Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"When I Heard at the Close of the Day" (1860)
Author:
Raleigh, Richard
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Published initially as "Calamus" poem number 11 in the 1860 edition of Leaves, "When I Heard at the Close of the Day" was given its present title in 1867. "When I Heard" was originally the third in a series of twelve poems entitled "Live Oak with Moss" which Whitman copied into a notebook in the spring of 1859.

In his notes Whitman referred to the "Calamus" poems as being in the style of sonnets, and "When I Heard" is perhaps the best example of this. Though not in iambic pentameter, and without rhyme and stanzaic pattern, the poem has a structure similar to that of the sonnet, with thirteen lines of similar length, and a transition from sadness to joy. Indeed, the poem might be regarded as an inverted Italian sonnet, with the transition announced by the "But" at the beginning of the third line and coming to full closure in the final line of the opening sestet. The shortened "octave" then narrates the activities of the three days that separate the speaker from the meeting with his "lover."

Gay Wilson Allen and Charles T. Davis suggest that the "plaudits in the capitol" of the first line of the poem might be a reference to a review of Leaves published in the Washington, D.C., National Intelligencer of 18 February 1856. The happiness enters when the setting moves from the capitol, with all of its regulations, to the beach, where the speaker bathes in the sea and watches the sun rise and thinks how "my dear friend my lover was on his way coming." The rippling rhythmical lines that follow build to a climax, with the speaker sleeping with his lover on the beach "under the same cover in the cool night," as nature, in the form of the rolling waters, congratulates him. One of the finest love poems in all of American literature, "When I Heard" is skillful, candid, and tender—with Whitman at his happiest.

Bibliography

Greenspan, Ezra. Walt Whitman and the American Reader. New York: Cambridge UP, 1990.

Helms, Alan. "Whitman's 'Live Oak with Moss.'" The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Ed. Robert K. Martin. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992. 185–205.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

Whitman, Walt. Walt Whitman's Poems. Ed. Gay Wilson Allen and Charles T. Davis. New York: New York UP, 1955.


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