Following “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” this poem is another newcomer to the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. If “Out of the Cradle” describes the birth and adolescence of a poet, then “As I Ebb’d” poem is one of mid-life crisis. This is Whitman’s “Dejection Ode,” the place where he faces up to the fact that his poetry might not be doing what he wants it to be doing.
The occasion of the poem is a walk along the beach, during which the narrator is “seeking types” and trying to create poetry. Suddenly he is struck by massive doubt, and sees his poetry as a manifestation of ego that approaches neither the universal nor his fundamental self. He sees the shore as a place of wrecks and corpses strewn on the sand, and realizes that he himself will be no more than debris someday.
The center of this poem is Whitman’s assertion that “I have not once had the least idea who or what I am, / But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreached... / ...I have not really understood any thing, not a single object, and...no man ever can.” By trying to write poetry he has opened himself up to attack, both by external forces—cruel nature, his fellow man—and by internal doubts. The imagery of this poem reflects the ruin that he feels awaits him: scum, scales, and corpses litter the beach.
What is truly remarkable about the poem, though, is that Whitman, like Coleridge before him, is able to turn the dejection and the imagery of ruin into poetry. While he may end in ruin, and his poetry may be nothing but garbage on the beach, here he is writing poetry about the junk on the beach before him. It is a part of the world too. While he may be failing in his attempts to understand himself and the world, Whitman is nonetheless creating something that may last, even if just as refuse.
The attack on his own ego in this poem is a direct result of the kind of perspective gained at the end of “Out of the Cradle.” Faced with death and decay Whitman must admit his own relative smallness in the face of the universe. While this has left him with some hope at the end of the earlier poem, here he explores its darker consequences. Since he must admit that death will rob him of the chance even to fully know himself, he cannot see any way to possibly comment on the whole of the universe. He is left in the position of merely asking later generations to heed his wreck.