Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song at Sunset" (1860)
Author:
Butler, Frederick J.
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 published in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass as number 8 under the heading "Chants Democratic." It was annexed to Leaves of Grass as one of the Songs Before Parting in 1867 and later under the cluster "Songs of Parting" in 1871. In the Barrett manuscript the title reads "A Sunset Carol."

We find Whitman once again celebrating the joys of life, the simple miracles of daily living: "To breathe the air . . . To speak—to walk—to seize something by the hand!" Throughout his poetry, Whitman attempts to communicate the richness life affords him. This is a simple, yet rich and elegant song extolling the sheer and profound nature of life as witnessed by the poet. This celebration, as proclaimed in "Song at Sunset," is a consistent theme that finds itself again and again in so much of Whitman's work.

In his evaluation of this poem, James E. Miller, Jr., points to the poet's "resolution to inflate his throat and sing" (251). Whitman himself exclaims in "Song of Myself" that the sunrise would kill him if he could not "now and always send sun-rise out of me" (section 25). Words become the necessary vehicle for the expression of this "sun-rise." To Whitman, words are not only necessary, but are, of themselves, transcendental in nature. He writes in his American Primer that nothing is "more spiritual than words" (1).

The poet's relationship with language is as spiritual as his relationship with nature; the former is a celebration of the latter. For Whitman, the "real words" transcend what is written on the page. In "A Song of the Rolling Earth" he tells us that these "curves, angles, dots" are not the words. The "substantial words" are all around us—in the "ground and sea . . . in the air . . . in you" (section 1). Carmine Sarracino calls this the poet's "language of nature, a language of perfection and silence" (8).

It is out of this silence, what Whitman in Democratic Vistas has termed "the devout ecstasy, the soaring flight" (Prose Works 2:398), that "Song at Sunset" springs. "Illustrious every one! . . . Good in all . . . Wonderful to be here!" Each phrase echoes an ever familiar strain of what Whitman calls the "noiseless operation of one's isolated Self" (Prose Works 2:399). The poem accords the reader yet another glimpse into the "endless finalés of things," a theme of which the poet never tires—a theme which aims at undressing the mysteries and revealing life's affirmation of itself.

Bibliography

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

Sarracino, Carmine. "Figures of Transcendence in Whitman's Poetry." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 5.1 (1987): 1–11.

Whitman, Walt. An American Primer. 1904. Ed. Horace Traubel. Stevens Point, Wis.: Holy Cow!, 1987.

____. 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. Harold W. Blodgett, Sculley Bradley, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 2. New York: New York UP, 1980.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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