Essay: Walt Whitman: Death and Immortality

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Walt Whitman: Death and Immortality in Whitman's Verse

Walt Whitman has long been celebrated as one of America's most optimistic poets. However, like all 19th century authors, the omnipresence of war, death, and sickness in his society forced him to confront death on a regular basis and naturally this affected his poetic development and approach to his subjects. Whitman frequently contrasted the impermanent nature of the material world with the immortality of verse: although all living beings would die as part of the ebb and flows of the natural world, through his poetic gift he could convey immortality to the most ordinary creatures and people by showing how they all represented things larger than what they appeared.

In his poem "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" Whitman exemplifies why he is so often labeled an American Romantic poet. The poem depicts the author as a child, happy and observing nature, when suddenly he is confronted with the specter of death in the form of the death of a mockingbird. The boy witnesses two birds, one a 'he-bird' the other a 'she-bird' and one day the female fails to return.

Till of a sudden,

May-be kill'd, unknown to her mate,

One forenoon the she-bird crouch'd not on the nest,

Nor return'd that afternoon, nor the next,

Nor ever appear'd again

The male bird, at least in the child's view of the world, is distraught, and Whitman the poet imagines what the bird's torment would sound like if articulated in human speech. "O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers? / What is that little black thing I see there in the white?" The bird scans the entire world around him -- the sky, the ocean, and the stars, looking for signs of its mate. Of course, Whitman is projecting his own anxieties upon the bird (he cannot truly know what the bird is thinking) and the bird's italicized voice sounds very Whitmanesque, full of cries of 'O,' speaking in free verse, and using personification such as asking the moon "What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?" The bird is very human and obsessive in his quest to retrieve his lost love. Clearly, for the child Whitman in the poem, this experience is an unsettling reminder of the fact that the arbitrary nature of death is part of the inevitable order of the universe and is something we all must confront. The observation of the bird simultaneously awakens within Whitman a dread of death and also a desire to be a poet, which he both welcomes and fears. "Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there in the night" he cries. The desire to be immortal through verse is inspired by the bird that cannot actually speak his own obsessive desires, as Whitman channels his own poetic ambitions into the poem itself, using the bird as his muse. With poetry, the birds and the child Whitman become immortal and even though his innocence and peace has been lost, the awareness of death is still important and something 'gained.' In fact, it could be argued that death is something positive because it very literally generates the imaginative impulse to create the poem.

Whitman's sense of 'becoming' the bird in the poem makes him very mortal -- the bird will have a shorter lifespan than the poet, and taking on the voice of the bird reminds him of his own mortality -- and also makes him immortal, both by writing the poem and giving himself the power to immortalize the bird. Whitman's simultaneous sense of being both 'in the moment' and projecting into the future is evidenced in many of his works, including the poem "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" in which Whitman celebrates the simple act of crossing over the water on the ferry and notes how he and all of the inhabitants of the vehicle are feeling and doing the same things in a common, shared human act:

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was… [END OF PREVIEW]

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