Selected Criticism

"One Hour to Madness and Joy" (1860)
Duggar, Margaret H.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"One Hour to Madness and Joy" was the sixth poem in "Enfans d'Adam," later called "Children of Adam," added to the greatly expanded 1860 Leaves of Grass along with the "Calamus" poems. It is the climactic poem of the group, a position it retained in successive editions. The words that became the title were added to the first line in 1867, three lines were dropped, and the poem altered very little after that. It is preceded by poems establishing the chastity and importance of the sexual impulse and followed by poems assimilating the ecstatic experience celebrated in "One Hour."

"One Hour" conveys the erotic charge impelling cosmic forces that combine in inevitable acts of creation in Whitman's universe: body and soul to create the self, earth and sun to create the natural world, reader and poet to regenerate culture. The transports of sexual ecstasy celebrated in the poem are a powerful metaphor for the moments of transcendent self-awareness achieved in the adventure of self-realization enacted in all of Whitman's poetry, particularly in "Song of Myself."

The union of mythic progenitors, Adam and Eve, recounted in "One Hour" by the line "O to return to Paradise!," recapitulates the union of the "earth by the sky staid with" in section 24 of "Song of Myself." In working notes, cited in Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition, Whitman postulates a "fiery" Adam (90), and he begins "Children of Adam" with the male lover "anew ascending" and ends the cluster with the hero "Facing west from California's shores." "One Hour" is the ecstatic apex of that progress which generates consciousness through the union of body and soul just as sunlight creates the visible world when it illuminates darkened matter. Similarly, the democratic poet is the "one complete lover" of the "known universe," Whitman says in the 1855 Preface (Whitman 715), and gives readers self-definition like "the sun falling around a helpless thing" (713).

Some critics have characterized the "Adam" poems, including "One Hour," as bombastic posturing, devoid of conviction. However, the sexual union celebrated in "One Hour" is mythic, not personal, and the perhaps unconvincing "mystic deliria" reflects the difficulty of achieving heroic language in modern times. The poem itself may lack dramatic tension, but in context it is part of a process of self-realization in which the anxiety of self-surrender—the need "to be yielded" "in defiance of the world"—must be overcome and the pain of leave-taking endured, as the poems following "One Hour" indicate.


Aspiz, Harold. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980.

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

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

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

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


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