Selected Criticism

"To Think of Time" (1855)
Kahn, Sholom J.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

In the first edition of Leaves of Grass, this important poem (now neglected) appeared between "A Song for Occupations" and "The Sleepers." The pioneer biographers (especially Asselineau), concerned with Whitman's early explorations of "problems" of evil and death (1855–1860), gave it prominence. Allen writes: "If Walt Whitman has a major theme, this is it, in 1855 and later" (Walt Whitman 79). Originally untitled, it was named "Burial Poem" in 1856, became "Burial" in 1860 and 1867, and "To Think of Time" in 1872.

In the final edition of Leaves, this poem concludes the "Autumn Rivulets" cluster. In his Critical Guide Miller shows how—"without central symbol or metaphor"—it contributes, together with other major poems, to the transition to "Whispers of Heavenly Death," "bridg[ing] the way 'from Life to Death'" (237). However, Miller's unfavorable evaluation of the poem is unfair. "To Think of Time" is broadly representative of the early Whitman and has many realistic and symbolic links to other early poems: the "old stagedriver" to "Occupations," river and sea passages to "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," and so forth. Its strong central metaphor-idea is the flow of time towards death and immortality.

Allen and Davis (1955) describe it well: its thoughts and "factual details" make a structure that "logically builds up" to Whitman's conclusion; its effects range from implicit ironies that yield to "flow" and heavenly transcendence; its pattern is systematic (150). Furthermore, in content and language "To Think of Time" exhibits qualities that place it among Whitman's best. Two parts are especially vivid: the deathbed scene (section 2) and the funeral scenes (section 4). As a whole, this is a metaphysical poem, with subtle ironies conveyed by quiet wit and even humor: "The living look upon the corpse with their eyesight, / But without eyesight lingers a different living [spirit] and looks curiously on the corpse" (section 2). Section 8 contains a powerful list of people who are "not nothing" (an attractive double negative), and in "Do you think I could walk pleasantly and well-suited toward annihilation?" there may be a pun in "well-suited."

This poem earns its emphatic conclusion: "I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!" (section 9). Beginning with penetrating questions (somewhat as in "This Compost")—"Have you dreaded those earth-beetles?" (section 1)—it develops persuasive answers. Though the "black lines" of burial (section 3) do indeed "stand out starkly," as Miller points out, the rest is far from the "paleness" he feels characterizes the poem as a whole (238), and the reader comes to believe with the poet that "We must have the indestructible breed of the best, regardless of time" (section 8, 1855 Leaves)—that is, immortality.

Finally, as an effective American treatment of an ancient theme, this poem helps establish Whitman as a precursor of modernism. Wyndham Lewis made the connection (1927), emphasizing not "thought," however, but immersion in nature, history, and life (his example is Specimen Days): "Whitman was . . . its earliest professor" (368). Whitman's broodings on time and humanity produced rich results, of which "To Think of Time" is a metaphysical epitome.


Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman. 1961. Rev. ed. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1969.

Allen, Gay Wilson,and Charles T. Davis, eds. Walt Whitman's Poems. New York: New York UP, 1955.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960–1962.

Kahn, Sholom J. "Whitman's Wit and Wisdom." Essays in Honour of A.A. Mendilow. Hebrew University Studies in Literature. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1982. 268–286.

Lewis, Wyndham. Time and Western Man. 1927. Boston: Beacon, 1957.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.


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