This is another one of the 1856 poems that received its final modifications for the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. One of Whitman’s more dramatic poems, at times “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” seems to be almost a soliloquy or dramatic monologue as the speaker reaches ever-greater rhetorical heights in service of his mission. And what is this mission? The poem recounts an encounter with a “Phantom” on the shores of Lake Ontario, who demands that he “[c]hant ... the poem that comes from the soul of America.” The narrator is as daunted as he is inspired, and the poem is an effort to define the conditions necessary for truly American poetry. “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” is significant for the rhetorical set-pieces it contains: compare certain sections of this poem to contemporary oratory, like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or the speeches of the abolitionists. Whitman, in this poem, is taking his place in a larger American tradition that includes not only public figures like Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, but also America’s most significant intellectuals, particularly Emerson, whose own writing is characterized by rhetorical flights which are tempered with logic and intellectual argument. Since he is writing poetry, and not engaged in scholarly argument or political debate, Whitman, unlike these others, is not bound by his purpose. Instead, he takes the opportunity to create a fusion of poetry and rhetoric that is in places some of his most interesting poetry.
In the Phantom’s call for an American poem and the narrator’s subsequent exploration of the conditions for such poetry Whitman picks up on an argument made by Emerson in his essay “The American Scholar.” Like Emerson, Whitman is interested in the relationship of a new American literature to previous literatures. How can American literature show that it is worthy of consideration alongside the best of British and classical writings, while at the same time declaring its independence of earlier models? The answer, for Whitman, lies in the subject matter at hand, which is both fresh and original and reflective of the country’s unique political system. Situated at a time when the Civil War loomed on the horizon and in a place that saw a great deal of the fighting during the War of 1812, this poem’s narrator is put in mind of America’s particular place in the world.
The narrator is careful to define precisely what a poet should be. In the tenth section of the poem he describes the American poet as one who is an “arbiter” and an “equalizer,” who “bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion.” The poet is independent and objective: “he judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing.” While this may sound like Whitman is arguing for the poet to maintain an aristocracy or meritocracy (like Shelley’s poet as “unacknowledged legislator of the world”), in fact the poet’s mission is rooted in more democratic, and more specifically American, principles. For, as he proclaims, “nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad.” In a country where anything is possible if one only has the drive and the personal qualities to make it happen, everything should be in its place, for “this America is only you and me.” This means that the possibilities for a fresh new American poetry are endless. Like the political compact behind democracy, the American poetic compact is with the individual, and not with any larger social movement or aesthetic. Clearly this justifies Whitman’s own poetic work: “The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single individual—namely to You.”
Whitman wishes to place some other conditions on the American poet, however. The twelfth section of “By Blue Ontario’s Shore,” in particular, sounds like a series of interview questions for the prospective American bard. Whitman is concerned not only with American poetry’s fidelity to the individual but with its ability to compete in the arena of world literature. He charges the American poet with “the work of surpassing all [previous poets] have done.” To do this the poet must avoid those things that have “been better told or done before.” Above all the poet must create poetry of which no one can say that we have “imported this or the spirit of it in some ship.” In other words, the poet must surpass but also leave behind previous models. One way to do this is by creating a new foundational epic, by adorning the individual, and the “days of the present,” rather than glorifying the past. “Bards for [his] own land only [he] invoke[s],” to take the raw materials of the new continent and make them into poetry.