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(Edit: This was closed because it was marked as "opinion based" and I was asked to edit the question so that it could be answered by facts and citations. @Fumblefingers gave citations, thank you. On re-reading several times, I think yours is the correct interpretation, rather than assuming the existence of some actual physical flag. It's like as if we referred to captains & sailors dying in the line of duty as a "badge of honour", there's no physical badge.

In my opinion, expecting facts about poetic allusion is a bit unrealistic. Thank you @KillingTime, I hadn't known about the literature forum. I can ask such questions there, and keep this forum to linguistic questions. )

ORIGINAL QUESTION:

Does any English literature expert know what kind of pennant Walt Whitman was referring to by "a pennant universal" in the poem "Today a rude brief recitative of ships" in "Leaves of Grass" ?

Flaunt out O sea your separate flags of nations!
Flaunt out visible as ever the various ship-signals!
But do you reserve especially for yourself and for the soul of man
one flag above all the rest,
A spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above
death,
Token of all brave captains and all intrepid sailors and mates,
And all that went down doing their duty,
Reminiscent of them, twined from all intrepid captains young or old,
A pennant universal, subtly waving all time, o'er all brave sailors,
All seas, all ships.

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  • The "pennant universal" refers back to earlier But do you reserve especially for yourself and for the soul of man one flag above all the rest, / A spiritual woven signal for all nations, emblem of man elate above death”. Nov 23, 2023 at 14:35
  • 2
    I'm not gonna go through masses of earlier lines for context, but my guess is that's a hypothetical, idealized flag that in some imagined Utopia represents all of humanity (as opposed to the separate flags of potentially warring nations). Nov 23, 2023 at 14:39

2 Answers 2

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He is talking about a "spiritual" "flag" for all sailors.

Whitman starts by talking about the different flags of different nations.

But by line three he is talking about "one flag above all the rest" a "pennant universal" (which means the same as "universal pennant" - pennant meaning flag and universal meaning applying to all ).

This flag isn't a real physical flag, but a "spiritual" flag (woven signal) which represents and celebrates "all brave captains and all intrepid sailors and mates, And all that went down doing their duty".

He could be saying that all ship's flags act as this universal pennant, but he says

you reserve especially for yourself and for the soul of man one flag above all the rest

implying to me that the "one flag" is different from all the other flags.

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  • Thank you @DJClayworth, and to the mods for moving my question to this forum.
    – sysmod
    Nov 27, 2023 at 8:53
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Not a kind of pennant , but pennants in general.

Adjectival postposition (and strange syntax/anastrophe in general) is a classic poetic device, particularly in older texts. As A Poet's Glossary explains,

In Greek, anastrophe means literally "a turning back or about." It is an inversion of the normal syntactic order of words. Anastrophe is one of the ways that poetry wrenches language and thus departs from the expected.

So, a pennant universal means the same as a universal pennant. A pennant, which is a flag on a ship, is what Whitman was lauding in the earlier lines; the basic meaning here is that these pennants are recognizable as symbols of their countries and thus "universal".


(Incorrect parts have been striked out; not deleting the answer because the stuff about anastrophe is still valid, and IMO useful)

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  • I don't get why folks around here don't upvote this kind of answer, which is obviously right. Are they envious? I wonder...I upvoted but there must have been some dv or other. [Grrh] :)
    – Lambie
    Nov 23, 2023 at 14:49
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    I don't think this is right. He's not talking about "all flags" but one imaginary flag which represents "all brave captains and all intrepid sailors and mates". Nov 23, 2023 at 14:50
  • @DJClayworth "a pennant universal means the same as a universal pennant". How can this not be accurate?
    – Lambie
    Nov 23, 2023 at 14:57
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    I don't object to that bit, I disagree with the the idea that the "pennant universal" is the same thing as "all flags". Nov 23, 2023 at 14:58
  • @Lambie - I think DJ Clayworth's interpretation is probably better; the downvotes likely reflect that.
    – CDR
    Nov 23, 2023 at 15:41

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