Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Darest Thou Now O Soul" (1868)
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.

First published in Broadway Magazine (London) in October 1868, "Darest Thou Now O Soul" was subsequently placed in the cluster entitled "Whispers of Heavenly Death." In the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, the cluster opens with this poem. As a challenge, or a taunting invitation to the soul, it proposes a daring plunge into the "unknown"—death, the mysteries and vagaries of which make up the themes of "Whispers of Heavenly Death."

The prospect of this awesome enterprise is, however, made less intimidating in stages. This is done so marvelously by the poet that the exciting journey into the unknown, the thrill of prospective discovery with practically no help—"No map there, nor guide"—becomes a real adventure with the self. The poem assumes the grandeur of a spiritual quest when it begins to talk about the loosening of material bonds and the imperviousness of the poet and his soul to "darkness, gravitation, sense, [or] any bounds bounding us." As they enter that celestial realm, what awaits them is sheer fulfillment: "O joy! O fruit of all!"

Remarkable for its stanzaic regularity and discrete pauses between the stanzas, the poem dramatizes stages of spiritual ascent iconically. In its five stanzas of three lines each, each line ends with an extra word or two, elongating the lines successively. This ladderlike structure, along with a movement that thematically advances us toward the better known or the more distinct, underscores the poem's theme of soul's progress. Rhythmic uncertainties dissolve in the last stanza, which glories in a potential discovery or self-fulfillment.

Bibliography

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

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

Schwiebert, John E. The Frailest Leaves: Whitman's Poetic Technique and Style in the Short Poem. New York: Lang, 1992.

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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