poem index

On Whitman: Mortality

Written by

C. K. Williams
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Year

2014
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In what I would very hesitantly call my spiritual life, I don't believe for a moment in immortality, though like all humans I can occasionally find myself reflexively longing towards it. On the other hand, when I give myself over to Leaves of Grass, I come marvelously close to having something like an intuition of deathlessness, an experience that blossoms out of the fusion of that primitive instinct to go on forever, with the poetic force of the matter of Whitman's song.

The audacity of Whitman's meditations on and challenges to mortality in the poems is astonishing; they were clearly a key element of his intentions. But what do you do if you seriously want to confront mortality, as a greatest poet, as even, possibly, a prophet? There are so many genres of immortality: the religious, the mythical, the philosophical; even for some scientists the scientific; and there is even in our time a science-fiction immortality, in which sympathetic beings from beyond the stars will transport us into their gleaming spaceships and tend to our temporality and terror.

Whitman proposes an immortality of the poem, of the poet, and the reader. Essentially what he is saying is that if we allow ourselves to participate in the force of his vision, and surely as important of his singing, his cadence, the swell of his voice and its surge, we will be comforted and solaced even more than by the outmoded precepts of traditional religions. "The greatest poet . . . drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet . . . . he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you. He learns the lesson . . . . he places himself where the future becomes present."

What Whitman does is overwhelm death with acceptance, obliterate it with example, with instance, with obsessively reiterated reassurance. In the section of the 1855 Leaves of Grass ultimately entitled "To Think of Time," but which as well could be called "To Think of Death," he begins by speaking of the wonders of mortal existence.

To think that the sun rose in the east....
    that men were women were flexible and real
    and alive....that every thing was real and alive;
To think that you and I did not see feel think nor
    bear our part
To think that we are now here and bear our part.

Then he recounts the details of an actual death:

When the dull nights are over, and the dull
    days also,
When the soreness of lying so much in bed
    is over,
When the physician, after long putting off,
    gives the silent and terrible look for an
    answer,
When the children come hurried and weeping,
    and the brothers and sisters have been
    sent for,
When medicines stand unused on the shelf, and
    the camphor-smell has pervaded the rooms,
When the faithful hand of the living does not
    desert the hand of the dying,
When the twitching lips press lightly on the
    forehead of the dying,
When the breath ceases and the pulse of the
    heart ceases,
Then the corpse-limbs stretch on the bed, and
    the living look upon them,
They are palpable as the living are palpable....

And after that death enacts a subtle but profound shift of point of view:

The living look upon the corpse with their
    eyesight,
But without eyesight lingers a different
    living and looks curiously on the corpse.

Then another death is recounted, in a less generalized, more elaborate way: twenty lines tell of the death of a simple "stagedriver" and elaborate the vivid, ordinary, now poignant details of his very ordinary life. A man who lived with energy, waned, suffered, died. Both these deaths, rendered in such touching detail, with such evident deep sympathy, are like nothing we'd find in Torahs or Korans or Gospels: they are deaths ennobled and in some sense redeemed by imagination.

And subsequent to those deaths, the poem shifts to pleasure, of all things, pleasure as a concept that exceeds the concept of morality, and by extension (in its extending) of mortality.

The vulgar and the refined . . . . what
    you call sin and what you call goodness
    . . . . to think how wide a difference,
To think the difference will still continue
    to others, yet we lie beyond the difference.

And then the pleasure beyond pleasure, which looks out hopefully towards unendingness.

To think how much pleasure there is!
Have you pleasure from looking at the sky?
    Have you pleasure from poems?
Do you enjoy yourself in the city? Or
    engaged in business? or planning a
    nomination or election? or with your wife
    and family?
Or with your mother and sisters? or in
    womanly housework? or with the beautiful
    maternal cares?

And the poem and the poet will tell us about where pleasure is taking them, and you, us.

These also flow onward to
    others . . . . you and I flow onward;
But in due time you and I shall take
    less interest in them.

And if we've been reading attentively, we can recall from "Song of Myself" the first hints of this method of overwhelming, of unlikely convincing.

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.

"Luckier." What possibly can that mean? Yet why does it sound so ... convincing, so feasible? And later in the "Song":

And as to you death, and you bitter hug of
    mortality . . . . it is idle to try to
    alarm me.

And in "To Think of Time" again.

The sky continues beautiful . . . . the
    pleasure of men with women shall never be
    sated . . . . nor the pleasure of women with
    men... nor the pleasure from poems...
The earth is not an echo . . . . man and his life
    and all the things of his life are
    well-considered...

Now one of those passages that, despite by deep disbelief in anything like eternal life, brings me thrillingly close to something like Wordsworth's intimations of immortality, of the possibility of possessing a consciousness able to grasp this overwhelming intuition.

You are not thrown to the winds . . .
    you gather certainly and safely around
    yourself,
Yourself! Yourself! Yourself forever and ever!
It is not to diffuse you that you were born of
    your mother and father—it is to identify
    you,
It is not that you should be undecided, but
    that you should be decided...

Decided of what? What?

Something long preparing and formless is
    arrived and formed in you,
You are thenceforth secure, whatever comes
    and goes.

Even one's self?

The threads that were spun are gathered
    . . . . the weft corsses the warp . . . .
    the pattern is systematic.

Now continues the theme of "preparation."

The preparations have every one been justified;
The orchestra have tuned their instruments
    sufficiently . . . . the baton has given the
    signal.
The guest that was coming . . . . he waited
    long for reasons . . . . he is now housed,
He is one of those who are beautiful and
    happy . . . . he is one of those that to look
    upon and be with is enough.

He goes on and on, more and more deaths—"Slowmoving and black lines go ceaselessly over the earth"—more and more vast, convincing promises—"I have dreamed that we are not to be changed so much . . . . nor the law of us changed."

And even doubts, so our doubts will be registered, recognized, acknowledged, accepted.

If otherwise, all these things came out
    to ashes of dung;
If maggots and rats ended us, then suspicion
    and treachery and death.

Do you suspect death? If I were to suspect
    death I should die now.
Do you think I could walk pleasantly and
    well-suited toward annihilation?

And an overcoming again, and a bringing together again of morality and mortality.

What is called good is perfect, and what
    is called sin is just as perfect.
The vegetables and minerals are all perfect
    ... and the imponderable fluids are perfect;
Slowly and surely they have passed on to
    this, and slowly and surely they will yet
    pass on.

And at last the vision, the culmination of the promise, and the more than delight in the promise.

I swear I see now that everything has an
    eternal soul!
The trees have, rooted in the ground . . . .
    the weeds of the sea have . . . . the
    animal.

All accepted, all overwhelmed.

I swear there is nothing but immortality!
The exquisite scheme is for it, and the
    nebulous float is for it, and the cohering
    is for it,
And all preparation is for it ... and
    identity is for it ... and life and
    death are for it.

The Leaves will come back again and again to the challenge of death. In the very next "Sleepers" section, as though remembering:

I see nimble ghosts whichever way I look,
Cache and cache again deep in the ground
    and sea, and where it is neither ground
    or sea.

And there will be yet another individual death in that section, of a man drowning, told in almost gruesome detail. Yet the demise of one single person, being so profoundly and imaginatively accounted for, allows a kind of immortality to enfold him as well.

From C. K. Williams on Whitman, copyright © 2010 by C. K. Williams. From the Writers on Writers series, Princeton University Press.