Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"As I Ponder'd in Silence" (1871)
Author:
Chandran, K. Narayana
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The second in a group of nine (later twenty-four) opening poems called "Inscriptions" (1871 Leaves of Grass), "As I Ponder'd in Silence" strikes the keynote of war, the epic theme of the volume.

As Whitman reflects on his poems, he has a vision of a "Phantom" rising before him. The poet is awestruck and identifies the Phantom as the "genius of poets of old lands." The Phantom asks the poet rather menacingly whether he understands that there is only one supreme and perennial "theme for ever-enduring bards," namely, war. Whitman's reply, rather defensive in tone and claim, follows. He too sings of war. In his books, claims the poet, he wages an ongoing war, now advancing, now retreating, but nonetheless risky or challenging for that. He sees the world itself as a theater of war where man fights for life and death in a bid to save his body and soul. It is these battles he celebrates, the bravery of these fighters he admires.

"As I Ponder'd" is one of those very early poems that introduces the by-now-familiar topos of Whitman's dialogue with a visionary figure, usually the shade of a heroic ancestor. The passages in italics here mark the dialogue discreetly from the silent pondering, a technique Whitman uses with great effect in such poems as "Song of the Redwood-Tree," "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking," and "Out of the Rolling Ocean the Crowd."

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

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

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Scholley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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