Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Birds of Passage" (1881)
Author:
Mozer, Hadley J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First appearing in the 1881 Leaves of Grass, the "Birds of Passage" cluster grouped seven previously published poems: "Song of the Universal" (1876), "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" (1865), "To You [Whoever you are . . .]" (1856), "France, The 18th Year of these States" (1860), "Myself and Mine" (1860), "Year of Meteors (1859–60)" (1865), and "With Antecedents" (1860). The poems, initially published under various titles between 1856 and 1876, appeared in different clusters, annexes, supplements, and companion volumes until their final nesting place in "Birds."

Whether all of the clusters in Leaves constitute unified groupings is debatable, certain clusters seeming purposeful to some critics and nearly haphazard to others. The title "Birds of Passage" suggests as an organizing principle the cyclical migrations of birds and the associated ideas of flight, movement, and change. As suggested by the title, the poems explore several types of progression: cosmic (from imperfection to perfection), cultural (the shift of civilization from East to West), and personal (from self-deprecation to self-affirmation). These migrations cross physical expanses, such as the North American continent and the Atlantic ocean, as well as nonmaterial ones like time and history. The title, then, does establish a principle of organization for the cluster—certainly broad and, perhaps, loose, yet not arbitrary.

Despite the cluster title, only one poem, "Song of the Universal," incorporates explicit bird imagery. An "uncaught bird," illustrating the flight of the universal, the good, or the soul, is pictured "hovering, hovering, / High in the purer, happier air" above the "mountain-growths disease and sorrow" (section 3). In lieu of any recurring bird imagery, the dominant motif illustrating progression is America's role as the culmination (at least momentarily) of cosmic and cultural evolution, an idea appearing most prominently in "Pioneers! O Pioneers!" and "Song of the Universal" and to a lesser extent in "France the 18th Year of These States" and "With Antecedents." "To You," "Myself and Mine," "Year of Meteors," and "With Antecedents" primarily illustrate more personal types of progression, whether it be the reader's self-actualization, the poet's poetic agenda, the poet's brief physical existence, or the reader and poet's tallying of the past.

Besides those of Thomas Edward Crawley and James E. Miller, Jr., few studies systematically examine the unity of the clusters and the significance of their placement in Leaves. For Crawley, "Birds" functions as a transitional cluster between the first part of Leaves, which is more concerned with the physical (the journey motif and the land being unifying principles), and the second part, which is more concerned with the spiritual (the voyage motif and the sea now becoming dominant). Miller treats the cluster as the confrontation of the self—the paradigmatic American self Whitman offers for usage—with time and history (that self having been introduced earlier, particularly in "Song of Myself").

While none of the poems in "Birds" occupies a central place in the Whitman canon, they are important expressions of Whitman's belief in an orderly progression of all things toward perfection—an idea of central importance in the poet's philosophy.

Bibliography

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

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 Arrangement 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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