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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

IV. Pieces in Early Youth

14. Sailing the Mississippi at Midnight

  • VAST and starless, the pall of heaven
  • Laps on the trailing pall below;
  • And forward, forward, in solemn darkness,
  • As if to the sea of the lost we go.
  • Now drawn nigh the edge of the river,
  • Weird-like creatures suddenly rise;
  • Shapes that fade, dissolving outlines
  • Baffle the gazer’s straining eyes.
  • Towering upward and bending forward,
  • Wild and wide their arms are thrown,
  • Ready to pierce with forked fingers
  • Him who touches their realm upon.
  • Tide of youth, thus thickly planted,
  • While in the eddies onward you swim,
  • Thus on the shore stands a phantom army,
  • Lining forever the channel’s rim.
  • Steady, helmsman! you guide the immortal;
  • Many a wreck is beneath you piled,
  • Many a brave yet unwary sailor
  • Over these waters has been beguiled.
  • Nor is it the storm or the scowling midnight,
  • Cold, or sickness, or fire’s dismay—
  • Nor is it the reef, or treacherous quicksand,
  • Will peril you most on your twisted way.
  • But when there comes a voluptuous languor,
  • Soft the sunshine, silent the air,
  • Bewitching your craft with safety and sweetness,
  • Then, young pilot of life, beware.