Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Whispers of Heavenly Death" (cluster) (1871)
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.

Originally a cluster of thirteen poems, "Whispers of Heavenly Death" was first incorporated under its present title in the supplement Passage to India (1871). It was added to Leaves of Grass in 1881 with five more poems written between 1856 and 1871 for a total of eighteen poems. The cluster is a statement about the transcendence of death, death as a beginning rather than an end—a typical theme for Whitman since 1855, when he wrote in "Song of Myself," "Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? / I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die . . ." (section 7).

The cluster's main theme explains its position in Leaves of Grass. Following the cluster "Autumn Rivulets," "Whispers" addresses the winter of life, when death is imminent. As Betsy Erkkila sees these final sections of Leaves of Grass, they progress not only through the stages of life; they move from material to spiritual concerns of existence. They also incorporate poems written at various times in Whitman's career to offer a sense of unity, closure, and grand design.

The design of "Whispers" itself reflects the psychological and spiritual reconciliations to death and demonstrates the artfulness of the cluster. While the cluster moves constantly toward the moment of death, the poet's emotional mood ebbs and flows as he adjusts to the inevitability of death.

The first four poems establish the essential themes and lyrical quality of the cluster in a quiet, but celebratory, tone. "Darest Thou Now O Soul" introduces the journey of the soul into the "unknown region" of death, where without body the soul is unbounded and free in time and space. The second and title poem of the cluster lyrically clarifies just how near the subject is to death, so near that death's whisper is audible. "Chanting the Square Deific" then characterizes the pervasive spirituality of the cosmos. "Of Him I Love Day and Night" laments the death of a loved one, but emphasizes the sense of satisfaction, even in the presence of death.

An emotional ebb, "Yet, Yet, Ye Downcast Hours" and "As if a Phantom Caress'd Me," displays the desire to escape death and that desire's resulting isolation and paranoia. These poems, however, are followed by the flood tide of "Assurances" and "Quicksand Years," which assert faith in the power of the soul, the greatness of death, and the certainty that at the end of life "One's-Self" will remain.

A series of short, lyrical poems then creates congenial imagery. "That Music Always Round Me" associates death with beauty, emotional pleasantness, and the fulfillment of a cosmically pervasive harmony. Reflecting the transcendent imagery of "Passage to India," "What Ship Puzzled at Sea" offers the "most perfect pilot" to give sure direction on the spiritual journey. "A Noiseless Patient Spider" presents the hope of the soul's casting into the "vacant" vastness until it connects to something, as it certainly will. "O Living Always, Always Dying" again implies nautical imagery as the soul casts off bodily existence in order to pass to the afterlife.

The last six poems speak directly about the transition from life to death. In "To One Shortly to Die" death speaks to a person he is claiming, and while death's inevitability is clear, he approaches softly and invitingly. In "Night on the Prairies" the poet, looking to the heavens, is assured that in passing to death new knowledge unavailable in life will be exhibited. Death thus becomes a continuation and fulfillment. A last brief ebb in the psychological adjustment to death, "Thought" questions whether souls are "drown'd and destroy'd." It also begins to unite images from other poems in the cluster: the first line recalls the supper of "Night on the Prairies" and the music of "That Music Always Round Me"; the rest of the poem reasserts the metaphor of the journey and the imagery of sailing. "The Last Invocation" quickly returns to an optimistic tone and echoes the "noiseless[ness]" of the spider as the speaker asks for release from his body and for continuance of his soul. "As I Watch'd the Ploughman Ploughing" presents the concluding, if stock, analogy of life and death to tilling and harvesting, respectively. Thus, it implies both the fulfilling and cyclical quality of death. Finally, "Pensive and Faltering" asserts that the dead might be the real living souls and the living body the "apparition."

The cluster is a highly crafted poetic design of interwoven themes, tones, and images. This design nicely complements its subject—the quiet, beautiful, assuring, and infinite nature of death.

Bibliography

Blodgett, Harold W. "Whitman's Whisperings." Walt Whitman Review 8 (1962): 12–16.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Ledbetter, J.T. "Whitman's Power in the Short Poem: A Discussion of 'Whispers of Heavenly Death.'" Walt Whitman Review 21 (1975): 155–158.

Megna, B. Christian. "Sociality and Seclusion in the Poetry of Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Review 17 (1971): 55–57.

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


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.