Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Miracles" (1856)
Author:
Nelson, Howard
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published as "Poem of Perfect Miracles," "Miracles" received its shortened title in 1867 and took its final form, shortened by eleven lines, in 1881, as part of the "Autumn Rivulets" cluster. The poem opens with a question, "Why, who makes much of a miracle?" and offers in response a catalogue of sights and actions, for all of which the poet claims miraculous status. Readers of Whitman's poetry will recognize in this catalogue a number of images and activities that figure importantly in other, better-known poems: walking Manhattan streets, wading along a shore, sleeping with another, observing strangers, watching animals graze. The images lack the bracing imaginative freshness of similar passages in "Song of Myself," yet "Miracles" has a plain sort of beauty, and its images succinctly call forth a variety of spheres and complements: things urban and rural; indoors and out; human and animal; day and night; water, land, and sky. The catalogue closes with the fundamental transcendental intuition of the unity of the whole and the part. After a reassertion of the miraculousness of all things ("Every cubic inch of space is a miracle"), the poem ends with a sort of coda—a brief series of images associated with the sea and a variation of the opening question, which brings the poem full circle.

Miracles have often been looked to as proof of divine status or power, and the debate regarding the authenticity of biblical miracles already had a long history when Whitman wrote. His response was not to debunk such exceptional events but rather to disregard them. Arguments about their actuality were beside the point, since to him the natural was more interesting and important than the supernatural, and the common (commonplace, common man) was fully miraculous and sufficiently divine.

Bibliography

Gatta, John, Jr. "Making Something of Whitman's 'Miracles.'" ESQ 27 (1981): 222–229.


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