind breasting,

Through cutting swirl and spray, watchful and firm advancing

(That in the distance! is that a wreck? is the red signal flaring?),

Slush and sand of the beach, tireless till daylight wending,

Steadily, slowly, through hoarse roar never remitting,

Along the midnight edge, by those milk-white combs careering,

A group of dim, weird forms, struggling, the night confronting,

That savage trinity warily watching.

Analysis of "Patrolling Barnegat"

"Patrolling Barnegat" is a fourteen line poem in free verse. If Whitman meant it as a sonnet it is a highly unorthodox one, but that would suit this particular poet, who bent many a rule of traditional poetics in his time.

Sonnets are made for love and are usually a solid form of iambic pentameter (five consistent feet per line) with set rhyme scheme and romantic theme. Whitman's poem has no rhyme scheme as such but does have repeated line endings of -ing, which would make sense as a reflection of the waves coming in, monotonous and lingering.

And there is no turn or volte in this fourteen liner. Line after line accumulates the energy in typical Whitmanesque fashion; alliteration, assonance, sibilance and repetition all play their part in creating a tour de force that isn't exactly musical but is full of swooning cadences.

  • However if the reader pays attention to line seven, following the dash, there is a definite change of emphasis.
  • The first six lines describe the natural phenomena—the high sea, the roaring gale, the careering white combs and spurts of snow and so on—but the seventh has that opening word Where used as a conjunction, combining the first clause with the second, which seems to focus on a group of dim, weird forms mentioned in line fourteen.

The storm rages on but now there is an added mystery, compounded by line nine and the possibility of a shipwreck out to sea. This cannot be confirmed however; the two question marks underline the uncertainty of the speaker.

Has someone set off a flare? Has the patrol gone out to help with an emergency? Is the speaker part of that patrol? Whatever the answer, life is at risk in this most dramatic of midnight hours.

Note the final line, how it is packed full of syllables (eleven) yet falls short, leaving a gap, suggesting a sudden drop, the savage trinity of wind, air and midnight personified, simply watching.

What Is the Tone?

The tone in "Patrolling Barnegat" is intense and hugely challenging, yet dynamic. The reader is made aware of the potential danger from the very first words and this febrile atmosphere creates a tension that continues throughout the poem.

Each line builds up, like the wave motion on the shoreline, and reaches a climax in the present participles: careering, confronting and so on. The mood is chilling, expectant and suspenseful.

How Does Language Convey Meaning?

The language in "Patrolling Barnegat" fully creates a sense of foreboding and danger. By using repetition and words associated with extremes, Whitman builds up a dramatic and dark picture of a powerful sea storm that may never end.

The first word Wild for example is repeated which reinforces the idea of nature out of control. Coupled with other adjectives like demoniac, savagest, cutting the reader is made aware of the fierceness of this natural phenomenon.

Rhyme and Metre (Meter in American English)


There is no set rhyme scheme in this poem but each line ends with -ing, making this technically full rhyme.

Internal Rhyme

Internal rhyme helps bond lines together and create textures of sound. For example:




And within the same lines:

wild/high...air/their...sand/slanting...death-wind breasting...swirl/firm...wreck/

Metre (Meter in American English)

It's worth investigating each line to see just where the poet has varied the feet to create certain rhythms and tensions. Scanning these lines is tricky because the packed syllables in certain lines can go either way, mirroring the chaos of the storm.

Let's delve:

WILD, wild / the storm, / and the / sea high / running;

Whitman's rhythms are unpredictable, like the storm. This first line has five feet, two of them spondees, making this line spondaic pentameter. Note the double stresses of the spondee, full of energy.

Steady the / roar of the / gale, with in / cess ant / under-tone / muttering;

This second line is a hexameter, six feet, mostly dactyls, that is, two stressed syllables followed by an unstressed third, giving regular beats until the fourth foot - a trochee - steps out of line.

Shouts of de / moniac / laughter / fitfully / piercing and / pealing;

Again six feet, dactyls dominating, but this time two trochees interfere with the rhythm, half way and at the end. Unpredictable breaks in the storm.

Waves, air, / midnight, / their sav / agest / trinity / lashing;

A faint echo of the first line. Two stressed to begin with, then it's confusion. Have we a hexameter with the lone dactyl, or a pentameter with three dactyls? It's up to the reader.

Out in the / shadows there, / milk-white / combs ca / reering;

Dactyls and trochees give this line an imbalance between set rhythm and jolting stress.

On bea / chy slush / and sand, / spurts of / snow fierce / slanting—

An iambic hexameter, again a steady beat up to the midway comma, then the opposite almost, trochees and a spondee. Such contrast.

Where, through / the murk, / the east / erly / death-wind / breasting,

Another hexameter, a mix of trochee and iamb, with pyrrhic and spondee thrown in for good measure. Note the stressed triple at the end of the line, an echo of the first (and sixth) line.

Through cut / ting swirl / and spray, / watchful and / firm ad / vancing,

Iambic hexameter with a dactyl and two trochees.

(That in the / distance! is / that a wreck? / is the red / signal / flaring?),

Dactyls and an anapaest, plus a rare amphimacer (three syllables, the middle one unstressed) make this an odd line that comes out of the blue.. With seven stresses it tests the reader.

Slush and / sand of / the beach, / tireless till / daylight / wending,

Heavy with trochee feet, this line rises and falls.

Steadily, / slowly, through / hoarse roar / never / remitting,

Dactyls rule to begin with, the first stress having a loud effect, followed by two quieter syllables, like waves crashing then smoothing out on the shore. Note the final amphibrach, a three syllable participle.

Along / the mid / night edge, / by those / milk-white combs / careering,

This poem has lots of subtle echo in it. Note the three iambs to start with, an echo of lines 6 and 8, then comes the comma and the fun begins. The steady iambic plod is completely mashed up. The next 8 syllables could be broken up into four feet but that would mean losing the end amphibrach, which the poem is familiar with?

A group / of dim, / weird forms, / struggling, the / night con / fronting,

Another hexameter of mixed feet. Note the end two trochees, a repeated rhythm that rises and falls.

That sav / age tri / nity war / ily / watching.

The shortened last line suggests a sudden shutting down of events. Iambs start this pentameter then the beat alters, a rough pattern that persists throughout this fascinating poem.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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