Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Sands at Seventy" (First Annex) (1888)
Author:
Stauffer, Donald Barlow
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This collection of sixty-five poems, along with selected prose pieces, including "A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads," first appeared in the book entitled November Boughs. The poems were bound into the 1888 reprint of Leaves of Grass as an annex, and appeared again in the 1889 reprint. In the 1891–1892 edition the collection is introduced by a separate title page which reads: "ANNEX / TO PRECEDING PAGES. / SANDS AT SEVENTY. / Copyright, 1888, by Walt Whitman. / (See 'NOVEMBER BOUGHS')."

This "First Annex" (the Second Annex contains poems from a previously published miscellany entitled Good-Bye My Fancy [1891]) includes poems written after 1881 and published in newspapers or periodicals, many of them in the New York Herald. In the years from 1860 to 1881 Whitman had revised, added, excluded, and rearranged the poems of Leaves of Grass to make up what he came to think of as a single poem reflecting the chronological experience of the "average" man whose life spanned the nineteenth century. Because he felt that poems published after 1881 would detract from his carefully worked-out thematic unity he chose to distinguish these two groups of poems in bound editions of Leaves of Grass as "annexes" (the 1881 edition concludes with the section called "Songs of Parting," the last poem of which is "So Long!").

The dominant themes of the collection are old age and death, but there are a number of occasional poems on such subjects as Election Day 1884, the death of General Ulysses S. Grant, the burial of the famous Iroquois chief Red Jacket, the Washington Monument, the death of an operatic tenor, and John Greenleaf Whittier's eightieth birthday. Many poems reflect his conflicting feelings about maintaining a positive outlook in the face of his increasing infirmities. Talking to Traubel about the subject matter of these poems, Whitman said, "Of my personal ailments, of sickness as an element, I never spoke a word until the first of the poems I call Sands at Seventy were written, and then some expression of invalidism seemed to be called for" (Traubel 234). He realized that if he were to be true to his own stated goal of reflecting the life of an old man in his poems he had to include references to his sickness and invalidism, since they had become so much a part of his life. In writing about his own aging he remained faithful to his purpose to record as accurately as he could what he himself experienced. "Queries to My Seventieth Year" reveals some of the ambiguous feelings he has about the year to come. In "A Carol Closing Sixty-Nine" he is happy to be still alive, "the jocund heart yet beating in my breast." "The Dismantled Ship" describes an "old, dismasted, gray and batter'd ship" that "[l]ies rusting, mouldering" in a poem whose tone recalls that of the "batter'd, wreck'd old man" of "Prayer of Columbus," written in 1874, about a year after Whitman had suffered his first paralytic stroke. In "As I Sit Writing Here" he writes, "Not my least burden is that dulness of the years, querilities, / Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui, / May filter in my daily songs."

Poems about the negative aspects of his illness and aging are countered by poems like "Halcyon Days," "Thanks in Old Age," and "Old Age's Lambent Peaks," which celebrate their positive aspects: his memories, his heightened appreciation and understanding of life, and his spiritual serenity.

A notable feature of the "Sands at Seventy" annex is the group of eight poems entitled "Fancies at Navesink." Like the "Sea-Drift" cluster, compiled for the 1881 edition, their unifying theme is Whitman's love of the sea. From the vantage point of the Atlantic highlands on the New Jersey coast Whitman contemplates and addresses the sea: the rhythms of the waves and the tides, and their relationship to his own poetic rhythms, his mystical vision and the cycle of life.

The collection concludes with "After the Supper and Talk," containing a typical upbeat self-characterization in the context of a "last supper," at the end of which he turns in the exit door to say farewell to his friends, "garrulous to the very last."

Bibliography

Fillard, Claudette. "Le vannier de Camden: Vieillesse, Poésie, et les Annexes de Leaves of Grass." Études Anglaises 45 (1992): 311–323.

Stauffer, Donald Barlow. "Walt Whitman and Old Age." Walt Whitman Review 24 (1978): 144–148.

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 2. New York: Appleton, 1908.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1980.


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