Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To the Sun-Set Breeze" (1890)
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.

"To the Sun-Set Breeze" was first published in Lippincott's Magazine in December of 1890 and included in the second annex, "Good-Bye my Fancy," in the 1891–1892 edition of Leaves of Grass.

While many readers have dismissed the poems of Whitman's later years, a major poet, Ezra Pound, singled out this very late one as representing Whitman's best artistry: "And yet if a man has written lines like Whitman's 'To the Sunset Breeze' one has to love him. I think we have not yet paid enough attention to the deliberate artistry of the man, not in details but in the large" (qtd. in Bergman 60).

The poet describes himself: "Me, old, alone, sick, weak-down, melted-worn with sweat" and the relief he gains one hot day from a late breeze, which he speaks to as if alive. In fact he addresses the breeze (as "thou" or its variants) twelve times during the sixteen lines, an archaic device that would appear ludicrous here in a lesser poet. Later he attributes divinity to the breeze, broadening its origins and influence, without, characteristically, letting go of its material attributes: "For thou art spiritual, Godly, most of all known to my sense." The earlier images are highly sensual, appropriately stressing the tactile, for which Whitman's verse is well known, as in line 7: "So sweet thy primitive taste to breathe within—thy soothing fingers on my face and hands."

But the kinesthetic sense is seldom celebrated for its own sake in Whitman. Throughout this poem the cooling breeze is given mystical and symbolic stature. At the end, in a cross between doubt and faith, he asks: "Hast thou no soul? Can I not know, identify thee?" Yet he has already established the breeze as curative, spiritual, and emanating from the world of his dead companions, the other vast world, God's world, inscrutable but benign. His final questions, then, are probably rhetorical; yes, the breeze does have a soul, and, yes, he can identify it.

For a more extensive analysis of this important poem, see "Whitman and the Correspondent Breeze," by Dwight Kalita, who connects it to the poems of other romantic poets, notably William Wordsworth.

Bibliography

Bergman, Herbert. "Ezra Pound and Walt Whitman." American Literature 27 (1955): 56–61.

Kalita, Dwight. "Whitman and the Correspondent Breeze." Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 125–130.

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.


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