Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Age and Aging
Author:
Stauffer, Donald Barlow
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In January 1888 Whitman published in the New York Herald a highly romanticized and sentimentalized poem about the experience of aging which he called "Halcyon Days." In light of the strokes and other illnesses he had suffered during the fifteen years prior to the composition of this poem, it would seem that his depiction of a serene and untroubled old age facing the sunset years with equanimity is not based upon his own experience but is merely a literary or artistic conception, written in the affirmative tone of his early poems. Possibly it is not so much deception, or self-deception, as it is a way of continuing and sustaining the themes and attitudes of his life's work. As he often said in his later years, he was determined to keep as much as possible his own sickness and pain out of his poems; at the same time, however, he wanted to be honest and to put as much of his own personal experiences into them as he could. These contradictory aims account for the conflicting attitudes toward his own aging that appear in his later poems. In the context of Leaves of Grass the poems about old age are part of Whitman's philosophy of contraries; he could claim that his loss of energy, weakening mental powers, and even his fears of senility were not to be resisted but were to be thought of as a part of the life cycle and part of a greater spiritual totality.

Only two days after the three strokes that came close to killing him in June 1888, Whitman had a remarkable conversation with Horace Traubel in which he examined his current condition in the context of his life, his beliefs, and what he had recently described in "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" as his program to "exploit [my own] Personality, identified with place and date, in a far more candid and comprehensive sense than any hitherto poem or book" (Whitman 714).

"As long as I live the Leaves must go on," he said. "The Sands have to be taken as the utterances of an old man—a very old man. I desire that they may be interpreted as confirmations, not denials, of the work that has preceded.... I am not to be known as a piece of something but as a totality" (With Walt Whitman 1:271–272). "The Sands" he refers to is the "Sands at Seventy" collection, first published in 1888 in the November Boughs volume. The poems of his later years are clearly not the work of a poet in fullest command of his powers, but we find occasional flashes that recall his younger self. The dominant themes in the two annexes, "Sands and Seventy" and Good-Bye my Fancy," as well as in "Old Age Echoes," are old age and death. Speaking to Horace Traubel about their subject matter, Whitman said, "Of my personal ailments, of sickness as an element, I never spoke a word until the first of the poems I call Sands at Seventy were written, and then some expression of invalidism seemed to be called for" (With Walt Whitman 2:234). He realized that, if he were to be true to his own stated goal of reflecting the life of an old man in his poems, he had to include references to his sickness and invalidism, since they had become so much a part of his life.

Some of the same painful self-awareness that formerly centered on sexual questions in the "Calamus" poems and elsewhere was in later life directed toward another personal experience: growing old. This questioning mood may be found in "Queries to my Seventieth Year," published about a month before Whitman's sixty-ninth birthday in 1888. It had become clear to him by that time that he would never achieve that national fame and recognition he had hoped for, and after his first stroke he necessarily became more aware of his vulnerability, his oncoming old age, and his mortality. The passages in which he describes the aging Columbus, the "batter'd, wreck'd old man" who ended his life despised and defeated, quite clearly refer to himself as well.

Three poems in the "Sands at Seventy" collection are similarly indirect in their treatment of old age. In one of these, "The Dismantled Ship," he describes an "old dismasted, gray and batter'd ship, disabled, done." "After free voyages to all the seas of the earth," Whitman writes, the ship is "haul'd up at last and hawser'd tight, / Lies rusting, mouldering." Another is "Twilight" (1887), which shows that Whitman was thinking more and more about death—not death in an abstract philosophical way, but his own death, including the death of consciousness.

The contradiction between his own feelings and the posture he wanted to maintain as a poet often gave Whitman trouble. In the fall of 1888, when his immobility forced him to sell his horse and carriage, he remarked to Traubel, "It marks a new epoch in my life: another stage on the down-hill rad." Traubel replied, "I shouldn't think with your idea of death that you would speak of it as a down road." And Whitman answered, "Sure enough—the word was false: up road: up—up: another stage on the up-hill road: that certainly seems more like me and I want to be like myself" (With Walt Whitman 2:273).

Less direct than some others in its use of imagery suggestive of old age is "You Lingering Sparse Leaves of Me." In this poem Whitman compared himself to a tree in autumn, whose "Leaves" are "tokens diminute and lorn—(not now the flush of May, of July clover-bloom— no grain of August now)." Still the lingering sparse leaves are, he says, "my soul-dearest leaves confirming all the rest, / The faithfulest— hardiest—last." Once again we hear a note of insistence—he protests too much in his claims that these last leaves are his best.

"Old Age's Lambent Peaks," Whitman told Traubel, was "an essential poem—it needed to be made" (With Walt Whitman 2:289). It characterizes old age as a time to look at the world and at life "in falling twilight." This poem also seems an effort to justify this stage of life, stated in Whitman's characteristic affirmative tone. While the poem stands in opposition to much of what he said as a young man celebrating manly vigor, it is consistent with the attitude in "Song of Myself" and repeated throughout his life that whatever he is experiencing at the moment is for the best.

Bibliography

Fillard, Claudette. "Le Vannier de Camden: Vieillesse, Poésie, et les Annexes de Leaves of Grass." Études Anglaises 45 (1992): 311–323.

Stauffer, Donald Barlow. "Walt Whitman and Old Age." Walt Whitman Review 24 (1978): 142–148.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906; Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Trent, Josiah C. "Walt Whitman: A Case History." Surgery, Gynecology and Obstetrics 87 (1948): 113–121.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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