Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Old Age Echoes" (1897)
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 thirteen poems was first added to Leaves of Grass in the edition issued in 1897, five years after Whitman's death. They are prefaced by Horace Traubel's "An Executor's Diary Note, 1891," recounting a conversation with Whitman shortly before his death in which he contemplated collecting "a lot of poetry and prose pieces—small or smallish mostly, but a few larger" to be published as a supplement, leaving the book complete as he left it for the Deathbed edition. When asked what he would do with them, Whitman said, "I have a title in reserve: Old Age Echoes—applying not so much to things as to echoes of things, reverberant, an aftermath" (Whitman 575).

The collection contains eleven previously unpublished poems, scraps, rough drafts, and reworked prose fragments; the other two pieces had appeared in the New York Daily Graphic in 1873–1874. One poem, "To Be at All," is a rough draft of stanza 27 of the 1855 "Song of Myself." Traubel rejected many of Whitman's trial titles and apparently supplied his own, drawn from a line in the poem.

Two poems are of especial interest. "Supplement Hours" confirms the notion that Whitman retained his poetic powers until the very end. This is a poem about extreme old age—about the bonus of tranquillity given to us after the striving and activity of a full life. Whitman apparently attached considerable importance to it, since many manuscript versions exist, as well as several different titles, such as "Notes as the wild Bee hums," "A September Supplement," and "Latter-time Hours of a half-paralytic."

"A Thought of Columbus" is said by Traubel to be Whitman's "last deliberate composition, dating December, 1891" (Whitman 575). Whitman apparently added some later touches and gave the manuscript to Traubel ten days before his death in March 1892. It was first printed in facsimile in Once a Week in July 1892, followed the next week by Traubel's account of its composition, in which he stated that it was "finished on his death-bed" ("Walt Whitman's Last"). This poem, written perhaps with the 1892 Columbian Exposition in mind, is a final tribute to the great discoverer with some ideas harking back to "Passage to India" and "Prayer of Columbus." In "Prayer," Columbus is viewed as the "batter'd wreck'd old man" suffering from defeat and despair. But in "A Thought of Columbus" he is a much more idealized figure. He is the agent of a divine plan bringing about the fulfillment of an ages-long process of completion, linking the growth of democracy in the Western Hemisphere with the unfolding of our cosmic destiny.

Like a number of Whitman's other late poems, "A Thought of Columbus" cannot be ignored or dismissed as the product of feebleness or senility. It demonstrates that he was still afoot with his vision, to which he remained faithful to the end. The characteristic exuberance, assurance, and strong rhythms may still be heard in this eloquent apostrophe to the discoverer of America and moving farewell from its solitary singer.

Bibliography

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): 142–148.

Traubel, Horace. "Walt Whitman's Last Poem." Once a Week: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper 16 July 1892: 3.

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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