Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"O Living Always, Always Dying" (1860)
Author:
Mozer, Hadley J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Its publication history one of considerable shuffling, the poem first appeared as number 27 of "Calamus" in Leaves of Grass 1860, again in "Calamus" in Leaves 1867 as "O Living Always—Always Dying," then in the "Passage to India" supplement in Leaves 1871 and 1876, and finally in "Whispers of Heavenly Death" in Leaves 1881 as "O Living Always, Always Dying."

Writing to W.M. Rossetti, Whitman explained that "Whispers" would explore the "deep themes of Death & Immortality" (Correspondence 1:350). However, the poem is primarily concerned with the evolution of the self rather than with life and death. "Living" and "dying" become processes in the development of the self as it "cast[s]" off old selves, or "corpses," and takes on new identities, much like a snake shedding its skin. The self is portrayed in a state of Becoming, as opposed to Being (though Chari points out that Whitman, in general, adheres to a Vedantic belief in which Becoming and Being are coeval). Accordingly, change is to be celebrated rather than mourned; thus, the poet ignores funereal etiquette by choosing to "lament not" at the "burials" of his "corpses." More consonant with the purported theme of the cluster, the poem also accommodates a literal reading of "living" and "dying." Thus, the poem reiterates a familiar idea in "Whispers" by portraying life, or physical existence, as a type of death, and death as a type of life, or spiritual rebirth. Because "burials" and "corpses" are plural and since "always" indicates a continuous process, the poem echoes statements of belief in reincarnation which appear as early as "Song of Myself," where the poet states, "No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before" (section 49).

Certainly the poem is a minor work in both the Whitman corpus and its resident cluster as well, often overshadowed by its companions "Whispers of Heavenly Death," "Chanting the Square Deific," and "A Noiseless Patient Spider," yet it displays a depth which its brevity and compactness belie.

Bibliography

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1964.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

____. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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