Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling" (1881)
Author:
Baldwin, David B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Published with the title "A Summer Invocation" in The American on 4 June 1881, this is the first poem of the miscellaneous cluster "From Noon to Starry Night" in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. The manuscript contains two alternative titles, "Sun-up" and "A Seashore Invocation." Whitman reported that the editor of Harper's magazine returned it to him because he judged the magazine readers would not understand it.

Nevertheless, the poem is easily accessible to any attentive reader. Whitman is clearly calling on the sun, addressing it by an ancient rhetorical device—the apostrophe, which he often used—as if it were human. Here it is a call for help, an invocation, a word Whitman actually uses ("as now to thee I launch my invocation"). Although the poem is positive and confident, its form as a prayer or entreaty does not allow for a sustained affirmative tone.

For Whitman, the apostrophe as a device yields both a formal and an intimate effect, aided often by the use of inverted word order: "Thou canst not with thy dumbness me deceive". Exactly what he wants from the sun is withheld until the final lines of this twenty-five-line lyric. Earlier he has described dramatically the vast role of the sun in providing the earth vitality, as well as its role in his own life, in which he addresses the sun as "lover." He assures himself that a "fitting man" would understand the silent but pervasive operation of the sun. He seems to link the "perturbations" of the sun, its sudden shafts of flame, with his own anxieties, without revealing what these might be. Finally, he asks for help: "Shed, shed thyself on mine and me, with but a fleeting ray out of thy million millions, / Strike through these chants." Not for his songs only does he ask aid, but in the last line he also asks for himself as he prepares for old age and death, as his images may hint: "Prepare the later afternoon of me myself—prepare my lengthening shadows / Prepare my starry nights."

Although the sun figures in other poems, most notably in the title and opening line of a major one, "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun," Whitman was no sun worshiper, except as the sun focused attention on nature's bounty. When recovering from his stroke at the Stafford farm in New Jersey (1876–1878), he gained much in health from yielding to the restorative power of the natural scene. But always more important were the resources of men and women, and of himself, as objects to treasure and to address in his poems, as he argues even in "Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun." The conventional invocation or prayer is therefore rare, with exceptions being "Gods," "The Last Invocation," "Look Down Fair Moon," and "Prayer of Columbus." Whitman's calling on the sun in "Thou Orb Aloft" is a case of the poet's using a conceit, not exercising a belief, and this is Whitman at his imaginative best.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Whitman, Walt. 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. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1980.

_____. Specimen Days. Vol. 1 of Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. New York: New York UP, 1963.


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