I Sit and Look Out

I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame;

I hear secret convulsive sobs from young men, at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done;

I see, in low life, the mother misused by her children, dying, neglected, gaunt, desperate;

I see the wife misused by her husband—I see the treacherous seducer of young women;

I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love, attempted to be hid—I see these sights on the earth;

I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny—I see martyrs and prisoners;

I observe a famine at sea—I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d, to preserve the lives of the rest;

I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;

All these—All the meanness and agony without end, I sitting, look out upon,

See, hear, and am silent.

--Walt Whitman, "I Sit and Look Out"


A powerful poem. And I'm curious. How do you read that final line?

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16 thoughts on “I Sit and Look Out”

  1. Well. It's all just so BIG, isn't it. I mean I don't read it as self-reproach, necessarily: there are things in the list that he couldn't possibly fight against or speak against prophetically. So I think (tho perhaps I'm reading into this a lot), that there does have to come a point where you just can't shout loud enough to make it better, and you have to sit, honour it by not closing your eyes, and be silent in compassion and grief.

  2. I think probably it would be fair to read it a number of ways, simultaneously. He was a great poet, so perhaps he meant for it be be ambiguous - an acknowledgement of his own complicity, an acknowledgement of his inherent inability, AND an acknowledgement of the need to honor suffering with silence.

  3. The the voice is omniscient, while the narrator is passive in the face of pain and injustice. That tension--growing throughout the poem--concludes it. Made aware of the same, the reader reaches the same conclusion. The inaction of the narrator in the face of pain and injustice is thus transferred to the reader.

    Because the last word is "silent"--the poem could have spotlighted doing nothing for implicit reproach instead--one wonders whether Whitman sees conscious objection as a more powerful response (more appropriate?) than direct intervention. Or did he see it as the first step--"bearing witness" as a way of spreading the news and working toward a collective effort. Gandhi and MLK appear to have agreed with Whitman on that--if it was his intent. And if so, history confirmed the opinion...

    Overall, I do accuse myself in light of the poem. But it overwhelms a person. Perhaps that's why bearing witness, simply breaking silence, is the beginning.

  4. For Whitman, God and self were largely the same. Either way, a passive observer changes nothing around him.

  5. For me the last line is indicting...provoking a conscientious survey of my willful disregard of suffering, abuse and injustice. The entire poem drives one to transcend politics in the present contentious quamire, to recover the humanity which at its best both observes, reacts and acts as it can on behalf of the victum. The line points to action where possible....painful comprehensin at the least. Whitman's poem is pensive yet provocative.

  6. We are witnessing this very scene before our eyes with the refugee children. Thank God for Judge Clay Jenkins of Dallas County, Texas for volunteering to place 2,000 of the children. I can't seem to shake the image of the woman hurling curses and threats against the children in the busses. Here are two links that address the situation:



  7. See, hear, and am silent ... Yet occasionally "you may contribute a verse" - as in this poem by Whitman (who was born in my home town, Huntington, New York).

    O Me! O life!

    O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring,
    Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
    Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
    Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
    Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
    Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
    The question, O me! so sad, recurring - What good amid these, O me, O life?

    That you are here - that life exists and identity,
    That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

  8. "You are in no position to issue commands, but
    you can speak words of hope. Shall this be the substance of your
    message? Be human in this most inhuman of ages; guard the image of man
    for it is the image of God."

  9. I read the last line as a charge to be silent in the face of suffering, as Job's friends did before they began to talk. Silence is often a wiser, more compassionate, and more helpful response than empty words or hastily constructed platitudes.

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