Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Out from Behind This Mask" (1876)
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.

First published in the New York Tribune (19 February 1876) and later included in the cluster "Autumn Rivulets," this two-stanza, twenty-four-line poem uses a self-portrait from a photograph (made by G.C. Potter of an engraving by W.J. Linton) as its reference. Whitman enjoyed being photographed; in fact here he fashioned a serious reflection on his own image, a dramatic reflection free from posturing.

Starting with the figure of a mask, the first section runs through a series of shifting equivalents for the poet's face and head: this "drama of the whole," this "common curtain," this "glaze" (God's) and this "film" (Satan's), this "map," this "small continent," this "soundless sea," "this globe," and finally the conceit, "[t]his condensation of the universe." At the very end of the stanza the poet shifts to a figure-free image, from the eyes in the portrait: "To you whoe'er you are—a look." The effect of the periodic syntax, holding off the main clause, is much like that from the long opening sentence in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking."

Whitman has established early that his portrait is more representative than unique ("This common curtain of the face contain'd in me for me, in you for you, in each for each"). In the second section he calls more attention to the reader. He now assumes the role of a traveler, much as he had done in the final sections of "Song of Myself," not an actual traveler but one who has traveled through "thoughts," through "youth," through "peace and war," through "middle age" and is now "[l]ingering a moment here and now" on his journey. Stopping the flow of time to seize the moment, he is lingering to greet the reader, the universal "you," not for a casual word or wave, but "[t]o draw and clinch your soul for once inseparably with mine." Then he will "travel travel on."

Both in skills, including the loose hexameter rhythm, the appropriate figures and images and word choices seemingly found without effort, as well as in idea and attitude, this poem shows Whitman at his most mature and attractive.

Bibliography

Blodgett, Harold W. "Whitman and the Linton Portrait." Walt Whitman Newsletter 4.3 (1958): 90–92.

Folsom, Ed. Walt Whitman's Native Representations. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.

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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