Selected Criticism

"Songs of Parting" (1871)
Rieke, Susan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Songs of Parting" stands prominently as the final cluster in Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, but the sense of conclusion appears in the 1860 edition (before this cluster was formed) with its final poem "So Long!," a poem that comes into "Songs of Parting" in 1871 and remains through the 1881 edition. The 1867 edition uses the title Songs Before Parting for a separate book of poems bound with Leaves and Drum-Taps, and in 1871 "Songs of Parting" appears as a cluster in Leaves. As the cluster takes shape through the editions, the imminence of departure, farewell, and death becomes apparent in 1871, especially with the addition of the Civil War poems. Little critical material exists concerning this cluster although one often finds discussions of "Song at Sunset" and "So Long!"

In the seventeen poems of the 1881 edition, there is a cohesive, psychological development beginning with the somber, oppressive tone in "As Time Draws Nigh" to soaring exhilaration in "Song at Sunset" with its ecstatic "Wonderful to depart! / Wonderful to be here!" After that climactic, contradictory utterance, the cluster moves calmly toward the farewell in "So Long!" In this arbitrarily-chosen pattern, it is after the pitch of "Song at Sunset" that Whitman inserts two poems (the only two written for this cluster) that deal with specific deaths: "As at Thy Portals Also Death," an elegy for his mother, and "The Sobbing of the Bells," a poem for the recently assassinated President James Garfield.

These two poems and the Civil War poems make death a dominant subject of the cluster. Whitman's approach is ambivalent and contradictory: death is a conclusion, a delivery from life, and a fulfillment; it is at once terrible and terrifying, beautiful and enticing. Death entices in that its fulfillment leads to a consideration of an afterlife, and it is associated with the sea. In "Joy, Shipmate, Joy!," the speaker says, "Our life is closed, our life begins"; and as the ship loses its anchorage, it "leaps" away from the shore. Excitement is evident in this poem but is absent from another, "Now Finalè to the Shore," as the speaker peacefully takes leave of those he loves and departs upon an "endless cruise."

Faced with the horror of death in this cluster, Whitman works to undermine death's power and his pessimistic emotions. He sees in the earth's beauty that "not an atom be lost" in "Pensive on Her Dead Gazing"; he envisions America's democracy and its future in "Years of the Modern" and "Thoughts"; and, finally, he leaves his poetry to his readers in "So Long!" Whitman constructs three futures or ways to subvert death: in the earth's beauty of which his body will be a part, in the ideals of democracy which are prominent in earlier poems, and in his eternal wooing of readers in and with his poetry.

In "Songs of Parting," Whitman reveals his conflicting attitudes toward death, a reality he had been conscious of since 1860 in that "delicious word death" in "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking." In its final form, this cluster exhibits familiar echoes of other parts of Leaves of Grass in the Civil War poems, Whitman's belief and disbelief in democracy, his love of his readers, and his belief in the power of poetry.


Allen, Gay Wilson. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Carlisle, E. Fred. The Uncertain Self: Whitman's Drama of Identity. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1973.

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

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

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Miller, James E., Jr. Walt Whitman. New York: Twayne, 1962.


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.