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  • Inventing Late Whitman
  • Anton Vander Zee (bio)

In the December 1887 issue of the Century Illustrated Monthly, Walt Whitman published “Twilight,” a poem whose three lines dissipate into hazy, familiar sentiments:

The soft, voluptuous opiate-shades, The sun just gone, the eager light dispelled— (I too will soon be gone, dispelled), A haze—nirvana—rest and night—oblivion.1

These lines might seem the mere old-age jottings of a poet who, to borrow Roger Asselineau’s memorable formulation, “could only repeat weakly what he had formerly proclaimed in a stentorian voice.”2 Whitman had elsewhere figured death—that “low and delicious word,” the “fierce old mother,” those “coffins all”—more memorably.3 But Whitman’s “Twilight” holds a strangeness, even a subtle force, that comes into focus the longer one lingers in its shadows.

We enter the poem peering through the opiate-shades of that opening line, its ten soft syllables eliding into a gliding iambic tetrameter. As we arrive at the final dashed line, simultaneously halting and fluid, Whitman delivers an expansive alexandrine, each foot save for that final falling beat receiving a stress that gently unfolds the aurally [End Page 641] contracted first line. This metrical progression represents a formal scattering—or, to deploy the poem’s governing trope, dispelling—that echoes the poem’s investments in both literal and figurative twilights. That middle line, however, exhibits decidedly less attention to form. Here, a plodding pentameter line gives way to a parenthetical aside, casually clinging to iambs, that disrupts the poem’s otherwise finely modulated metrics and betrays the elderly Whitman’s reluctance to let even a cliché speak for itself. And yet something in this line holds us—seems not only strange, but estranging.

We sense this estrangement in how the second line’s parenthetical deftly recalls and melds two Whitmanian master-tropes: the ritual gesture of leave-taking on the one hand and the claim of transpersonal identification on the other. Whitman’s recurring valedictory gesture most often involves a promise to return even as the poet confidently faces what is beyond. “I stop somewhere, waiting for you,” Whitman tells his readers at the end of “Song of Myself.” “Remember my words, I may again return,” he instructs in “So Long!” Whitman is, so often, like the “Unseen Buds” in the eponymous late poem, “waiting ever more.”4 This promise lends his effort to forge powerful, often intimate, connections with his readers its transtemporal reach, a trope so beautifully rendered in his insistence that “distance avails not” in “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”5 Rather than merely recycle these moves in “Twilight,” however, Whitman, modeling an intricate poetics of reprise that recurs across the late work, recalls their accrued poetic freight even as he renounces them: the illuminating hope itself appears as an illusion that, like the poem’s fading sun, must be dispelled. And what a strange way to use dispel. According to Webster’s original definition, to dispel is to scatter, to disperse, to dissipate; one dispels darkness and gloom, fears and doubts.6 But here, Whitman dispels that “eager light,” and, with it, the poetic faith it represents. The distance avails. What, then, was Whitman up to? [End Page 642]

Whitman’s disciples—those steadfast devotees who congregated around the poet in his old age and did so much to defend and champion their bard—did not earnestly ask this question. When they learned that the poet decided to end “Twilight” on that note, they objected, suggesting that “oblivion” too blatantly contradicted Whitman’s enduring faith. As Horace Traubel records in With Walt Whitman in Camden—published 1906–96, much of it posthumously, his voluminous account of near-daily interactions with the poet in his final years—Whitman’s response was unyielding: “I do not feel it to be necessary to fight for my words—I use them and let them go and that’s an end on’t.”7 His curt response was also incisive, revealing the supple formal intelligence that he developed in his late work while the dynamic drift and debris of themes and images collected across a career filtered through increasingly clipped lines and contracted lyric spaces: “But oblivion as...