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On BlogTv today, John Green read the following poem:

Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

The World Below the Brine, By Walt Whitman

THE world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick
tangle openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the
play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes,
and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling
close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting
with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy
sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths,
breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed
by beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other
spheres.
 

Upon hearing this poem for the first time, I had two thoughts:

  1. “The Hairy Sea Leper?!” – I actually wrote this down on the back of a nearby envelope
  2. “What kind of ‘gluten’ lives in the sea?”

The first thought, as it turns out, was just a case of me mishearing John’s words: Whitman speaks of “the hairy sea-leopard” and not “the hairy sea leper” (which is too bad because I was looking forward to analysing that piece of symbolism).

Sea Leopard or Leopard Seal. Photo taken by Papa Lima Whiskey, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hydrurga_leptonyx_edit1.jpg

Sea Leopard or Leopard Seal. Photo taken by Papa Lima Whiskey, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hydrurga_leptonyx_edit1.jpg

 

The second thought, on the other hand is still a mystery. Gluten, as Merriam-Webster and I know it, is:

a tenacious elastic protein substance especially of wheat flour that gives cohesiveness to dough

But what was gluten to Whitman? Did ‘gluten’ have a different meaning in Whitman’s time (1819-1892)? According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, not really. Here’s the etymological entry for (a.k.a. the historical development of) the word ‘gluten’:

1639, “any sticky substance,” from L. gluten (gen. glutinis) “glue.” Used 16c.-19c. for the part of animal tissue now called fibrin; used since 1803 of the nitrogenous part of the flour of wheat or other grain; hence glutamic acid (1871), a common amino acid, and its salt, glutamate (1876). Glutinous “of the nature of glue” is c.1400 (implied in glutinosity), from L. glutinosus, from gluten.

So what exactly was the ‘gluten’ in Whitman’s poem? Was it something sticky? Was it some sort of sea plant? Whatever it was, Whitman sure liked to talk about it, as it appears in another one of his poems, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life“. Here’s an excerpt of that poem:

Fascinated, my eyes, reverting from the south, dropt, to follow those slender winrows,
Chaff, straw, splinters of wood, weeds, and the sea-gluten,
Scum, scales from shining rocks, leaves of salt-lettuce, left by the tide:

I am stumped. Can anyone solve this mystery for me?

 

To read more poems written by Walt Whitman, check out:

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