Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Old Age's Lambent Peaks" (1888)
Author:
Baldwin, David B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was first printed in The Century in September of 1888 and published in Leaves of Grass in 1888 as part of the "Sands at Seventy" annex. Whitman himself called it "an essential poem," by which he probably meant that it was essential to celebrate this period of life (Traubel 289).

At the beginning, the central image of the burst of the sun's flame just before sunset hints at an unacknowledged brightness possible in old age. The words "lambent [flickering] peaks" in the title and the final phrase of this eight-line lyric show the originality and accuracy of Whitman's word choice and his boldness in combining words for their suggestiveness.

The poem also illustrates his fondness for indirection. Old age is not mentioned till the end, the structure being periodic. The entire lyric is a metaphoric description not of old age, the topic avowed by the title, but of the gradually setting sun from the bright flames to the "calmer sight—the golden setting, clear and broad . . . so much (perhaps the best) unreck'd before."

Whitman used contractions frequently to control his beat. Here the contraction of "unreckoned," awkward as it is, reveals a need to follow a loose trochaic rhythmic pattern at all costs. The poem further illustrates Whitman's chronic habit of listing or naming items seriatim, not all of which need be of the same class, as with "passion" in line two: "O'er city, passion, sea—o'er prairie, mountain, wood—the earth itself." Yet if literally out of place in this line, the word "passion" does connect meaningfully to the central topic, which the reader is always aware of—the keen insight of old age.

Bibliography

Stoddard, R.H. "Poetical Fads." Independent 40 (1888): 1131.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

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

_____. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1980.


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