Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Quicksand Years" (1865)
Author:
Barton, Gay
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Quicksand Years" first appeared as "Quicksand years that whirl me I know not whither" in Drum-Taps (1865), which was subsequently annexed to the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. In 1871 the poem was moved (under its final title) to the "Whispers of Heavenly Death" cluster within Passage to India, which was annexed to the 1871 Leaves. In the 1881 edition, the cluster, including "Quicksand Years," was integrated into Leaves.

This six-line poem depicts "politics, triumphs, battles, life" as undependable substances, mere "shows" which whirl the speaker aimlessly and then give way and elude him. The one dependable, lasting substance is "One's-Self," the "soul."

The change in placement of "Quicksand Years" suggests a shift in meaning. In Drum-Taps, Whitman was attempting to capture the spirit and actions of a particular time and place, Civil War America. In this context, the "politics, triumphs, battles" appear to refer particularly to that historical cataclysm, against which only one's own inner self is proof. The poem's repositioning in the "Whispers" cluster changes the referent, for as both Blodgett and Miller point out, this grouping is more deliberately spiritual in emphasis. Miller argues that in this cluster the spiritual is shown to be true reality and the apparently real, mere illusion. Within this context, "Quicksand years" takes on a more universal significance—the concept that when external supports fail, one's only surety is the soul.

Bibliography

Blodgett, Harold W. "Whitman's Whisperings. Walt Whitman Review 8 (1962): 12–16.

Megna, B. Christian. "Sociality and Seclusion in the Poetry of Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Review 17 (1971): 55–57.

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


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