Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"As at Thy Portals Also Death" (1881)
Author:
Rieke, Susan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"As at Thy Portals Also Death" was written in 1881, specifically for the "Songs of Parting" cluster. An elegy to Walt Whitman's mother, Louisa Van Velsor Whitman, it also reveals Whitman's own sense of the imminence of death, a dominant theme in the cluster. In the beginning of the poem, the speaker admits that he also stands before death and is explicit in saying that he wants to write about his mother before he himself dies. The poem, he asserts, stands as a monument to her, a tombstone set in "these songs," by which he may mean this cluster or the whole of Leaves of Grass.

As in the "Songs of Parting" cluster as a whole, the poem exhibits an ambivalent attitude toward death. The speaker declares his mother "buried and gone" and in the same line says, "yet buried not, gone not from me." This contradiction is important to Whitman, who tries in the cluster to subvert death's power. Certainly it supports his idea that he will remain on earth as long as readers continue to read his poetry and that his mother will be remembered as long as the poem is read.

The short ten-line, one-sentence poem manifests a sweeping scope from "divine blending" to "maternity" (by the proximity of these concepts, does Whitman suggest a feminine principle in the deity?), from death's "illimitable grounds" to "sweet old lips" and cheeks and eyes. These paired opposite, or nearly opposite, images suggest questions that underlie the poem, questions also posed by the "Songs of Parting" cluster: What is death? What goes and what remains after death? How does it happen? Is death final? These were perhaps Whitman's personal concerns as he wrote the poem in 1881, but they might also be concerns he had about the American experiment and the present state and future of democracy in America.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Carlisle, E. Fred. The Uncertain Self: Whitman's Drama of Identity. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1973.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.


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