Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"This Compost" (1856)
Author:
Aspiz, Harold
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Originally titled "Poem of Wonder at The Resurrection of The Wheat," this exquisite lyric meditation on death was number 4 in the "Leaves of Grass" cluster in the 1860 edition, received its present intriguing title in 1867, and (having undergone several textual changes over the years) attained its present form in 1881, when it was placed in the "Autumn Rivulets" cluster of Leaves of Grass together with many other poems about death.

Although compost generally refers to decomposing vegetable and animal matter used as fertilizer, the poem's title more specifically designates putrefying human carrion; the present line 17 originally read, "Behold! / This is the compost of billions of premature corpses" (1856 Leaves). The speaker appears terrified at the thought of such an ignominious destiny for all humanity and at the earth's apparent indifference toward mankind. (The poem makes brilliant use of the pathetic fallacy.) But since compost is a universal nutrient, he also beholds this compost as an element in nature's renewing and transformative powers and, paradoxically, as a promise of universal immortality.

The poem, whose subtext is the poet's struggle between his faith in spiritual regeneration and his fears of annihilation, expresses terror ("Something startles me where I thought I was safest" [section 1]) at the thought of coming in contact with the infectious earth. (Here Whitman echoes the widely accepted theory of miasma—the concept that living matter decomposes into infectious effluvia and poisonous vapors.) In a series of rhetorical questions, the speaker demands to know how the earth, "every mite" (section 2) of which is packed with "all the foul liquid and meat" of "distemper'd corpses" (section 1), can perpetually create wholesome life out of such corruption. Then he opens his eyes to the landscape. Out of the decay he beholds an awful beauty. Observing the leafing and flowering of plants and savoring the earth's bounty, he concludes that "The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead" (section 2). Echoing the poem's 1856 title, a key line—"The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves" (section 2)—alludes to the earth's vegetational cycle but also, by analogy, to spiritual immortality. Saint Paul's sermon on the conquest of death and the rebirth of the soul (1 Corinthians 15) speaks of the sown wheat resurrected in a divine body and of "the resurrection of the dead . . . sown in corruption" but "raised in incorruption" as a "spiritual body."

In the penultimate paragraph the speaker tries to allay his fears of death and decay with the thought that, despite the corruption and fevers deposited in the earth, he can enjoy the sea, the winds, and the vegetation without catching "any disease." "What chemistry!" he exclaims (section 2). Although "chemistry" is clearly a metaphor for nature's power to compost living and dead elements together to create new life, this exclamation also recalls Whitman's enthusiasm over Justus Liebig's 1846 textbook on chemistry, which defined "fermentation, or putrefaction" as "metamorphosis"—the simultaneous breakdown and re-creation of matter (Aspiz 63–64). Such a chemical "metamorphosis" suggests a dynamic metaphor for the transformative powers of nature, for what Whitman called American democracy's "kosmical, antiseptic power" to digest and transform its corrupt persons into worthy citizens (Prose Works 2:382), for the transformation of death into life, and for the poet's power to transform morbid experience into inspirational poetry.

This forty-seven-line masterpiece melds Whitman's anguished confessional mode and his strivings to accept and glorify life and death. Its series of parallel, anaphoric lines (generally forming short catalogues) have an almost breathless quality. Rich in detailed visual images, "This Compost" is also one of Whitman's finest nature poems.

Bibliography

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

Marriage, Anthony X. "Whitman's 'This Compost,' Baudelaire's 'Out of Decay Comes an Awful Beauty.'" Walt Whitman Review 27 (1981): 143–149.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1980.

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


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