Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Death
Author:
Aspiz, Harold
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman's treatment of death had cultural and personal origins. In an era of tragically high mortality rates, the literary drama of death among writers like Charles Dickens, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Emily Dickinson often assumed a passionate spirit of assurance about the possibility of heaven. Thus Whitman's generation revered George Washington largely because Parson Weems's biography of him illustrated his patient submission to death—an attitude reflected in dozens of Whitman's poems expressing his own calm readiness for death. Even deathbed watching, a practice widely believed to have instructive and moral value, had a counterpart in Whitman's vigils beside the beds of the sick and dying.

This "very great post mortem poet" (Lawrence 17), who proclaimed that "nothing can happen more beautiful than death" ("Starting from Paumanok," section 12), expressed a passion for death that "becomes the inevitable extension for life" (Dutton 3). Whitman also benefited from "a practical familiarity with disease and death which has perhaps never before fallen to a great writer" (Ellis 111). He was attracted to hospitals and to scenes of violent death, apparently visiting cholera victims, whose ravaging disease was almost always fatal, as early as the 1840s. He was drawn to injured and dying firemen and horse-car drivers—one of whom is eulogized in "To Think of Time," a poem which Whitman develops into a meditation on death and into a proclamation of his own immortality. "Song of Myself," "The Sleepers," "Song of the Broad-Axe," and a few "Drum-Taps" poems contain emotionally "irretrievable" images of violent death in sea and land battles and in drownings. However, acknowledging that the horror of so many deaths was the central truth of the Civil War, Whitman reserved his most graphic reportage for two prose works—Memoranda During the War and Specimen Days. His postwar poems, singularly free from dramatizing the deaths of others, were largely concerned with death as a divine mystery and with the persona's dramatic awaiting of his own death.

Perhaps because the human consciousness "does not believe in its own death," says Sigmund Freud, "it behaves as if it were immortal" (296). Understandably, Whitman was drawn to the drama of his own death and immortality. Despite his contention that death was "some solemn immortal birth," a noble "parturition" ("Whispers of Heavenly Death"), various passages in the poems suggest his fear of what Paul Tillich called "the darkness of the no more" (537) and seem to lack a serene certainty of his own immortality. Because he could not hope to celebrate his own immortality without confronting the (often exhilarating, often frightening) prospect of his own mortal annihilation, the tense interplay between his fears of perishing and his convictions of eternal life endow the poems with dramatic excitement.

Whitman perceived existence as a continuum. "In no man who ever lived was the sense of eternal life so absolute," said Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke (257). Speculating that something drives mankind toward "promotion" through "birth, life, death, burial" ("To You [Whoever you are...]"), he speculated that humans were "ferried" into their mortal state from "the float forever held in solution" ("Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," section 5), carrying with them acquired qualities from one state of existence to the next. In accordance with "The law of promotion and transformation" ("To Think of Time," section 7), he said, "the dead advance as much as the living advance" ("Song of the Broad-Axe," section 4). To describe the exit from mortal life, the poems employ a broad range of metaphors—sunsets, ebb tides, dormant seeds, and particularly "homeward bound" and "outward bound" journeys ("The Sleepers," section 7) whose ultimate goal is to meet God "on perfect terms" ("Song of Myself," section 45).

Yet Whitman's stubborn faith in immortality, as he conceded, remains vague, undefined. Although the word "soul" appears some 240 times in the poems—chiefly referring to the essential immortal element in one's being—his concept of the afterlife specifies no heaven, no hell, no mode of existence. An early notebook entry declares that "our immortality is located here upon earth—that we are immortal" (qtd. in Schwartz 28), and the conclusion to the 1856 version of "I Sing the Body Electric" states that the body and its wonders are the soul. But generally Whitman maintains that he can "laugh at what you call dissolution" ("Song of Myself," section 20), declaring that the "excrementitious" body is left behind on the soul's eternal journey. In the afterlife, the soul's immaterial body, "transcending my senses and flesh . . . finally loves, walks, laughs, shouts, embraces, procreates" ("A Song of Joys"). "Do you enjoy what life confers?" asks a canceled passage; "you shall enjoy what death confers." The first (1855) edition ends with the affirmation that "death holds all parts together . . . death is great as life."

In his later years, he told a scientist that immortality could be proved intuitively but not demonstrated scientifically. He claimed to say better things about death than did the theologians. "Immortality is revelation," he insisted; "it flashes upon your consciousness out of God knows what." He said that his own insight into death "came long ago'' in a vision (Traubel xvii–xxii). Was this the moment of "cosmic consciousness" antedating the appearance of Leaves of Grass that Dr. Bucke ascribed to Whitman or—like some of the poems—a bit of mythical autobiography?

The dozen poems of the first edition include "To Think of Time" (originally "Burial Poem"), which, with a not unusual undertone of repressed hysteria, expresses Whitman's belief that "the exquisite scheme" and "all preparation" indicate a progression from mortal life to "nothing but immortality" (section 9). Much of the strength of "Song of Myself" stems from the persona's joyous conviction that all existence in this life and beyond adheres to a divine plan: "It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness" (section 50). The persona avers that "All goes onward and outward" (section 7), that "There is not stoppage" (section 45), that death is beneficial, and that the persona can wait millions of years to attain perfection. The poem's conclusion (sections 49–52) enacts the persona's death, disintegration, and his transformation into an omnipresent essence that will afford us "good health"—one of several assertions in the poems that Whitman and his book are immortal.

Three of the death-oriented poems in the second edition (1856) illustrate Whitman's practice of demonstrating immortality by analogy. "On the Beach at Night Alone" (originally "Clef Poem") declares that "A vast similitude interlocks" the evidence of spiritual growth through life and death. The persona's terror of dissolution in "This Compost" is allayed by perceiving the similitude between immortality and nature's cyclic renewal. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" casts Whitman as a benign Spiritualist incarnation, "disintegrated yet part of the scheme," looking down at the living "many hundred years hence" and invoking "the similitudes of the past and those of the future" (section 2)—the continuity of the spirit through life and death.

The introductory poem of the third (1860) edition, "Starting from Paumanok," announced Whitman's intention to "make poems of my body and of mortality . . . of my soul and of immortality" (section 6). (In fact, he made no more significant poems about his body.) In "Scented Herbage of My Breast" and "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" the poet searches for words to express the conjoined ecstasy of love and death. And in the thanato-erotic "So Long!"—the poem that closes this and all subsequent editions—the immortal Whitman persona becomes "a melodious echo, passionately bent for, (death making me really undying)." He imagines himself achieving an almost physical intimacy with the reader—"disembodied, triumphant, dead," springing "from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth." In later poems Whitman rarely voices a terror of annihilation or tries to establish tactile contact with the living, but his more philosophic attitude toward death deprives these poems of a measure of passion and tension.

Whitman apparently expected his wartime poems to describe "passions of demons, slaughter, premature death" ("Song of the Banner at Daybreak"), but viewing the carnage from his Washington vantage, he decided instead to filter his reactions to the omnipresence of death and dying through the sensitive consciousness of a poet-observer who attended the wounded and dying and watched the dead. Drum-Taps (1865) characterizes "perennial sweet death" ("Pensive on Her Dead Gazing") as a healing agent and national reconciler. Whitman's great formal elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," aside from its renderings of personal and national grieving, contains the incomparable apostrophe to, and celebration of, death, the "strong deliveress," whose mystery the poet links with "the knowledge of death" (mortality and the war's carnage) and "the thought of death" (the promise of immortality) (section 14).

The title page of Passage to India announced that the poet would henceforth sing "The voyage of the Soul—not Life alone, / Death—many Deaths, I sing" (Variorum 3:xi). The poem "Passage to India," possibly intended to anchor a volume of poems about the soul, is, in effect, an elegy for himself, a prayer for release from life and the launching of his bodiless soul—"thou actual Me"—on its infinite voyage to the godhead. The 1876 volume, which Whitman called "almost Death's book," proposes "a more splendid Theology" and "diviner songs" (Comprehensive 744, 753) and illustrates two late tendencies—a celebration of the bodiless soul as the "permanent . . . body lurking there within thy body . . . the real I myself" ("Eidólons") and, in poems large and small, the poet's patient leave-taking and welcoming of death.

The 1881 edition—the definitive arrangement of the poems—ends with a group of five major death-oriented poems dating from 1855 to 1871, followed by clusters of poems (composed at various times) titled "Whispers of Heavenly Death," "From Noon to Starry Night," and "Songs of Parting." The two annexes of old-age poems, chiefly the lyrical good-byes of the "dismasted," "weak-down" poet, conclude, respectively, with minor masterpieces of affecting readiness for death: "After the Supper and Talk" and "Good-Bye my Fancy!"

Whitman's intensely personal, poetic, and philosophic engagement with death, which has fascinated readers and inspired disciples, is basic to the understanding of Leaves of Grass.

Bibliography

Bucke, Richard Maurice. Cosmic Consciousness: A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind. 1901. New York: Dutton, 1951.

Douglas, Ann. "Heaven Our Home: Consolation Literature in the Northern United States, 1830–1880." Death in America. Ed. David A. Stannard. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1975. 49–68.

Dutton, Geoffrey. Whitman. New York: Grove, 1961.

Ellis, Havelock. The New Spirit. 1890. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1900.

Freud, Sigmund. "Our Attitude Toward Death." The Standard Edition of the Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Ed. James Strachey. Vol. 14. London: Hogarth, 1964. 289–300.

Lawrence, D.H. "Whitman." Whitman: A Collection of Essays. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. 11–23.

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992.

Saum, Lewis O. "Death in the Popular Mind of Pre-Civil War America." Death in America. Ed. David A. Stannard. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1975. 30–48.

Schwartz, Jacob. Manuscripts, Autograph Letters, First Editions and Portraits of Walt Whitman. Collected by Richard Maurice Bucke. New York: American Art Association, Anderson Galleries, 1936.

Stovall, Floyd. Introduction. Walt Whitman: Representative Selections. Rev. ed. New York: American Book, 1939. xi–lii.

Tillich, Paul. "The Eternal Now." The Meaning of Death. Ed. Herman Feifel. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1939. 30–38.

Traubel, Horace. Introduction. The Book of Heavenly Death. By Walt Whitman. Portland, Maine: Mosher, 1907. xvii–xxii.

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

____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. 3 vols. New York: New York UP, 1980.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.