Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song of Prudence" (1856)
Author:
Barton, Gay
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Song of Prudence" first appeared in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass as "Poem of The Last Explanation of Prudence." It is a sometimes verbatim poetic transcription of paragraph 22 of the 1855 Preface. In the 1860 edition of Leaves the poem appeared as number 5 in the "Leaves of Grass" cluster and in 1867 and 1871 as "Manhattan's Streets I Saunter'd, Pondering." It took its final title in the 1881 edition, where it was incorporated into the newly created cluster, "Autumn Rivulets."

The key idea in "Song of Prudence" is that everything a person does, says, or thinks "is of consequence." The consequences of actions are significant both temporally and metaphysically; what is done today reverberates forever, and what the body does affects the soul. Therefore the prudence the poet espouses is "the prudence that suits immortality." Whitman plays with the conventional meaning of the word "prudence" by employing the vocabulary of finance—good actions are the only worthwhile "investments," whoever is wise "receives interest," and the grand deeds of the past are what we "inherit."

Yet Whitman's concept of prudence is not conventional. The Preface spends several sentences elaborating the contrast between the poet's "higher notions of prudence" and ordinary "caution." The kind of prudence which would entice beings capable of divinity into wasting their lives on mere moneymaking is a "fraud" (Whitman 20–21). Although the poem omits most of the discussion of this contrast, it does make clear that genuine prudence is quite different from what is usually thought: the "young man who composedly peril'd his life and lost it" has been more truly prudent than the careful man who lives "to old age in riches and ease" without noble deeds.

The middle section of the poem consists of a catalogue of good actions—those involving love, honesty, nobility of mind—which constitute worthy investments for the soul. Yet it is not good actions only which accrue immortal "interest." Each "venereal sore, discoloration, privacy of the onanist, / Putridity of gluttons or rum-drinkers, peculation, cunning, betrayal, murder, seduction, prostitution" will have its eternal consequence. This list of vices raises the issue of one of Whitman's often discussed contradictions; in a number of passages he accepts every kind of person, but in others rejects the corrupt, a contradiction especially apparent in sections 2 and 10 of "Song of the Open Road." David Reynolds suggests that the moralizing passages in "Open Road" and "Prudence" are simply carryovers from the language of moral reform which had characterized Whitman's early journalism. Compared with its source, the poem deemphasizes the negative. The Preface includes a much longer catalogue of evils whose "interest will come round" (22).

Prudence was one of the qualities attributed to Whitman by the phrenologist Fowler, but the poet redefines the word (which Fowler equated with "cautiousness" and "provision") in terms reminiscent of Ralph Waldo Emerson's more metaphysical definition. The poem's concept of moral retribution may also be influenced by Emerson's "Compensation" or by the law of karma. Another possible influence on the poem may be the teachings of Stoicism.

A number of critics feel that the "Autumn Rivulets" cluster represents a transition between the past (especially the Civil War crisis depicted in the preceding "Drum-Taps" poems) and the future. Paul Lizotte notes that while other poems in the cluster address the relationship of past to future for the individual or for historical humanity, "Song of Prudence" examines such a relationship in terms of the soul.

Bibliography

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Giantvalley, Scott. Walt Whitman, 1838–1939: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1981.

Kummings, Donald D. Walt Whitman, 1940–1975: A Reference Guide. Boston: Hall, 1982.

Lizotte, Paul A. "'Time's Accumulations to Justify the Past': Whitman's Evolving Structure in 'Autumn Rivulets.'" ESQ 26 (1980): 137–148.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Weathers, Willie T. "Whitman's Poetic Translations of His 1855 Preface." American Literature 19 (1947): 21–40.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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