Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Sparkles from the Wheel" (1871)
Author:
Nelson, Howard
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Sparkles from the Wheel" has been singled out by several critics as one of Whitman's best short lyrics. It is first of all a "picture poem"—one of the sharp descriptive sketches that Whitman frequently wrote and in which he anticipates the work of the imagists in the early twentieth century. The subject here is a mundane city sight: a knife-grinder practicing his trade on a sidewalk, unremarked except by the group of children (and the poet) who have gathered around him to watch.

"Sparkles" would be an admirable poem for its descriptive glimpse alone, but beyond this it also has a rich suggestiveness. It resonates with both clarity and possibilities. Among those possibilities, critics have seen, for example, a correspondence between the knife-grinder and the creative artist—another craftsman whose skill produces sparks of beauty, and who is often overlooked by the world around him. The scene also contains a commentary on modern life, the small group drawn aside and the archaic, soon-to-be-obsolete craftsman, human fragments nearly lost among the vastness and rush of the city. Or the sparkles can be seen as an image of the cosmos itself—an image which in turn might transform the knife-grinder into a Jehovah-like presence, a creator whirling out stars and worlds with a dignified, detached power and ease.

The themes of transience and flux hover throughout the poem. The central image of the sparkles whispers them. In "Sparkles" Whitman's dual awareness of the exquisite, sharp physical reality of things, and of their evanescence, is expressed perhaps as well as anywhere in Whitman's poetry. The scene the poem catches, a closely observed bit of nineteenth-century American life, is itself a sparkle from the great wheel of life. The poem is, therefore, a subtle poising of small and large, solid and fluid, momentary and timeless, caught by the senses, imagination, and language. The poet is careful to include himself in this: "Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here absorb'd and arrested."

In terms of structure, "Sparkles" is one of Whitman's finest unions of the formal and the free. The poem has sixteen lines, and while the first two are a separate sentence and set off, they introduce the next six, giving the poem in effect two eight-line stanzas or movements. In both, the images and syntax gracefully build, until Whitman brings us back again to the turning wheel, the next-to-last line describing the sparks, the last coming to rest with the simple title phrase and central image, now also musical refrain: "Sparkles from the wheel."

Bibliography

Beaver, Joseph. Walt Whitman: Poet of Science. Morningside Heights, N.Y.: King's Crown, 1951.

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

Pascal, Richard. "Whitman's 'Sparkles from the Wheel.'" Walt Whitman Review 28 (1982): 20–24.

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

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.


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