Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Hand-Mirror, A" (1860)
Author:
Losey, Jay
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This twelve-line poem has received scant critical attention, but makes a significant contribution to the 1860 edition of Leaves, where it first appeared. Written between 1856 and 1859, "A Hand-Mirror" portrays a falling out of love with life and thus contrasts sharply with the "Calamus" poems, which also first appeared in the 1860 Leaves.

Of the critical responses, R.W.B. Lewis offers the most compelling, arguing that the intense self-loathing in the poem contributes to a subplot in this volume. While the "Calamus" poems celebrate life and all its pleasures, "A Hand-Mirror" and other similar poems explore types of death ranging from loss of sensations to loss of poetic creativity. For Lewis, this tension makes "A Hand-Mirror" itself significant. Harold Aspiz echoes Lewis's reading, arguing that the poem reveals a wasted body, one diminished by alcoholism, drug abuse, and venereal disease. (Whitman's variant, "venerealee," appears in the poem.) Aspiz rightly notes the wasting of the once beautiful body, the poet's unblinking gaze at this wasting, and the poisonous consequence of the man's misconduct against nature and himself. Like Lewis, Aspiz stresses the self-loathing that pervades the poem. Unlike Lewis and Aspiz, Betsy Erkkila stresses the public rather than the private emphasis in the poem. She argues that Whitman uses a divided-self theme, pointing out his concern over his public image. In her study, Erkkila shows Whitman's influence on French poets, indicating that "A Hand-Mirror" influenced Valery Larbaud's "Le Masque," a poem that also employs a mirror motif.

Because this poem portrays a man's self-loathing, it tends towards hyperbole. But the presence of excess merely affirms the excess that has ruined the man's life. Lewis comments on the painful difficulty of reading such a poem; still, the poem's excess may be the "fair costume" covering its disguised meaning: a guilt-ridden response to same-sex desire.

Bibliography

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Erkkila, Betsy. Walt Whitman Among the French: Poet and Myth. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Lewis, R.W.B. Trials of the Word: Essays in American Literature. New Haven: Yale UP, 1965.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1980.


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