Sunday, December 6, 2009

Prompt 4: Walt Whitman and His Mother’s Death

In Joann P. Krieg’s A Whitman Chronology she includes a description given by one of Walt Whitman’s friends describing Whitman at side of his mother’s coffin, and she writes, “He was bent over his cane, both hands clasped upon it, and from time to time he would lift it and bring it down with a heavy thud on the floor…he had sat there all thought the previous night” (Krieg 99). Also, Whitman himself declared that his mother’s death was, “the great dark cloud of my life”(Krieg 99).

After reflecting on these two statements and completing today’s reading, what similarities and differences do you see in the way Whitman portrays the death of his mother in “As at thy Portals Also Death” as opposed to the death of Abraham Lincoln in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and the death of a Civil War Soldier in “Adieu to a Soldier”.

Louisa Van Velsor was seventy eight years old when she died on May 23, 1873. At the same time however, Walt Whitman was also failing in health and recognized his own mortality. In fact, eight days prior to Louisa’s death, Whitman redid his will and left his property to his mother in a trust for Edward, and he left Peter Doyle a silver watch and eighty nine dollars (Krieg 98). Therefore, the context in which Whitman wrote “As at they Portals Also Death” is different than his other two poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “Adieu to a Soldier”. Furthermore, his mother, President Abraham Lincoln, and the soldier died from different circumstances. Whitman’s mother would have been considered old at the time of her death and passed away due to illnesses. On the other hand, Lincoln’s death was due to an assassination and therefore sudden. Meanwhile, Whitman witnessed soldiers dying all of the time during his years in Virginia, and therefore a soldier’s death would have been expected and common.

Nevertheless, despite the difference in context in which these poems were written and the circumstances in which these individuals died, these poems all recognize and pay tribute to the deceased. The mere fact that Whitman used these individuals as subjects of his poetry reveals how he memorialized the dead through the written word. In “Adieu to a Soldier” Whitman’s pays tribute to the soldier by describing soldiers’ hearts as “brave and manly”. Also, in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” Whitman explicitly states his feelings of misery and writes, “I moun’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring”. In addition when writing about his mother’s death, Whitman pays tribute to her by setting a tombstone. Therefore, all of three of these poems could be considered laments.

On the other hand, Whitman’s lament to his mother is written in a more personalized tone than the poem about Lincoln’s death and the soldier’s death. Whitman’s intimate relationship with his mother is displayed through his actions. In a nonsexual way, Whitman “kisses convulsively” his mother’s lips and cheeks. The close proximity Whitman has to his mother’s dead body allows for this interaction to occur. However, when writing about Lincoln’s death, Whitman seems to be watching the coffin from afar as it passes. And in “Adieu to a Soldier” Whitman does not even mention the actual dead body. Furthermore, in “As at Thy Portals Also Death”, Whitman describes how his intimate relationship and love for his mother will continue after death when he writes, “yet buried not, gone not from me”. Death, as depicted in Whitman’s poem about Louisa seems to be a natural occurrence and part of life’s processes. However, there is a religious undertone when Whitman describes the ground that she is entering as “illimitable” and uses the word “sovereign”.

The sharp contrast between Whitman’s personal connection to his mother’s death compared to the death of Lincoln and soldiers is also evident in the way that he addresses each subject. In the poem about his mother’s death, Whitman specifically states “my mother”. However, in the poem that describes Lincoln’s death, Lincoln’s name is not located anywhere in the poem. Furthermore, in “Adieu to a Soldier” no name is ever mentioned, therefore, this poem could have been about any Civil War soldier that had died in battle. In addition, the poem about Lincoln’s death contains more imagery and symbols than the poem to his mother. For example, Lincoln is described as the “great star disappear’d” whereas his mother is described as the “ideal woman”. The usage of imagery throughout “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” demonstrates the idealized relationship Whitman had with Lincoln compared to the actual intimate relationship Whitman had with his mother. In addition, both the poem about Lincoln’s death and a soldier’s death include commentary on the future of the American nation, as opposed to “As at Thy Portals Also Death” which is solely about his mother’s death.

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