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Walt Whitman's "Patroling Barnegat"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Walt Whitman

Introduction and Text of "Patroling Barnegat"

Walt Whitman's "Patroling Barnegat" is an American sonnet, also called an Innovative sonnet. Unlike the English and Italian sonnet forms, the American sonnet always features a much looser form. While the English sonnet is sectioned into three quatrains and a couplet and the Italian is sectioned into octave and sestet, the American sonnets can only be subdivided into "movements." Each movement depends solely on the sonnet's total environment. While some American sonnets may move in ways similar to the English and Italian, they never feature the entire body of the early sonnet forms.

Whitman's American sonnet moves on present participles, "running," "muttering," "pealing," etc. The speaker is observing a wildly active situation, and in order to convey the activity he keeps his descriptions moving through a piling on of the action words.

Patroling Barnegat

Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running,
Steady the roar of the gale, with incessant undertone 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 spirts of snow fierce slanting,
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.

Reading of "Patroling Barnegat"

Commentary

This American (also called Innovative) sonnet demonstrates the power of the verb form known as the present participle. The speaker is dramatizing the turbulence of a severe storm on the ocean.

First Movement: Setting the Scene

Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running,
Steady the roar of the gale, with incessant undertone muttering,
Shouts of demoniac laughter fitfully piercing and pealing,
Waves, air, midnight, their savagest trinity lashing,

The first movement of Whitman's "Patroling Barnegat" includes the poem's introductory element of depicting the subject: "Wild, wild the storm, and the sea high running." The speaker is dramatizing the event of patroling the stormy waters of Barnegat Bay, off the coast of New Jersey. The speaker emphasizes the severity of the storm by repeating the word "wild." He shows the sea being whipped up in a frenzy which causes a "roar of the gale," while a background noise creates an "incessant undertone" that seems to be "muttering."

The noises bedevil the speaker; thus he calls them "shouts of demoniac laughter." These sounds seem to pierce to speaker's ears. He then invokes a "trinity" of "waves, air, midnight," calling them the "savagest" that lash the sea vessel and the men who are manning it.

Second Movement: Drama of the Waves

Out in the shadows there milk-white combs careering,
On beachy slush and sand spirts of snow fierce slanting,
Where through the murk the easterly death-wind breasting,
Through cutting swirl and spray watchful and firm advancing,

The second movement includes the drama of the waves as they appear "out of the shadows"; he calls them "milk-white combs" as they come "careering." He then observes that over the "beachy slush" there are "sand spirts of snow" that come in "slanting" as they move inland.

The storm creates a murkiness through which "the easterly death-wind" comes "breasting." As the patrol-boat plunges through the storm and snow-filled air, it seems to be "cutting" its way through as the men remain vigilant.

Third Movement: Two Questions

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

The third movement, which consists of a single parenthetical line, dissects the sonnet to pose two questions regarding the sighting of a possible disaster. The speaker wonders if there is something "in the distance." And if so, "is that a wreck? is the red signal flaring?" The very purpose of the patrol is to search for people who might be in trouble on the sea during the storm.

Fourth Movement: A Drama of Tension

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.

The final movement consists of the final five lines that dramatize the tension between the beach of "slush and sand" and that savage trinity of "waves, air, and midnight." The patrol has lasted all night and finally at the "midnight edge" still "those milk-white combs" continue "careering." The speaker concludes by invoking the image of "a group of dim, weird forms" that persists in flailing about in the night as the "savage trinity" continues to watch.

Walt Whitman Stamp - USA - 1940

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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