Walt Whitman is Long Island's native poet with world wide recognition. He was born in 1819 in West Hills, Huntington, NY. in the farmhouse built by his father. Whitman's muse always remained connected to Paumanok (Native American for Long Island meaning “fish shaped island”). The South Bays and ocean beaches were part of Huntington then and Walt was well familiar with them. His family moved often within earshot of bays, rivers and the ocean. During his time in Brooklyn, he was drawn to the East River and Manhattan just beyond. As editor of the Brooklyn Eagle he befriended ferry captains who shuttled him across the river to the city.
He explored waterfront shipping docks, sail makers shops and taverns absorbing tales of mariners and shipwrights. He wandered beaches, salt marshes and bays. Breathed salt air to renew his spirit. Drawing on these influences, he created the distinct poetic style of ''Leaves of Grass”, printed in 1855, which was his seminal work. The many editions of this book celebrate humanity, the sky, the sea, wetlands, the cosmic universe. There were also moodier expressions using dark and tragic metaphors. These darker words and influences haunt us. The wrecks, rocks, treacherous sandbars, mountainous waves, blizzards of winds and ice, tortuous loss of life, the flotsam, jetsam and treachery we find in certain poems and stanzas highlight the frailty of humans facing the seas.
In 1836, as a youth of 17 years, he moved to Hempstead, Long Island and by autumn he had moved to Babylon in Suffolk County working as a teacher in a one room school house. On Sunday, November 20, of that year, the American square rigger Bristol arrived in lower New York Harbor from Liverpool with a crew of 17 and her captain, Alexander McKown. She carried 300 tons of iron, coal, dry goods and accommodations for 20 passengers at most. On this voyage she was overloaded with 127 mainly Irish immigrants. Profit was the motive. The harbor entrance being hazardous, he could not raise a harbor pilot to guide her in, the captain anchored off Sandy Hook for the night.
At midnight, a storm blew up from the east. Fearing Bristol would pull anchor, the captain reefed and set sail tacking along Rockaway Beach believing he was out far enough to avoid sandbars. He wasn't. At 3:45 a.m. he ran aground on the shoals of Rockaway Beach. The Bristol fired its wreck gun. Its report carried across quiet farmlands alerting towns not far from shore. Suddenly a wind whipped killer wave enveloped the ship, carried her off the sand bar and drove her down so hard she began to break apart and sink. Passengers struggled up from flooding lower cabins. Those who didn't, drowned agonizing deaths in ice cold water. Many made the deck only to be washed overboard.
On shore, local fisher and farmer folk were alerted by the cannon and flairs Bristol had fired. Word spread all the way to Hempstead and by daylight a local crowd stood watch on the beach. No one was willing to launch a rescue boat until the surf calmed somewhat. In the end, 32 passengers, 12 crewmen and the captain were saved. Five crewmen and 95 passengers perished.
Now the ghoulish part. For days the wreck splintered apart. Bodies were thrown on beaches. Plunderers descended from miles away to rob bodies of jewelry and money. They cut off fingers and ear lobs to remove rings and earrings. They removed any money found on the dead and loaded wagons with stolen beached cargo. Shivering survivors were also victims of their greed.
The fledgling New York Herald and local town papers grabbed the sensationalist story. Papers were delivered up and down the coast. And who was devouring these papers in Babylon not 15 miles from the disaster? Young Walt Whitman. Daily accounts of the horrors of the ill fated Bristol continued until interest waned. Nature then provided new material in the shape of another wreck not far from the Bristol.
The wreck Mexico was kin to the Bristol tragedy. Arriving from Liverpool December 31, 1836 the night was five degrees above zero. The ship was overloaded with 111 mainly poor Irish passengers suffering near starvation on a voyage wrought with adverse weather. The ships leaking hull was questionable at best and she sailed with a short crew of only ten men, a cook and her captain, Charles Winslow. The ship was also crammed with cargo. When she arrived, the pilots expected to guide her were awash in New Year’s Eve celebrations.
Again a storm drew up and a captain put out to sea. Again a ship was wrecked on the shoals of the outer beaches of Long Island. This time at Hempstead Beach (between Lido and Atlantic Beach). In the icy blizzard Mexico grounded and broke apart. Wet passengers and crew retreated to broken riggings tying themselves there. They wailed and screamed until they froze in contorted shapes of horror. Of 123 passengers and crew only eight survived due to the bravery of Raynor Rock Smith and his crew of six sons and relatives risking their lives using a surf boat dragged across the frozen bay from the village of Raynor Town (Freeport today). The arctic weather and presence of Raynor Rock Smith and his crew prevented pillaging by scavenging land pirates.
Seas calmed. Time passed. Victims of both Bristol and Mexico were buried in a mass grave at Rockville Cemetery. In 1840, a monument was placed in remembrance donated by local communities. Yet Walt Whitman carried those tragic events in his head. In a printing shop near where the Brooklyn Bridge stands he set the type for his first edition of “Leaves of Grass”. The images from the winter of 1836-37 were released from his lyrical mind. In line 95 of “The Sleepers” he writes:
“The beach is cut by the razory ice-wind......the wreck guns sounds,
The tempest lulls and the moon comes floundering through the drifts.
I look where the ship helplessly heads end on.....I hear the burst as she strikes....I hear the howls of dismay.....they grow fainter and fainter.
I cannot aid with my wringing fingers;
I can but rush to the surf and let it drench me and freeze upon me.
I search with the crowd...... not one of the company is washed to us alive.
In the morning I help pick up the dead and lay them in rows in a barn.”
Whitman is exploring his memory of those wrecks. Was he actually present during the tragedies? Whitman was vague, saying his “Spirit was there'' -a poetic answer. Living in Babylon at the time of both wrecks, he was not far from the sites. In any event, having read the papers, he “was” present. His mind placed him there. Other poems in the 1855 edition used nautical metaphors as in “Faces” line 52 .“This face is a lifeboat:” In “Song of myself” line 457 “Sea of stretched ground-swells! Sea breathing broad convulsive breaths!” Sea of the brine of life! Sea of unshoveled and always ready graves! Howler and scooper of storms!''
These passages clearly evoke those wrecks which were as known then as we know “Titanic”. Later editions of “Leaves of Grass' added new poems addressing ships and sea. Over a dozen of Whitman's poems were titled directly to voyages and ships. Others used sea and ship influenced words like “eddies, waves, sails, rocks, sand, sea cabbage grass, anchor, winds, tide, current, shells, masts, etc, when not related to sea themed subjects. The bays, the ocean, the wrecks experienced by the young Walt Whitman never left him. Poetry is the better for it.
We close with 2 of a 3 stanza poem by Walt Whitman. It is his most recognized poem and deals with the assassination of Lincoln just as the bloody Civil War ended. Here Whitman, remembering the horrible wrecks of Bristol and Mexico, makes sure the Captain (Lincoln) safely brings his passengers (the Union of the States) to port before dying on deck-a strong poetic metaphor.
O Captain! My Captain!
( Verse 1)
O Captain ! my Captain our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart ! heart ! heart !
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
( Verse 3)
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse or will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.
Author’s Notes: Visit the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic site at 246 Old Walt Whitman Rd, Huntington Station, NY. Tel. 631-427-5240. Also visit the Rockville Cemetery at 45 Merrick Rd. Lynbrook, NY (victims are buried along with rescuers and wreckers).
Many thanks to Cynthia Shor, Director of the Whitman Birthplace, and Prof. Ed Folsom of the University of Iowa, Director of the Whitman Archive and Editor of the Whitman Series.
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C. 2017, Mark C. Nuccio. All rights reserved