Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To Soar in Freedom and in Fullness of Power" (1897)
Author:
Faries, Nathan C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Written in 1890 or 1891, "To Soar in Freedom and in Fullness of Power" was first published in Leaves of Grass in the posthumous tenth edition of 1897–1898. "To Soar" is the first in a group of thirteen poems added to Leaves as a third annex. Horace Traubel, one of Whitman's three literary executors, prefaces the 1897 addendum with a conversation in which Whitman apparently authorizes and names this third annex "Old Age Echoes." However, the conversation is ambiguous, and many editors exclude the entire annex from their editions of Leaves, considering the 1891–1892 edition to be the final, authorized version.

The two sentences of "To Soar" were transcribed directly from a two-page, unpublished prose fragment entitled "My Poetry is more the Poetry of Sight than Sound." This title gives some hints at a theme for the poem. In "To Soar" Whitman challenges the tradition of poetry as bard-song or bird-song and chooses rather a visual ("more sight than sound") or experiential (flights, broad circles, soaring) metaphor for a poet's work. Whitman seeks a new metaphor for a new poetry for a New World.

Many critics hold that Whitman's best poetry had already been written several decades before his death, so these final poems are largely, and perhaps unjustly, ignored. These five lines obviously belong in any study of birds in Whitman, and the poem houses those ubiquitous Whitman boarders, the neat Psalmic parallelism and contrast. The fact that "To Soar" was part of a possible prose preface to "Echoes" suggests the poem as a guide to reading the entire third annex. It may also be helpful to consider the poem a retrospective work, a piece to be read in conjunction with Whitman's essay entitled "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads" (1888).

Bibliography

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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