Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States" (1850)
Author:
Baldwin, David B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was the first published (New York Daily Tribune, 21 June 1850) of those later to become a part of Leaves of Grass (1855). Called "Resurgemus," in the 1856 edition its title was changed to "Poem of the Dead Young Men of Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States."

Both its early date and its two titles reflect Whitman's broad involvement with political matters in his role as editor of and contributor to various newspapers and journals during the 1840s. That he is concerned here with issues in Europe, a region he never visited, suggests that the scope of his vision for humanity was already in place when he was only thirty-one. "Europe" passionately champions the young men who died in the abortive uprisings of 1848 in several European nations, uprisings protesting against arbitrary authority and entrenched royal prerogatives.

Composed of thirty-eight lines, the poem foreshadows dramatic techniques Whitman was to use again and again. It begins with a fresh, immediate image of the rise of the revolutionary impulse, personified with "its hands tight to the throats of kings," opening out to a wail of grief at the failed effort: "O aching close of exiled patriots' lives / O many a sicken'd heart." Using direct address, the poet then speaks to those in power: "And you, paid to defile the People—you liars, mark!" Idealizing the revolutionaries, who scorned to use "the ferocity of kings," the poet records the "bitter destruction" that followed from this mildness, which more likely sprang from a lack of military power.

Out of Whitman's rich visionary imagination appears a phantom, "vague as the night," probably meant to prophesy, in the shape of a fearful death, the ultimate fate of the kings and their retinue. Blunt imagery of the dead young men is followed by a strong message that other young men will carry on the fight. A tone of hope and encouragement dominates the rest of the lyric, most dramatically in line 35: "Liberty, let others despair of you—I never despair of you," the repeating phrase, for emphasis, to become a signature of Whitman's style. Also the loose, trochaic rhythm evident throughout is already a sure sign of Whitman's voice. Still another is the putting of a rhetorical question near the close, followed by a soothing reassurance. In this instance the question is contained in a figure—"Is the house shut? is the master away?"—by which Whitman suggests liberty's temporary absence. He concludes, however, "He will soon return, his messengers come anon."

It is noteworthy that Whitman turned away from specific political topics as he filled out Leaves of Grass through the years. Few of his works can be considered partisan, even among his Civil War poems.

Bibliography

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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