“On the Beach at Night Alone” (Vaughan Williams, Whitman)

 

 

 

 

“On the Beach at Night Alone” is the second movement from Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “A Sea Symphony” (written between 1903 and 1909; first performed in 1910).

The text of “A Sea Symphony” comes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

“On the Beach at Night Alone” is a poem by Whitman.

I find this symphony extremely moving and impressive, and this movement has never failed to hold me in awe. I can feel a sense of identity with, and the vicarious experience of, being a walker on the beach (which Whitman often was).

 

 

— Roger W. Smith

   October 2017

 

 

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ON THE BEACH AT NIGHT ALONE.

ON the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef
of the universes and of the future.

A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in
different worlds,
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the
brutes,
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any
globe,
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann’d,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them.

 

— Walt Whitman

 

 

 

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addendum:

 

“On the Beach at Night Alone”

What does the poem mean?

Here is my attempt at explaining the poem. Comments are welcome. I am not a poetry expert.

 

— Roger W. Smith

 

 

The poet is walking on the beach at night.

“[T]he old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song.”

The old mother is the sea.

Singing her husky song … the surf roars.

(No fancy words here; Whitman uses the plainest.)

He thinks of the “clef” (key) of the “universes” (multiple universes) and the future (what is now and what is to come, linking the past and the future).

He sees that “A vast similitude interlocks all.”

He sees that things that we often think of as not alike, different, separate: the animate and inanimate … celestial bodies far out in space, the living and the dead, different peoples and nations, are all part of life, having the same life force.

The “vast similitude” is like a giant blanket covering and enveloping anything that ever has existed, does exist, or can be contemplated.

There is unity and coherence in all things.

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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