I Sit and Look Out
In the poem, Whitman describes various people suffering horrible misery in different forms. However, as he describes them, he doesn’t judge, get involved, make commentary, or pass some sort of overall moral or lesson to be learned. This is what he means when he says he is “silent”. He simply opens a window for everyone to see what he sees, and lets the reader make their own interpretations and judgments.
For example, he describes the misery that exists, “the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to be hid,” and doesn’t comment on how awful that is, or what we should learn from it, or how we should change the misery; his next line is simply, “I see these sights on the earth”. No moral imposition, no call to action. He is simply reporting what he sees. That is the silence he is referring to, a silence of judgment or analysis on the events.
Whitman, a great believer of individualism and trusting your own instincts to interpret the world, probably wanted to let the reader trust his or her own instincts, and to feel whatever they felt, without him telling them how to feel about it. This fits the theme of individualism well, a movement that Whitman was a part of. The poems that Walt Whitman wrote in the second half of the 19th century differed radically from his earlier ones. The advent of capitalism had a tremendous impact on the lives of the people. In the manipulative and calculative rat race, principles were relegated and human concerns sidelined.
People in such a situation, in response to the misery and atrocities around turned a detached observer as echoed in the title “I Sit and Look Out”. The verb in the title ‘sit’ and its capitalization in the first line –is an attempt to underline the action of the onlooker. It implies that the speaker is idle and has not intention to do anything about the situation. Also, the idea of looking out highlights how he is in the confinement of complacency and is far removed from the suffering multitudes. The verbal phrase ‘look out’ also points to his concern of his own safety. The use of free verse echoes the continuity of the situation.
The tone of the poem is pessimistic and the imagery presented is apocalyptic. The speaker states that he ‘sees’ and looks upon the sorrows of the dystopian world ;the oppression and shame. The idea of the speaker “looking upon” points to the fact that he considers himself at a higher altitude far away from all this. Paroxysmal sobs can be heard from youth stifled with the disillusionment of the World War. Having an albatross hung around their neck ,they are remorseful for their actions. Still lower, the speaker visualizes the mother taken advantage of by her very own children.
She lies emaciated, distressed dying in solitude, when she needs her children the most. The speaker also sees the wife misused by her own husband, and cheated by him. The husband comes across as a callous lover who seduces young women and ruthlessly deceives them. His eyes demarcate emotions that attempt to camouflage themselves. These emotions pertain to jealousy and unrequited love that hides its feelings to mask the ego. For the speaker, these are mere sights, and he does not possess any insights regarding them. The onlooker witnesses the aftermath of wars, virulent diseases and autocracy.
He beholds martyrs and prisoners- a byproduct of the terrible battles fought. In a gruesome image, we picture sailors throwing people out of the ship so that the remaining survive. It sounds the policy of survival of the fittest. He observes the poor, laborers and negroes treated like objects in the capitalist world subject to penury, repression and deterioration. He catalogues this collective collapse of humanity piled one upon the other. He see, hears them,yet is silent. Neither does he analyze these nor does he make any comment on these sights. Thus the whole poem comes across as a satire on the standpoint of the modern observer.