Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Dalliance of the Eagles, The" (1880)
Author:
Martin, Robert K.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This late poem is one of the very few from this period to show Whitman at his very best. Although the poem is surprising in its return to traditional metrical forms, it is as erotically powerful as anything Whitman ever wrote. The poem is in part responsible for Whitman's shift to publisher David McKay after his publisher James R. Osgood indicated his willingness to meet a charge of obscenity by deleting it. The poem has been read as symbolically presenting a democratic female sexuality. It certainly offers a view of sexuality in which both partners are active participants. Whitman has freed the depiction of sexuality from the confines of romantic evasion, allowing for a sexual desire to be seen in violently physical terms.

The poem above all is a kind of tone poem, a composition whose rhythms enact the subject matter. Beginning with the strikingly trochaic "Skirting," emphasized by its alliteration with the first word of the second line, "Skyward," linking himself to the two birds mating in mid-air, Whitman creates a world of motion and energy through an overwhelming presence of present participles. The ten lines of the poem contain a remarkable series of fifteen present participles, a rushing progression only briefly halted at the moment of mating, in line 7 and the first half of line 8.

In such active movement, the two birds are glimpsed only momentarily and registered only as body parts—claws, wings, beaks. They come together as "a swirling mass" until they reach a moment of stasis, when they join, "twain yet one," to achieve a tenuous "still balance" before returning to themselves and resuming their individual flights. The final line captures them verbally and metrically, having regained their individuality and their linked desires: "She hers, he his, pursuing," with a final amphibrach capturing the movement of the poem in miniature.

Bibliography

Aspiz, Harold. "Whitman's Eagles." The Mickle Street Review 7 (1985): 84–90.

Mirsky, D.S. "Poet of American Democracy." 1935. Trans. Samuel Putnam. Walt Whitman: A Critical Anthology. Ed. Francis Murphy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1969. 238–255.


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