Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Supplement Hours" (1891)
Author:
Round, Phillip H.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Found among Whitman's papers after his death, "Supplement Hours" became a part of the posthumous "Old Age Echoes" annex to Leaves of Grass. Manuscript evidence suggests that Whitman reworked this poem several times, trying out a number of different titles, such as "Notes as the wild Bee hums," "A September Supplement," and "Latter-time Hours of a half-paralytic."

In this poem of reconciliation with old age and the passage of time, Whitman displaces the exuberant self of his earlier poetry for the tranquil present of individual contemplative moments. The poem's focus, as Whitman's final title selection suggests, is upon the natural "hours" that mark the passing observations of a consciousness which yet rests in the "[s]ane" experience of things in "themselves." The tone Whitman develops here as he observes the yearly round of insects, fields, and seasons is reminiscent of the mood he developed in the nature pieces of Specimen Days and reflects a continuation of one of his favorite themes—the movement away from books and into nature. The fourth line of this poem in fact echoes a similar line in Whitman's "A Clear Midnight."

The poem's sense of homecoming, of the returning of natural objects to their right places, is complicated by the autobiographical irony Whitman develops in the disjunction between his own "half-paralytic" body and his "sane" poetic consciousness. In a sense, the poem points to the cerebral ecstasy he has learned to appreciate as his earlier and more celebrated bodily ecstasy wanes. The poem's final images expand this celebration of contemplative tranquility outward to encompass the entire universe. An almost Ptolemaic cosmos emerges in which the stars "roll round" the speaker. The concluding line's assertion of silence represents a gentle reconciliation of the "barbaric yawp" of the poet's youth ("Song of Myself," section 52) to the poetic cadences of old age, here enunciated in the sibilance of "silent sun and stars." It may have been this sort of residual sound that Whitman thought of when he gave his literary executors the title, "Old Age Echoes," for this annex. As Whitman wished the whole annex would, the sonorous final line of "Supplement Hours" exhibits "echoes of things, reverberant, an aftermath" (Whitman 575).

Bibliography

Traubel, Horace. "An Executor's Diary Note, 1891." Complete Poetry and Selected Prose. By Walt Whitman. Ed. James E. Miller, Jr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959. 385.

Stauffer, Donald Barlow. "Teaching Whitman's Old-Age Poems." Approaches to Teaching Whitman's "Leaves of Grass." Ed. Donald D. Kummings. New York: MLA, 1990. 105–111.

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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