Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Whispers of Heavenly Death" (1868)
Author:
Olson, Steven
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in the English Broadway Magazine (October 1868), the poem "Whispers of Heavenly Death" was later included in the cluster of the same name in the supplement Passage to India (1871). Essentially unchanged since its first printing, it was included as the second poem of the cluster "Whispers of Heavenly Death" in Leaves of Grass (1881), where it remained. Whitman sent it to the Broadway in response to that magazine's request of December 1867 for some prose or poetry by him. He was paid ten pounds in gold (fifty dollars) for the poem.

As the title poem of the cluster, "Whispers" sounds the section's main themes, and its quiet tone echoes its gentle acknowledgment of approaching death. Though death is not fully understood, because not completely heard, by the speaker, its approach is auspicious rather than ominous: this characterization is connoted by the images in the opening four lines, which suggest pleasant choruses, a walking journey upward, soft breezes, and flowing tides. Line 5 adds a note of sorrow in its reference to human tears.

The second stanza continues on this somber note, acknowledging the mournfulness and sadness of death. But the third (and final) stanza introduces the idea that approaching death is in fact a rebirth, a new "frontier."

While the essential statement of the poem is a cliché, the poem's beauty is in its quiet and controlled treatment of the subject. An immediate implication of order and control is suggested in the three stanzas because of their visible length—the first one is five lines long, the second is four lines, and the third is three. Furthermore, the sounds and rhythms do not simply produce an actual whisper when the poem is read aloud; they produce a soothing and flowing quality, perfectly matching the attitude of the speaker and the connotations of the images. Consonants are primarily continuants, and vowels tend to be medium to low register. In the first line, for example, of twenty consonant sounds, only three are stops; of twelve vowel sounds, only three are in the upper register. Though these proportions do not continue throughout the poem, the first line sets the tone and emphasizes the aural quality. Additionally, the fluidity of the present participles and the implied movement in the images of breezes, water, and clouds add to the artistry of this poem. Like "A Noiseless Patient Spider," "Cavalry Crossing a Ford," and "The Dalliance of the Eagles," "Whispers" shows Whitman's ability to compose highly crafted poems, and his ability to work in a compact poetic medium something like that of his contemporary Emily Dickinson.

Bibliography

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

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1961–1977.

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


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