Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"From Noon to Starry Night" (1881)
Author:
Olson, Steven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"From Noon to Starry Night" first appeared as a cluster of twenty-two poems in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. The cluster includes five poems new to this edition, and the others were gathered from collections that Whitman published from 1855 to 1876.

"From Noon to Starry Night" follows the cluster "Whispers of Heavenly Death" and immediately precedes the last section of Leaves of Grass, "Songs of Parting." Betsy Erkkila suggests that these final sections of Leaves of Grass progress from material to spiritual concerns and, by incorporating poems written at various times in Whitman's career, offer a sense of unity, closure, and grand design. This reading of "From Noon" is supported by the way in which the cluster's images and themes reconcile opposites.

Clearly the height and the end of a lifetime are implied in the essential images of noon and night. But so are these images indications of opposites, as is emphasized by the last three lines of the first poem, "Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling." The next poem, "Faces," more obviously develops the notion of opposing forces. In this salient poem filled with powerful images, the poet poses the opposites of good and evil, base and noble, deific and satanic, old and young, male and female. Not only does he assert these opposites; he implies their correlations. After sketches of debased humanity in section 2 and noble humanity in section 4, section 3 suggests that these could be but surface differences, and despite the attempt of any person to hold a mask to the world, the poet will see behind it.

"The Mystic Trumpeter" introduces the opposite extents of time, beginning with a "prelude" that acknowledges the distant past and closing with the future. Between prelude and close, the poem treats the themes of love and war while it also intermingles images of day and night, light and dark, sun and stars. "To a Locomotive in Winter" reconciles the poetic Muse with modern science and technology whereas "Spirit That Form'd This Scene" compares the art of Whitman's poetry to the wildness of the Rocky Mountains. "Mannahatta" compares the pristine "aboriginal name" to Whitman's modern, thriving city. "All is Truth" reconciles truth and lies. While "A Riddle Song" supposedly has a two-word solution, it is riddled with opposing imagery of reality and illusion, public and private, solitude and city, babies and the dead, dawn and stars, beginning and ending, midnight and light. The poem is also an expression of the contradiction between poetry and the ineffable, and at the end of the cluster "A Clear Midnight" poetically sounds the theme of ineffability again. Two poems, "Excelsior" and "Ah Poverties, Wincings, and Sulky Retreats," are opposite to each other, "Excelsior" treating affirmative ideas and "Ah Poverties" treating negative ones.

Several poems examine political oppositions. "Thoughts" poses democracy against institutionalism. "Spain, 1873–74" and "Thick-Sprinkled Bunting" juxtapose Old World feudalism with the ideal of democracy. The political theme is most fully developed, however, in several poems about the Civil War of the United States. If Whitman's book of poems and the Civil War are in some sense one, "From Noon" fittingly reconciles war in general—and the Civil War in particular—with unity and the Union. Two poems express this reconciliation most clearly. Acknowledging that the "death-envelop'd march of peace as well as war goes on," "Weave in, My Hardy Life" implies that war is necessary for peace and the resulting democracy. Add to this idea the expression of "What Best I See in Thee," which states that General Ulysses S. Grant's greatness lies not in his successful battles nor presidency nor state visits to Europe and Asia, but in his embodying the dead "sovereigns," the common farmers and soldiers of democracy.

The last two poems of the cluster integrate culminating themes and images. "As I Walk These Broad Majestic Days" first juxtaposes war and peace, then devastation and production. It closes by positing an essential idealism but not discounting the profound effects of material existence. Finally, "A Clear Midnight" returns to the original imagery of the cluster's title.

While not all the poems in this cluster fit the pattern of opposition and reconciliation, these themes emerge as its focus—a fitting focus for a summary and conclusion of sorts to Leaves of Grass. Seen as a whole, the cluster is an amalgamation of opposing images and themes of life and poetry and creation, war and death and destruction.

Bibliography

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Schwind, Jean. "Van Gogh's 'Starry Night' and Whitman: A Study in Source." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 3.1 (1985): 1–15.

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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