Selected Criticism

"Year of Meteors (1859–60)" (1865)
Oates, David
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem first appeared in the separate volume Drum-Taps in 1865, which Whitman appended to the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass. "Year of Meteors" moved into a "Leaves of Grass" cluster in later editions until 1881, when Whitman finalized its placement in "Birds of Passage."

The poem memorializes a remarkable year for the nation and for Whitman himself, apparently December 1859 to November 1860, the last year before the war. It catalogues events which portend good or ill: the election of Lincoln and the execution of abolitionist zealot John Brown; the census of 1860, with its revelation of American commercial might and its tabulation of immigrants; and public sensations of that year in New York—the first-ever visit of British royalty, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), in October and the June arrival of the steamship Great Eastern, largest in the world. First and last the poem alludes to the "comets and meteors" of 1860, celestial omens "all mottled with evil and good." In the last lines, Whitman personalizes the significance of this year, asking "what is this book, / What am I myself but one of your meteors?" (1865 Drum-Taps).

Thus, biographical and artistic events for Whitman may provide underlying motive for this poem. Whitman was working on "Year of Meteors" in 1860, soon after the third edition was published by Thayer and Eldridge. His new publishers launched Leaves of Grass with highly promising intentions and publicity, while with Whitman they planned a new volume; yet by the end of the year they were out of business, the new project abandoned, and Whitman's book in the hands of an unfriendly house. Nevertheless the third edition itself was, to Whitman, the most satisfactory yet. It included the personal and poetic breakthrough of the "Calamus" poems, which are probably the resolution of what Whitman called his "slough" of depression in 1858–1859.

Whitman's 1860 mood can be seen in lines later removed from "Year," which display a more personal and eroticized response to the Prince of Wales: "I know not why, but I loved you" (1865 Drum-Taps). But the poem as a whole alternates uneasily between a declamatory public voice and this more confessional one.

The mixed portents of this year 1859–1860, in perspective from five years later, signaled Whitman's breakthroughs, disappointments, Civil War silence, and resumption of publishing with the once-abandoned project that became Drum-Taps.


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

Greenspan, Ezra. Walt Whitman and the American Reader. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990.

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


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