Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To One Shortly to Die" (1860)
Author:
Freund, Julian B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Included in a cluster of poems ("Whispers of Heavenly Death") contemplating the mysteries of life and death, this poem contains a number of themes and elements Whitman explored earlier in a variety of works. Philosophical in its outlook, "To One Shortly to Die" echoes in part his earlier poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" (1856), and also suggests the theme of physical decay he explored in "This Compost" (1856).

As he speaks directly to his reader, Whitman assumes the persona of one who has successfully transcended the barrier of time, a theme he explored in greater detail in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." Claiming that he is "more than nurse," "more than parent or neighbor," Whitman approaches the reader, absolves the reader of all but the spiritual body, and gently prepares him for the inevitability of physical death, while reminding his subject that spiritual existence is eternal.

Whitman speaks from the standpoint of a god, one who claims to be "exact" and "merciless," yet one who professes deep love for his subject. Whitman becomes a comforter. "Softly I lay my right hand upon you," he proclaims as he prepares the appointed one for a celestial journey. The physical self will remain behind, becoming "excrementitious," a term reminiscent of the "foul meat" and "sour dead" he alluded to in "This Compost." Physical life is rank in stark contrast to eternal life where "the sun bursts through," and Whitman assures his reader that medicines and friends become irrelevant as "strong thoughts fill you, and confidence."

Both poems reflect Whitman's conviction of the fetid, putrid nature of physical existence, a theme he was about to experience in all of its loathsome reality as he nursed the victims of physical brutality during the Civil War. Death is inevitable, yet tolerable. Whitman does not experience sorrow at the thought of death; he "congratulates" his reader as he comforts him with the assurance that "I am with you."

Bibliography

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

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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