Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To Rich Givers" (1860)
Author:
Mullins, Maire
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Included in the "Messenger Leaves" cluster of the third (1860) edition of Leaves of Grass, this poem was published in Boston by Thayer and Eldridge. The "Messenger Leaves" cluster was dropped in 1867, and its fifteen poems dispersed throughout Leaves of Grass. In 1871 "To Rich Givers" was placed in the cluster "Songs of Parting," and was moved to its present placement in "By the Roadside" in 1881. The same title was used throughout all editions.

The poem describes the relationship between the poet and "rich givers," who could literally be patrons or readers of the poem. Gay Wilson Allen, in his biography of Whitman, notes that in this poem Whitman expresses a wish for wealthy patrons, but the poem does not have to be read in a strictly biographical way. Unashamed to accept "sustenance" from "rich givers," the "I" of the poem accepts "cheerfully" a "hut and garden" and "a little money"—images evocative of Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854).

Giving becomes a form of enrichment for the giver, as the title of the poem indicates. The givers are rich because what the poet bestows upon them enriches them even more. Thus, the wealth of the givers comes from what the poetry gives to them—"the entrance to all the gifts of the universe"—an open-ended world. By the end of the poem, the meanings and implications of "rich givers" widen to include the poet, this poem, and the "poems" of line 2. The "you" and "I" of line 1 thus become interchangeable, with "you" as reader/patron or poet.

Bibliography

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

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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