So Long! Walt Whitman's Poetry of Deathby Harold Aspiz
Walt Whitman is unquestionably a great poet of the joys of living. But, as Harold Aspiz demonstrates in this study, concerns with death and dying define Whitman’s career as thinker, poet, and person. Through a close reading of Leaves of
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Explores Whitman’s intimate and lifelong concern with mortality and his troubled speculations about the afterlife.
Walt Whitman is unquestionably a great poet of the joys of living. But, as Harold Aspiz demonstrates in this study, concerns with death and dying define Whitman’s career as thinker, poet, and person. Through a close reading of Leaves of Grass, its constituent poems, particularly “Song of Myself,” and Whitman’s prose and letters, Aspiz charts how the poet’s exuberant celebration of life--the cascade of sounds, sights, and smells that erupt in his verse--is a consequence of his central concern: the ever-presence of death and the prospect of an afterlife.
So Long! devotes particular attention to Whitman’s language and rich artistry in the context of the poet’s social and intellectual milieus. We see Whitman (and his many personae) as a folk prophet announcing a gospel of democracy and immortality; pondering death in alternating moods of acceptance and terror; fantasizing his own dying and his postmortem selfhood; yearning for mates and lovers while conscious of mordant flesh; agonizing over the omnipresence of death in wartime; patiently awaiting death; and launching imaginary journeys toward immortality and godhood.
By exploring Whitman’s faith in death as a meaningful experience, we may understand better how the poet--whether personified as representative man, victim, hero, lover, or visionary--lived so completely on the edge of life.
Harold Aspiz is Professor of English Emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, and author of Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful.
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So Long! Walt Whitman's Poetry of Death
By Harold Aspiz
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
"Triumphal Drums for the Dead"
"Song of Myself," 1855
Like Dante, who was "midway upon the journey of our life" when he entered the darkened woods, Whitman launched his poetic excursion in midcareer. When Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855 he was thirty-six years old, halfway through his allotted life span. A young man's fancy may turn lightly to thoughts of love, but middle-age fancy becomes tempered by thoughts of death. Carl Jung's dictum that a philosophical acceptance of death invigorates the second half of one's existence certainly applies to the fashioning of Whitman's literary career. "From the middle of life onward," says Jung, "only he remains vitally alive who is ready to die with life. For in the second hour of life's midday the parabola is reversed; death is born. The second half of life does not signify ascent, unfolding, increase, exuberance, but death, since the end is its goal. ... Waxing and waning make one curve." Jung probably did not have Whitman in mind when he made this statement, but the "curve" — the awesome parabola inscribed by Whitman's imagination as he strove to encompass life, death, and eternity — is a defining metaphor both for Leaves of Grass and for its poet, who undertook to suck life to its dregs and, simultaneously, to welcome and embrace death, sometimes with complaisance, sometimes with cheer, and often with a shiver of uncertainty. He accepted the Hegelian principle that "death is an essential factor of life ... the negation of life as being essentially contained in life itself, so that life is always thought of in its relation to its necessary result, death, which is always contained in its germ." Like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to believe that dying meant neither the end of one's existence nor the loss of one's conscious identity. He reveled in the feeling that some sort of personal continuity beyond mortality was inevitable, even though he could not cite any decisive evidence. But he believed that the sum of human knowledge (which he conceived as a harmonious blending of personal experience, "hard" science, certain pseudosciences, and broadly based religious ideas) tended to buttress his belief in immortality. Above all, he trusted his own perceptions and his intensely felt instincts as the best proofs concerning the nature of life and death. Small wonder then that broad range of experience encompassed by "Song of Myself" and its dynamic persona always includes death.
The innovative structure of "Song of Myself" has opened the poem to a broad range of interpretations. Whitman probably sensed the shape the poem would ultimately take, yet he seems to have fitted various disparate sections (sections 6 and 34–36, for example) into its loose fabric. Most readers know the poem from its final arrangement in the "Deathbed" edition of Leaves of Grass, where it is divided into fifty-two numbered sections, perhaps to make it more accessible to readers who needed to absorb one section at a time. However, in the first edition of Leaves of Grass the poem is divided into unnumbered "stanzas" of a single sentence, varying in length from one to sixty-nine lines (in present section 15). These sentence-stanzas form the poem's essential building blocks. To emphasize their importance, the 1860 edition numbered them sequentially, like verses in a Bible. Within the poem's loose structure, words, images, motifs, and ideas appear and reappear in nuanced variations. Although only section 6 and sections 49 through 52 (as numbered in the final edition) are devoted exclusively to the theme of death, interspersed throughout the poem are dozens of passages on dying, death, the possibility of an afterlife, and the place of the persona in the timeless cosmos. As "Song of Myself" develops from beginning to end it becomes increasingly focused on mortality. And in one of the most memorable farewells in all of literature, it concludes with an imagined enactment of the persona's own death and his disintegration into earth, water, air, and spirit. This ritual death is only the most impressive of several such farewells in Leaves of Grass, all of whose successive editions, as well as the smaller collections of poems that Whitman issued during his lifetime, end on a note of death — sometimes the imagined death of the Whitman persona himself.
From the poem's outset the persona celebrates his existence as a democratic visionary whose hopeful gospel is intended to encourage the American masses to acknowledge the divinity latent in each of them.
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease. ... observing a spear of summer grass.
By loafing (and thus relaxing his physical and mental tensions) and by inviting his soul to a spiritual communion, the persona attains the calm that mystics claimed to be the precondition for entering into a visionary state and uttering inspired words. He rejects the "perfumes" that signify artificial doctrines in favor of the rarefied air of the inspirational afflatus, and he delights in the good health that makes him feel so vital a part of the divine scheme. But by inviting his soul to merge with whatever part of himself is not his soul, the persona introduces the concept of philosophic (and personal) dualism that permeates much of Leaves of Grass. "Clear and sweet is my soul," he declares, "and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul," thus suggesting that the visible and the tangible serve as analogues of the invisible and the unknown:
Lack one lacks both. ... and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
The coexistence and interaction of the "unseen" and indestructible spirit-self with the physical/material-self is basic to Whitman's interpretation of personal immortality, particularly in the first three editions of Leaves of Grass. "To elaborate is no avail," he asserts, unwilling to have his intuitions subjected to logical dissection or tests of religious correctness. Hence his assertion (in section 3) that "learned and unlearned feel that it is so."
The persona illustrates the accessibility of spiritual illumination to himself and to his fellows in section 5 by reconstructing the scene of his purported mystic awakening — an epiphany similar to one that Whitman himself had reportedly undergone not long before he composed the poem. His devoted physician and friend Richard Maurice Bucke claimed (apparently drawing on Whitman's own statement) that in June 1853 or June 1854 the poet had experienced a revelation "that gave him the mental power, the moral elevation and the personal joyousness" that wrought "the change ... in his mind and heart" and that marked "the birth within him of a new faculty." In the poem's dramatic reconstruction of this mystic experience, the persona's godlike soul, depicted in the passage as a sexually seductive and "loving bedfellow," spends the night with the persona and, before departing, leaves him baskets filled with the bread of life — assurances of his self-worth and an awareness that little can be gained by "ciphering" out the mysteries of life and death by logical or mechanical means. The harmonious union between his body and his indwelling spiritual essence is dramatized as a rapturous, but rather nebulous, sexual coupling during which the conscious self appeals suggestively to his spiritual seducer to "loose the stop from your throat" and to inspire him with "the hum of your valved voice" by plunging "your tongue to my barestript heart." Above all, he appears to be asking his spirit-lover to be granted the power of language that will enable him to become America's master poet. (Throughout the poems, in fact, the power of utterance is equated with the afflatus and the life-force itself.) The mystic moment ends with the persona's conviction that he has experienced "the peace and knowledge that pass all argument of the earth," convinced that he is immortal, and that a godlike element pervades him as it pervades every part of creation. Whatever biographical or religious implications this celebrated passage may have, it certainly conveys the impression that a divine presence has conferred its imprimatur upon this poetic work, thus sanctioning Whitman to become an inspired interpreter of life and death.
Like all of the persona's mystic experiences, this one is solitary. Possibly looking back at this mystic incident of "interior consciousness" Whitman wrote in Democratic Vistas: "[O]nly in the perfect uncontamination and solitariness of individuality may the spirituality of religion positively come forth. Only here, communion with the mysteries, the eternal problems, whence? whither? Alone, and identity, and the mood — and the soul emerges, and all the statements, churches, sermons melt away like vapors. Alone, and silent thought and awe, and aspiration — and then the interior consciousness, like a hitherto unseen inspiration, in magic ink, beams out its wondrous lines to the senses." Having momentarily shut out that part of his dual selfhood that is rooted in the everyday world of joys and frustrations, his spiritual "self" rejects the "linguists" — the purveyors of uninspired, and therefore false, language — and "the contenders" — the advocates of the unpersuasive religious teleologies and of the secular doctrines that flourished at midcentury. Like the blind John Milton who was willing to "stand and wait" for divine guidance, the persona declares: "I have no mockings and arguments ... I witness and wait." The true poet's access to uncorrupted speech comes only with the influx of inspiration.
The persona first attempts to explain the meaning of death in the celebrated sixth section of Leaves of Grass, whose distinctively naive and wistful tone may indicate that it was written as an independent piece and then fitted into the poem's larger structure. Section 6 begins with the persona's somber-playful response to a child's simple question, "What is the grass?" The grass, of course, is the poem's (and the volume's) core symbol, its leitmotif, seemingly inexhaustible in its ramifications and embodying the mysteries of nurture, decay, death, and renewal. The grass that grows by absorbing the life-giving energy of the sun becomes a metaphor of "the ceaseless springing forth of life from death." Like Tennyson's "flower in the crannied wall," it is a microcosm that embodies and encodes the entire mystery of existence. The awesome challenge to explain the mystery of life and death is expressed in words of startling ingenuousness:
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child. ... I do not know what it is any more than he.
However, the persona's disarming admission that he cannot translate this master symbol into words that will satisfy the child — or satisfy himself — is a rhetorical device that serves to introduce a series of tentative answers meant to show how deeply Whitman has probed into this mystery.
In response to the child's challenge to explain the meaning of the grass, the poet resorts to analogy and metaphor — a rhetorical strategy that he follows throughout the poems in attempting to interpret the meaning of death. The grass is itself a master metaphor, of course, and as is the case with metaphors, it is defined by employing other metaphors. Although the grass appears in the Psalms as a symbol of mankind's helpless susceptibility to mortality and dissolution, the persona, employing a pathetic fallacy, offers the playful (and subjective) conjecture that the grass that blankets the earth may be the objectification of his own self — "the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven,"
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner's name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?
The above conceit pictures God playing a game of drop the handkerchief with the favored persona in order to illustrate the principle that God's world is carpeted with decipherable emblems of universal benevolence. To those who can read their meaning, the handkerchief, the letters, and the grass are universal signifiers of the wonders of nature. Speculating in a related metaphor that the grass may be "a uniform hieroglyphic," the persona foresees the time when nature's emblems will be readable by all human beings. In the art of ancient peoples, eighteenth-century scholar Andrew Michael Ramsay declared, "the source of this primitive hieroglyphical language seems to have been the persuasion of the great truth that the visible world is representative of the invisible, that the properties, forms, and motions of the one were copies, images, and shadows of the attributes, qualities, and laws of the other." Subsequently, the persona seems to have gained a mastery of the ancient skill of "reading" the objective world, for in section 48 of "Song of Myself" he appears confident that he can interpret nature's encoded messages. No longer feeling obliged to say "I guess," he declares boldly, "I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one signed by God's name."
But these hopeful images become darkened in the final twenty-one lines of section 6. One becomes aware that the persona's meditations may be taking place in a graveyard, where it is only natural to associate the grass with the thoughts about those who lie beneath it. He longs to translate the arcane language of the grass that covers the graves of young and old. He sees the grass as "the uncut hair of graves," growing from the breasts of young men whom he might have loved — tender mates, perhaps, or mute inglorious Whitmans. (In "Scented Herbage of My Breast," 1860, the persona pictures himself as deceased, the grass sprouting from his breast, and uttering emblematic "leaves" of poetry to readers yet unborn.) In another emotional conceit he pictures the grass issuing from the corpses of the elderly and from children "taken soon out of their mothers' laps, / And here you are the mothers' laps," he cries. Such sentiments were not unusual in an era marked by a high incidence of childhood mortality, when legions of minor poets and portrait painters memorialized the deaths of children. And death is personified in Leaves of Grass not only as a merciful mother who receives the dying and cradles them in her soothing embrace but as a mother from whose womb offerings emerge into a new, postmortem, life. In a related image, the persona beholds the grass as "so many uttering tongues" issuing from "under the faint red roofs of mouths" of the interred, seemingly trying to reveal to him what no mortal has yet understood — the secret of the grave. Yearning to read the emblems inherent in every aspect of existence, he hopes to translate the still unintelligible secrets that the metonymic tongues of graveyard grasses seem to be trying to tell him. Thwarted by his inability to read their mystic language, he laments,
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon out of their laps.
And as though he were soliciting the reader's sympathy for his temporary failure to explain death, he asks rather plaintively, "What do you think has become of the young and old men? / And what do you think has become of the women and children?" At midcentury, when millions of Americans reportedly believed in spiritualism and other doctrines that affirmed the possibility of life after death, he is safe in assuming that his auditors will share his faith in an afterlife. Although most of section 6 is notable for its gentle and understated tone, its concluding lines, which proclaim the immortality of those who lie beneath the grass, are unusual in their assertiveness:
They are all alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. ... and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier
Excerpted from So Long! Walt Whitman's Poetry of Death by Harold Aspiz. Copyright © 2004 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Harold Aspiz is Professor of English Emeritus at California State University, Long Beach, and author of Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful.
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