Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Autumn Rivulets" (1881)
Author:
Field, Jack
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The first appearance of "Autumn Rivulets" as a name cluster occurred in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. Situated between sections titled "Memories of President Lincoln" and "Whispers of Heavenly Death," "Autumn Rivulets" signaled a change in focus for Whitman from the physical nature of the preceding poems (in the 1881 edition) to a more spiritual outlook. The use of the word "Autumn" in the title suggests the age, maturity, and reflective spirit of the poet and nation, while "Rivulets" warns the reader of the eclectic nature of the poems within.

The thirty-eight poems in "Autumn Rivulets" first appeared in nine separate editions. Such a mixture is ample evidence of Whitman's continual and purposeful reshaping of Leaves. The "clusters" (a number of poems grouped under a single title), which first began appearing in the 1860 edition, were perhaps a attempt to shape a thematic framework to his opus, although the individual poems in each cluster do not always conform to the implied theme (as is the case in "Autumn Rivulets").

The 1881 edition was originally published by James R. Osgood of Boston, but on 1 march 1882 it was classified as obscene literature by the Boston district attorney. Because Whitman refused to remove two poems, "To a Common Prostitute" (number 18 in "Autumn Rivulets") and "A Woman Waits for Me" (in the "Children f Adam" cluster), Osgood abandoned the edition. Later that year Rees Welsh and Co. in Philadelphia agreed to publish the book.

The opening poem of "Autumn Rivulets" is titled "As Consequent, Etc." It is a combination of the first two poems in the second volume of the 1876 ("Centennial") edition of Leaves, "Two Rivulets" and "Or from that Sea of Time." That volume, called Two Rivulets, combined poetry and prose in an unorthodox attempt to expand Leaves. By 1881 the second volume had disappeared; the prose would appear again in 1891-1892, when a volume completely devoted to prose was issued along with the Deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass.

"As Consequent, Etc." embodies the symbolism of the cluster's title, more so than any other poem in the group: the "songs of continued years," like "wayward rivulets," are "all toward the mystic ocean tending." The poet brings "A windrow drift of weeds and shells" which share "eternity's music" and "[w]hisper'd reverberations" from his life and the lives of many Americans, "joyously sounding." The second selection in the cluster, "The Return of the Heroes," continues a healing motif and looks toward a hopeful present and future (after the horrors of the Civil War). The nation trades guns for "better weapons" (section 7), the "labor-saving implements" (section 8) with which to grow food and rebuild the continent. For America, autumn implies harvest, bounty, and growth; for Whitman, a time when "my soul is rapt and at peace" (section 5).

After these two opening poems, the remaining thirty-six follow no common pattern or theme, justifying the promise (in "As Consequent") of "wayward rivulets in autumn flowing." Yet there is a common sense of compassion and inclusiveness, especially for the broken and fallen, in several poems of the cluster. Some notable examples are "The City Dead-House," "The Singer in the Prison," "You Felons on Trial in Courts," and "To a Common Prostitute." There is also a celebration of the healing quality of nature, taking what is unknown or unwanted and raising it to new purpose, as in "This Compost," "Unnamed Lands," and "Wandering at Morn."

Two of the most famous poems in the cluster are selections that originally appeared in the first edition of Leaves (1855): "There Was a Child Went Forth" and "Who Learns My Lesson Complete?" Other notable poems in "Autumn Rivulets" include "Vocalism," "Laws for Creations," and "Unfolded Out of the Folds."

Scholars disagree as to the importance of the clusters which, like "Autumn Rivulets," follow "Drum-Taps" in the 1881 Leaves. Many critics, such as Gay Wilson Allen, believe that the final edition, and this cluster specifically, suffers from Whitman's revisions and shuffling of poems, preferring a more chronological arrangement. Others, including Thomas Crawley and James Perrin Warren, argue that in the 1881 edition the poet achieves his goal of an organically unified Leaves, with thematic progression reflecting youth to maturity, physicality to spirituality, and private passions to a public persona. In this sense, "Autumn Rivulets" is a pivotal cluster, a harbinger of Whitman's shift in priorities which also provides transition: acknowledgement of the past, celebration of the present, and hope for the future.

Bibliography

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

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

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

Lizotte, Paul A. "'Time's Accumulations to Justify the Past': Whitman's Evolving Structure in 'Autumn Rivulets.'" Emerson Society Quarterly 26 (1980): 137–148.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Warren, James Perrin. "The 'Paths to the House': Cluster Arrangements in Leaves of Grass, 1860–1881." ESQ 30 (1984): 51–70.

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


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