At the end of Daniel Longaker’s “The Last Sickness and the Death of Walt Whitman,” I somehow felt cheated by the conclusions Longaker draws regarding the connection between Whitman’s poetic characterization of mortality and the poet’s actual experience of death. Whitman’s “indomitable will,” Longaker argues, would not have been “exercised in a struggle against the inevitable.
Perhaps, if he willed at all, it was to die sooner. But bodily pangs and tortures seemed not to perturb him; he lived out his last days as he had lived his last forty years, with senses alert and keen and emotions under perfect control. His mind was bent on higher things than those passing about his inert and worn-out body… This much, at least, is certain, that at the very end, as all through his life, the act of dying had no terrors for him who had passed ‘death with the dying and birth with the new-washed babe.’ (107-8)
Longaker’s inclusion of a quote from “Song of Myself,” and his assertion that Whitman lived his final few months in the same manner that he had the “last forty years” (that is, since 1852), position Whitman within a framework for thinking about death that derives almost exclusively from Whitman’s 1850s-era poetry. In particular, Longaker’s judgment of Whitman’s death-bed outlook seems to mirror “Song of Myself’s” championing of the “procreant urge of the world,” and the speaker’s sense in that poem that “there is really no death, / And if ever there was it led forward life… And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier” (194). According to Longaker, Whitman seems to complacently accept death, particularly because he remains preoccupied with “higher things” that must assumedly exist in a position beyond death’s grip.
However, the cycle Whispers of Heavenly Death compellingly undercuts this perhaps over-simplified characterization of Whitman’s perspective on mortality. As his largest-scale consideration of death as a subject, Whispers significantly appears in the 1871 edition of Leaves of Grass, when the Civil War’s immense human cost still weighed implacably on the country, and when Whitman’s advancing years, passing 50, began to align with the premature aging exacted by the war. Thus death itself, not the world’s “procreant urge,” looms in Whispers as the power binding all experience, with the speaker of the poem “Assurances” acknowledging that “I do not think Life provides for all and for Time and Space, / but I believe Heavenly Death provides for all” (563). If there ever was life, in this vision, it led forward death. (Rather crucially, “Assurances” appears in the 1856 Leaves as the drastically different “Faith Poem.” The life-death dichotomy reversal does not appear in the earlier version at all.)
In line with that inverted restructuring of the relationship between life and death, Whitman infuses Whispers with a current of uncertainty about death that seems entirely alien to the feeling in “Song of Myself” that dying might be “lucky.” Both “Thought” (one of a number of poems Whitman gave this name) and “Yet, Yet, Ye Downcast Hours” see Whitman’s speaker respond to the possibility that “Matter is conqueror—matter, triumphant only, continues onward” (562), that only a person’s decomposed and diffused corpse can continue to exist after death.
Thus despite Longaker’s claim that Whitman thought only of “higher things than those passing about his inert and worn-out body” during his last days, Whitman himself encodes within Whispers his awareness of how definitive a physical life might be. This realization actually helps us to make sense of what Longaker otherwise sees as entirely aberrant behavior: Whitman’s “deluded” avowal that he might yet “beat those doctors yet” and stay alive, and the strikingly ruthful tone of his observation that “Some of these fine mornings I shall be slipping away from you forever” (102). Longaker’s attempt to hold up Whitman’s death as consistent with the poet’s writings on mortality crucially elides the uncertainty about, and corresponding fear of, death that appears both in Whitman’s behavior and throughout his Whispers, simplifying the poet’s death when it deserves a treatment as complex and contradictory as his poetry.