Selected Criticism

"Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances" (1860)
Mattausch, Dena
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances," one of the most significant of Whitman's philosophic poems, first appeared as "Calamus" number 7 in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass. The poem was given its present title in 1867. As is the case with nearly all of the "Calamus" poems, the year of composition of "Terrible Doubt" cannot be stated with confidence, but it is likely Whitman wrote it sometime between 1856 and 1860. While some "Calamus" poems were deleted from subsequent editions of Leaves, "Terrible Doubt" survived virtually unchanged through the 1892 Deathbed edition. Interestingly, in his revisions for the 1860 edition, Whitman deleted the poem's syntactically involved ninth line, then decided to let it stand.

In "Terrible Doubt" the same themes of attachment, crisis, and renunciation found in the other "Calamus" poems take on powerful form. As the "Calamus" poems show, Whitman's definitive optimism was not free from crises, and "Terrible Doubt" begins as a meditation on the uncertainties of existence. Reliance and hope are suspected of being merely "speculations," immortality "a beautiful fable only," and the phenomenal world "only apparitions." His questioning becomes terrifying as the speaker conceives of a dark and meaningless universe in which his very identity seems imperiled. Just when all seems lost, he is redeemed by the miracle of a touch: "He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me." Only the experience of love can confirm reality. The speaker's newfound wisdom is an intuitive knowledge, beyond reason and verbal expression. In consequence, the world must be accepted, and therefore effectively renounced, as being of unreliable and perhaps unredeemable character. As in Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach," one must seek in personal relationships the assurance the world cannot provide.

"Terrible Doubt" echoes the philosophy of other "Calamus" poems, perhaps most closely "Scented Herbage of My Breast," in which the "real reality" is contrasted with "these shifting forms of life." In "Herbage" as well, it is love that verifies reality.


Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Knapp, Bettina L. Walt Whitman. New York: Continuum, 1993.

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. New York: New York UP, 1968.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.

____. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.


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