Walt Whitman and Death

April 7, 2008 by aaron

For Walt Whitman and other “Bright Romantics,” death does not represent an end but new beginnings, renewal and life. Whitman sees death from the perspective of a phoenix — each death brings new life, so death is “low and delicious” and the word “stronger and more delicious than any” because if one focuses solely on life, they will always be disappointed because of the finite nature of life, but if one focuses on death, life will always be sweet because it will bring death which brings more life. In the poem “This Compost”, Whitman recognizes this fact, and he is able to embrace death and reconcile the poisonous and decaying nature of death with the knowledge that it will create life. The poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” moves beyond this temporal interpretation of death, and Whitman recognizes that death creates emotions and desires that drive a poet and are responsible for many of the most beautiful songs – both man’s and beasts.

In “This Compost” Whitman examines the process of death and rebirth, and his interpretations of the dead changes as he realizes that death is just the fuel for new life. Whitman’s perspective of death in “This Compost” is that of the distant observer who sees death as a part of life. By approaching only the mechanics of death, Whitman is able to separate the emotional from the physical, and see that the dead are just the fuel of the Earth that “grows such sweet things out of such corruptions” and “gives such divine materials to men” (42, 46). This perspective allows Whitman to realize that death is not something to be feared, but should be embraced because without the processes of death, nothing can live.

Whitman did not just suddenly realize the beneficial aspects of death. He begins “This Compost” marveled and repulsed that the Earth is “work’d over and over with sour dead” (9). He contrasts the summer growth that is “innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead” with the buried remains of “[t]hose drunkards and gluttons of so many generations” (29, 11). Realizing that the world above is not polluted by the dead below the ground demonstrates that death is not a corrupter but fuel. This revelation is startling, and he resolves himself to be both terrified by and respectful of the Earth that is bound to such a contradictory process.

The contradictions begun in “This Compost” are continued in “The Cradle Endlessly Rocking” when Whitman recounts his realization that death, beyond being a fuel for life, can also be the source of a poet’s muse, which he demonstrates in his “reminiscence” of the death of and longing for a she-bird he had oft heard singing. Superficially the poem shows a boy, widely regarded to be Walt Whitman himself, witnessing the life and death of a she-bird and the effect it has on her mate, a he-bird. The boy translates the he-birds mourning song into words, and the boy believes that the death of the she-bird has, “My own songs, awaked from that hour” and the boy has given him “already a thousand singers—a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours, / A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, / Never to die.” (188; 151-3).

However, the poem is more than just the awakening of Whitman’s muse, it is also a timeless expression of the conflicting emotions that result from death. The conflicting emotional response to death in this poem encompass pain, joy, loss and gratitude, and demonstrates the perspective of one who is directly affected by death, and it mirrors Whitman’s conflicting view of the physical nature of death in “This Compost.” While the representation of this poem as a poet’s realization of his potential and the multifaceted nature of death seems to be the most artistic and profound interpretation, other interpretations have also been offered.

One can also link Whitman’s view of death as a word “stronger and more delicious than any” with the historical onslaught of the American Civil War. Betsy Erkkila offers that this poem was “written at a time of national crisis” and that one should “recognize the historical roots of this elegy of dissolution in the state of the nation on the eve of the Civil War.” While one cannot ignore the setting and period that a poem was written, to focus too much on such aspects of poetry detract from the timeless nature and the emotional resonance of the ideas presented within. Whitman may have been writing about the death of the “united” part of the United States of America, but it does not change that the poem can be interpreted to encompass and applied to death in general as a “transient permutation of elegiac narrative” (Mark Bauerlein).

The Bright Romantic interpretation of death contrasts with the interpretation of death by Dark Romantics. For the Bright romantics, death is just another change in life that they must accept and move beyond, but for the Dark Romantics it is just another limit that corrals them and leaves them powerless. Walt Whitman resolved within himself that death is the cause of grief and the cause of joy, creates life as well as destroys it, and it can bring either happiness or sorrow. This dual nature of death invigorated him and gave him a reason to live and a reason to create.

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