Theme of Death in Walt Whitman’s Poetry

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      Introduction. Whitman, said D.H. Lawrence, was a great poet of the transitions of the soul as it loses its integrity. The theme of death is ever recurrent in Whitman’s poetry. This is to some extent inevitable in the light of the mystical element in his poetry. Whitman understood the nature and significance of death and tried to communicate his understanding to the reader.

      Theme of Death in Whitman’s Poetry Song of Myself is full of references to death, but in all cases, death is linked with the notion of immortality. The old and young, woman and children die but they are alive and well somewhere. An optimistic view of death and belief in immortality is again expressed in the following lines:

Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her, it is just
as lucky to die...
I am the mate and companion of people,
all immortal and fathomless as myself;
They do not know how immortal, but I know
(Section 7)

In Section 48, he declares:

No array of terms can say how much
I am at peace about God and about death

      Whitman faced the reality of the wounded, the dying and death in the Civil War. He wrote the famous elegies on Lincoln’s death-O Captain! My Captain! When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd Hush’d be the Camps Today Death is the subject of Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, Come up from the fields Father, Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night and Dirge for Two Veterans.

      No Fear of Death but Calm Acceptance. The recurrent theme of death, however, does not make Whitman’s poetry morbid or gloomy. Whitman does not fear death, but accepts it with calmness. Death is ‘delicious’ as expressed in Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking. The sea whispers the word, but the sea is associated with motherhood (the old crone rocking her cradle) and hence there is the implication of death being a natural transition to re-birth. This poem ends on a note of acceptance, as does the elegy, When Lilacs last in the Dooryard. Bloom’d. The hermit-thrush in the poem welcomes lovely and soothing death, which comes to all sooner or later. The idea of the immortal soul reduces the traditional fear of death.

      Mystical Interpretation of Death as a Liberator. Death for Whitman is a part of the cyclical, cosmic dance of life. This cosmic
rhythm is manifest everywhere, even in a dung heap which while being refuse is also teeming with life. We have to be prepared to lose ourselves in the sea of death, in that flux, in that rhythm, but only ultimately to “find ourselves” in it, that is, gain spiritual awareness.

      Whitman is a poet of continuity Death is not the end of life; as a part of the progressive evolutionary movement of creation, it is a renewal, a beginning, a “deliveress”. Death delivers one into a greater reality. It is a sort of passage, a mystically foreshadowed and necessary way of re-union with cosmic energy or the divine energy Whitman considered life and death as part of the ceaseless eternal journey As he says in Section 6 of Song of Myself,

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what anyone supposed,
and luckier.

      Death is just another beginning, a re-involvement in the generative forces of ceaselessly evolving universe;

In I myself, in all the world, these currents flowing,
All, all toward the mystic ocean tending.

      Transcending Time. The faith in immortality of man implies a faith in the exemption from extinction and in an escape from the conditioning of time. The natural process goes on, for all things are great and parts of that great unity cannot cease to be. Thus time in our conventional sense is transcended and death in the conventional sense is meaningless.

I know I am deathless
I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a
carpenter's compass,
I know I shall not pass like a child scarlacue
cut with a burnt stick at night,
My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
And I know the amplitude of time.

And to Whitman

The smallest sprout shows there is realty no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life,
And does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear'd-

      Passage to India is a dramatization of the poet’s voyages through space and time until, at the end, he arrives at his destination outside both. And death is a period of transition before one reaches the all-absorbing ocean of God. In Song of Myself, Section 46, he says:

I know I have the best of time and space, and was
Never measured and never will be measured.

      And in the concluding section, he suggests that death is but a period of transition:

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the
runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies,
And drift in lacy jags,
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-sol es.

      Conclusion. Whitman’s conception of death is not limited to death as a biological fact. He understands death to be a sort of passage necessary for a reunion with cosmic or divine energy. In Whitman’s poetry, Life and Death are fused into a universal synthesis that is conceived sometimes as personal immortality and sometimes as re-absorption into an affirmative cosmic process that is occasionally identified with God. Through death, one can see into the heart of creation-where, too, life is. Whitman is a poet of death but death in a philosophical sense, transcending the limitations of time and not death as annihilator and an end to life.

University Questions

“Whitman’s poetic message is the transcending of time and achieving a philosophy of death.” Discuss.
Write a note on Whitman as the poet of death and immortality.

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