Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"So Long!" (1860)
Author:
Hatlen, Burton
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Whitman first added "So Long!" to Leaves of Grass in 1860, and in this and all later editions it is the final poem in the volume, even though the two annexes added in the 1888 and 1891 editions partly obscure the climactic position of the poem. Whitman revised the poem extensively: the 1860 text runs eighty-nine lines, but in the 1867 edition Whitman cut twenty-one lines, and in the 1871 and subsequent editions he added three lines. "So Long!," as Kenneth M. Price and Cynthia G. Bernstein note, stands within the tradition of the poetic envoi, in which the poet bids farewell to his book and sends it on its way to the reader. This envoi is distinctively Whitmanesque not only in its substitution of the colloquial American "so long!" for the elegant French label but also, as George B. Hutchinson has argued, in its evocation of an ecstatic, even orgasmic union between the poet, his book, and the reader. But "So Long!," as other critics have noted, is also shadowed by a sense of dark foreboding, perhaps triggered by the impending war, and the poem is as interesting for the conflicts that it tries to overcome as for the moment of orgasmic union that it proclaims.

In the climactic lines of "So Long!," Whitman says farewell to his poetic project ("My songs cease, I abandon them") and announces that he will now step forward in the flesh ("From behind the screen where I hid I advance personally solely to you"). There follow the most famous lines in the poem:


Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man,
(Is it night? are we here together alone?)
It is I you hold and who holds you,
I spring from the pages into your arms— decease calls me forth.

The declaration that the man and the book are one and the same is clearly a pivotal moment in Leaves of Grass, at once offering a kind of immortality (as long as the book is read, the man lives) and claiming a radical authenticity for the words on the page, which are no longer mere signifiers, traces pointing toward an absent plenitude, but rather become an incarnation (more "real," perhaps, than the material flesh) of Walt Whitman himself, so that "decease" thereby opens the way to a new life.

But "So Long!" is a poem of enduring interest not simply because it makes the claim that man and book are one, but because of the rhetorical strategies it employs to arrive at this moment. As the poem begins, Whitman assumes a prophetic stance: he will "conclude" by announcing "what comes after me." What follows is a vision of an emerging superrace (as Harold Aspiz notes, the eugenics movement has left its imprint on this poem) united by a steadily increasing "adhesiveness." But then, more or less midway in the poem, the poet finds himself overwhelmed by his vision of the future: "I foresee too much, it means more than I thought, / It appears to me I am dying." There follows an extended and syntactically tangled series of participles, developing an almost hallucinatory image of the poet passing through the world, "Screaming electric," scattering about him "[s]parkles hot, seed ethereal down in the dirt dropping." Clearly, Whitman wants to spread his seed—but also he fears that his seed may simply fall, onanistically, in the dirt. (Or perhaps this seed will bring the dirt itself to life?) If this passage carries us toward a moment of orgasmic climax, then, the poet seems to feel some anxiety that this moment might be merely masturbatory.

The ambiguities that hover about the "seed ethereal"—both spermatic and spiritual, "seminal" in both senses—also pervade the final stanzas of "So Long!" Having met his reader in the night and in a privacy that invites intimacy, the poet foresees a moment of erotic bliss, as he springs from the pages into the reader's arms:


O how your fingers drowse me,
Your breath falls around me like dew, your pulse lulls the tympans of my ears,
I feel immerged from head to foot,
Delicious, enough.

The erotic experience here evoked seems oddly infantile, as the poet assumes a wholly passive role, stroked, cradled, and finally swallowed up—"immerged" suggests both immersion and merger. Ironically, too, even though the poet earlier announced that he has stepped out from behind his book, every line in this passage could as easily be spoken by the book itself—stroked by the reader's fingers, etc.—as by the man. The poet has sought to cast aside the book to achieve a total, unmediated union with his reader. But his own language reveals that this union can come only through and in language, so that the fusion of person and book ends by generating a new and endless indeterminacy.

Bibliography

Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Hutchinson, George B. The Ecstatic Whitman: Literary Shamanism & the Crisis of the Union. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 1986.

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992.

Price, Kenneth M., and Cynthia G. Bernstein. "Whitman's Sign of Parting: 'So long!' as l'envoi." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (1991): 65–76.

Snyder, John. The Dear Love of Man: Tragic and Lyric Communion in Walt Whitman. The Hague: Mouton, 1975.


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