Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Death's Valley" (1892)
Author:
Pannapacker, William A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

On 28 August 1889, Henry Mills Alden, editor of Harper's New Monthly Magazine, wrote Whitman to request a poem to accompany The Valley of the Shadow of Death (1867) by the American landscape painter George Inness (1824–1894). Whitman complied with "a little poemet," which he sent on 30 August (Correspondence 4:376). The poem, however, did not appear in Harper's until the month after Whitman's death in March 1892. This issue was, in part, a memorial to Whitman with J.W. Alexander's portrait of Whitman as the frontispiece and a recent sketch of Whitman by Alexander above the text of "Death's Valley," which appeared on the reverse of the page.

The painting depicts Psalm 23.4: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me." Whitman's title complicates the reference, for it may also refer to Death Valley, California, which was named in 1849. The poem itself is in free verse; it has no regular meter, the lines are irregular in length, and it contains no rhyme. Appropriately, "Death's Valley" echoes the diction and cadence of the Psalms, and it makes frequent use of alliteration and repetition.

In its published form, "Death's Valley" does not describe Inness's painting so much as respond to it. Written in the first person, the poem begins with an apostrophe to the painter, "I...enter lists with thee, claiming my right to make a symbol too." The speaker's right to make the symbol is based on having witnessed death in all circumstances and stages of life. Lines 5–11 suggest Whitman's service as a nurse during the Civil War and echo passages from Drum-Taps (1865) and Specimen Days (1882). The conceit of life as a "hard-tied knot" suggests the tourniquets used in the Civil War to stop the fatal flow of blood. Like the merciful hand of a "Wound-Dresser," "God's beautiful eternal right hand" loosens the knot, and "Sweet, peaceful, welcome Death" results. "Death's Valley" also contains numerous allusions to "Song of Myself." The poem is an appropriate obituary for Whitman, for it summarizes his experiences in the context of a meditation on death.

Manuscripts of "Death's Valley" are in the Feinberg and Barrett collections.

Bibliography

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. "Death's Valley." Harper's New Monthly Magazine April 1892: 707–709.


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