Poem Analysis: "Facing West from California's Shores" by Walt Whitman

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“Facing West from California’s Shores” – an analysis with respect to world history

When I read a poem, I get an idea of what the author is trying to convey. When I read it again, it touches something within. The more times a poem is read, the more it grows within, until its very idea takes ground in some part or other in our mind, and only then is it fully understood. But because we all have different holds for the poem to grab on to, we all come from different backgrounds and even different times, how can we ever say “this is the correct way (to interpret it)”? The answer is we cannot, and so I can only do my best to argue my point of view in the following text, and hope that you, the reader, will bear with me.

After having read Facing West from California’s Shores I induced the following thesis statement: Facing West from California’s Shores is a poem about American identity in the world. It aims to promote American patriotism, while at the same time setting the nature of human psychology in focus, and make us wander about our future.

“Walt Whitman revolutionised American poetry”, discussing topics considered, if not taboo, then most inappropriate. It is however not only what he wrote, but how he wrote. He is often considered to be the father of the free verse, a form which allows the poet to write more freely, as if speaking, without thought to rhyme, metre or other traditional techniques. This does not mean that free verse is without rules; on the contrary, they have but changed. In this form one might use recurrence with variation of phrases, images and syntactical patterns. The choice of exact words and associations are just some factors that contribute to the beauty of the free verse. If one considers the words used in Facing West from California’s Shores, one may find the words that are chosen, and which of these Whitman has chosen to repeat, are painting a (metaphorical) picture. Phrases like “facing”, “Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound”, “almost” and “long having wander’d” all give us a sense of an on-going search; a longing for something we cannot find. “The circle almost circled” tell us something has come to an end, so does the past tense of “wander’d”, but in between these two verses Whitman tells us where we come from. The “from”s lull us into a rhythm, and in a way this has a stronger effect than the traditional rhymes in conveying this message, always shifting our focus from one place to the next; ever flowing gently. In traditional poems the language is pretty, the rhymes and rhythms; here we perceive the images painted by the words in our minds (both those induced as well as those native to our mind-set).

One image in particular stands out in this poem: “Facing West from California’s Shores”. Why is this such strong an image? To gain an understanding of this we must first have an understanding of the history of the white man in America:

From the moment the white man set foot in America, conquest and treasure hunting has been his main quest. People wanted to settle in this “land of opportunities”, and soon expansion began westward in search of new land. This western frontier for long was the very image of civilisation conquering the wilderness—of progress with clear results. In short, we had a goal. Then, in 1850, California became the 31st state of the USA. The gold rush had come and gone (1848-1855), and it would seem that all that could be discovered had been so. With no terra incognita left to discover, no more land to conquer, where should they go? Any further west and it would be east again.

This is quite brilliantly done by Whitman: “The circle almost circled”, “very old”, an on-going journey about to come to an end. While at the same time “a child”, “Inquiring, tireless, seeking what is yet unfound”, “the house of maternity”, a new beginning. He places the beginning at the end, and the end at the beginning; a beautiful ambiguity, placing America both at the...
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