Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Excelsior" (1856)
Author:
Rechel-White, Julie A.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Excelsior" appeared in the 1856 Leaves as "Poem of The Heart of The Son of Manhattan Island"; in 1860 it became number 15 of "Chants Democratic." Then, in 1867, Whitman chose the title "Excelsior" ("more lofty; higher")—the same title Longfellow had chosen for a poem in 1841.

On 12 October 1846, in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Whitman reviewed The Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, claiming that Longfellow's "beautiful words" were equivalent to those of Bryant and Wordsworth ("The Literary World" 2). In his 1856 "Poem of The Heart," however, Whitman celebrates his own loftiness, his vow to rise, in the future tense: "For I swear I will go farther."

When Whitman changed the title to number 15 of "Chants Democratic," he added two lines in the 1860 Blue Book revisions (never appearing in Leaves): "And who has adopted the loftiest motto? / O I will put my motto over it, as it is over the top of this song!" (Whitman, Blue Book 1:188). Why, having omitted these "motto lines," did Whitman in 1867 change his title to the New York State motto, "Excelsior"? This title apparently indicates an indictment of Longfellow, who had continued to write sentimental verse while Whitman was nursing wounded soldiers. By using the older poet's title, Whitman makes clear that the "him" in line 10 (in the 1856 through 1867 versions of the poem) refers to Longfellow: "And who has projected beautiful words through the longest time? By God! I will outvie him! I will say such words, they shall stretch through longer time!"

In 1871 Whitman placed "Excelsior" into Passage to India, shifting his promisory future statements to rhetorical questions suggesting accomplished fact. Thus the statements in lines 1 and 10 which from 1856 to 1867 read "For I swear I will go farther" and "I will outvie him" in 1871 became "For lo! have not I gone farther?" and "have I not outvied him?" (emphasis added).

Whitman softened toward Longfellow in 1876, when the older poet visited him. He publicly acknowledged Longfellow and recorded their second encounter in "My Tribute to Four Poets." Finally, when they met again in September of 1881, Whitman reconciled with the aged poet; while the 1881 Leaves was being plate-cast, he removed the line that indicted Longfellow and his "beautiful words."

Bibliography

Ford, Thomas W. "Whitman's 'Excelsior': The Poem as Microcosm." Texas Studies in Literature and Language 17 (1976): 777–785.

Rechel-White, Julie A. "Longfellow's Influence on Whitman's 'Rise' from Manhattan Island." ATQ 6 (1992): 121–129.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1964.

____. "The Literary World." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 12 Oct. 1846.

____. Walt Whitman's Blue Book. Ed. Arthur Golden. 2 vols. New York: New York Public Library, 1968.


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