Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Good-Bye my Fancy" (Second Annex) (1891)
Author:
Stauffer, Donald Barlow
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This group of poems originally appeared in the book Good-Bye My Fancy (1891), Whitman's last miscellany of poetry and prose. In this collection the prose jottings are as interesting as the poems themselves, in their reflections on his poetry, his life, the condition of aging and illness, and death. The prose selections include "An Old Man's Rejoinder," defending once again his poetic vision and continuing to insist that he is rejected by all the great magazines; "Old Poets," a largely favorable appraisal of Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant, and Emerson; an essay on "American National Literature: Is There Any Such Thing—or Can There Ever Be?"; "Some Laggards Yet," collecting prose and verse fragments; and "Memoranda," a truly miscellaneous collection of short newspaper articles, journal entries, fragments of speeches, copies of letters, memories of the New York theater, etc.

A group of thirty-one poems from the book was later printed as "Good-Bye my Fancy . . . 2d Annex" to Leaves of Grass 1891–1892, the last edition published in Whitman's lifetime. ("Sands at Seventy" [1888] was then designated as the First Annex.) Of this "last cluster" Whitman wrote, "The clef is here changed to its lowest, and the little book is a lot of tremolos about old age, death, and faith. The physical just lingers, but almost vanishes. The book is garrulous, irascible (like old Lear) and has various breaks and even tricks to avoid monotony. It will have to be ciphered and ciphered out long—and is probably in some respects the most curious part of its author's baffling works" (Whitman 739–740).

Among the poems that Whitman chose to include in this annex are occasional poems on such subjects as the Paris Exposition, the burial of General Sheridan, and the Johnstown flood, and miscellaneous poems on various Whitman themes, the bulk of them on old age and death. Those dealing specifically with his aging, sickness, and confrontation with death reveal some interesting qualities about the man himself: his intellectual lucidity, his honesty, and his unwillingness to soft-pedal his medical disabilities or to try to avoid facing his unavoidable physical end. The poems speak directly and through standard metaphor—"A Twilight Song," "Sounds of the Winter," and "An Ended Day"—about time running out and death as a new beginning as well as the end of life.

Two poems demonstrate that Whitman had not lost his artistry: "To the Sun-Set Breeze" and "Unseen Buds." In the first of these, an unpretentious and even understated poem, we find again the sure touch of the master, whose confidence and assurance about the truth of what he believes keeps him from faltering or striking a false note. The poem was singled out two decades later by the young Ezra Pound, who wrote: "[I]f a man has written lines like Whitman's to the 'sunset breeze' one has to love him. I think we have not yet paid enough attention to the deliberate artistry of the man, not in details but in the large" (qtd. in Bergman 60).

In "Unseen Buds" Whitman uses a strange and unusual image: buds hidden under snow and ice with a latent potential to flower, which mysteriously suggest the idea of the universe as an eternal process of becoming. In the context of this group of late-in-life poems, "Unseen Buds" assumes a special significance, as Whitman moves away from an individual confrontation with death and places it on a truly cosmic scale. He becomes merely one of the many trillions of germinal presences which eternally and infinitely expand, grow, and die to make room for their successors, a view of death he had frequently expressed in his younger years.

There are two poems with the title "Good-Bye my Fancy," distinguished only by the exclamation point at the end of the one that closes the collection. This is a farewell to Whitman's other self, his poetic genius, which he had addressed throughout the course of his career, beginning with the opening stanzas of "Song of Myself."

Bibliography

Bergman, Herbert. "Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman." American Literature 27 (1955): 56–61.

Fillard, Claudette. "Le vannier de Camden: Vieillesse, Poésie, et les Annexes de Leaves of Grass." Études Anglaises 45 (1992): 311–323.

Stauffer, Donald Barlow. "Walt Whitman and Old Age." Walt Whitman Review 24 (1978): 144–148.

Whitman, Walt. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1964.


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