Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
Time
Author:
Matteson, John T.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

The concept of time held mystical significance for Walt Whitman, and his poetry represents time not merely as an adversary with which the poet must contend but also a vast force with which the soul may merge itself to achieve peace and transcendence. In the Preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass, Whitman observes that the poet who seeks to bring the spirit of events home to the reader is compelled "to compete with the laws that pursue and follow time" (13). Through the work of the great poet, Whitman continues, "Past and present and future are not disjoined but joined. The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is . . . [H]e places himself where the future becomes present" (13). In "Starting from Paumanok," Whitman promises to "thread a thread through my poems that time and events are compact" (section 12). For Whitman, the problem is at least twofold: How does a person confront time as an emblem of mortality, and how does a poet conquer time by making his poetry pertinent to unborn generations? In response to these challenges, Whitman's poetry strives in general to show time not as a succession of moments trisected into past, present, and future, but as a single sublime unity that comprehends all experience in an eternal "now." Whitman achieves this appearance of unity through a number of devices. He describes states of mystical awareness in which the restraints of time are transcended; he propounds a theory of cyclical biological renewal in which individual bits of matter may change but the cosmos remains unchanged, and he uses rhetorical structures to imply that the experiences and feelings of the poet are one with those of future readers.

In the 1855 and 1856 editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman's meditations on time emphasize natural cycles as an emblem of the eternal now and propose the text of the poem itself as a place where writer and reader may interact outside the constraints of time. The former idea is prominent in the untitled 1855 poem that later became "To Think of Time." Whitman begins by supposing that the reader is troubled by the passage of time and the prospect of death:


Have you guessed you yourself would not continue? Have you dreaded those earth-beetles?
Have you feared the future would be nothing to you?

(1855 Leaves)

Whitman answers this disquieting thought by observing that nature will be felt in the same way by future generations and that, therefore, there is a constancy to human experience that transcends time:


To think that the rivers will come to flow, and the snow fall, and fruits ripen . . and act upon others as upon
      us now . . . . yet not act upon us;

To think of all these wonders of city and country . . . and others taking great interest in them . . and we taking
      small interest in them.

(1855 Leaves)

The poet proceeds to suggest that whereas individual lives may pass away, the matter and processes that build, destroy, and rebuild life will endure forever, and that this cyclicality in some sense makes illusions of time and death:


The vegetables and minerals are all perfect . . and the imponderable fluids are perfect;
Slowly and surely they have passed on to this, and slowly and surely they will yet pass on.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I swear I see now that every thing has an eternal soul!
The trees have, rooted in the ground . . . . weeds of the sea have . . . . the animals.
I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!

(1855 Leaves)

Whitman voices a similar but more carefully elaborated vision of eternity in the 1856 poem later entitled "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." The voyage of the ferry is itself a metaphor both for the apparent passage of time and for its circular repetitions. Continually crossing and recrossing, the boat and its passengers are both static and in motion, just as for Whitman time both moves forward and repeats itself. Accentuating the circularity of time, the poet observes that the sun that is now "half an hour high" (section 1) will appear in the same position "[f]ifty years hence" (section 2). As in "To Think of Time," Whitman elides the passage of years by stating that his perceptions will be repeated by those who will follow him: "Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried" (section 3). Whitman further accentuates the unity of past, present, and future by his subtle use of verb tenses. In the second section of the poem, Whitman's perceptions are related in the present tense, and those of generations to come are set in the future tense. In the third section, however, the poet's experiences are in the past tense and those of his future readers are in the present tense. Moreover, when, in this section, Whitman shifts his own moment to the past, his descriptions of what he sees are spangled with a series of present participles, preserving a sense of ongoing progression within seemingly past recollection. Within this carefully constructed frame of shared experiences and meticulously modulated verb forms, Whitman asserts his view that "It avails not, time nor place—distance avails not" (section 3).

In later poems, Whitman continues to suggest that the passage of time is somehow an illusion. In these works, however, the triumph over time and mortality is less likely to arise out of biological theories of regeneration or litanies of experiences shared between generations. As Whitman's career moves forward, he comes to view the mastering of time as the result of a mystical expansion of the soul. In "Chanting the Square Deific" (1865–1866), a poem about participation in divine being, Whitman implies that the great soul does not resist time but becomes one with it. He writes, "Not Time affects me—I am Time, old, modern as any" (section 1). In "Passage to India," Whitman again affirms the power of the soul both to transcend and to ally itself with time:


Swiftly I shrivel at the thought of God,
At Nature and its wonders, Time and Space and Death,
But that I, turning, call to thee O soul, thou actual Me,
And lo, thou gently masterest the orbs,
Thou matest Time, smilest content at Death,
And fillest, swellest full the vastnesses of Space.

(section 8)

Although Whitman never attempted a precise elaboration of his concept of time, his poetry plainly suggests that time should not be considered as a line, but perhaps as a circle, or, better still, as a single, ubiquitous point. Whitman observes that people of all times share the same biological origins and the same feelings and experiences and that the individual soul has the mystical power to absorb, "mate," and merge itself into time. Whitman thus suggests that, to both sense and spirit, the present is eternal.

Bibliography

Kagle, Steven. "Time as a Dimension in Whitman." American Transcendental Quarterly 12 (1971): 55–60.

McGhee, Richard D. "Concepts of Time in Whitman's Poetry." Walt Whitman Review 15 (1969): 76–85.

Orlov, Paul A. "On Time and Form in Whitman's 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 2.1 (1984): 12–21.

Poulet, George. "Whitman." Studies in Human Time. Trans. Elliott Coleman. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1956. 342–345.

Whitman, Walt. 1855 Preface. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 4–26.


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