Erin M. for Sept. 29th

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Whitman Confronts Life Versus Death in “Scented Herbage of My Breast

So, this week was the first week where I had trouble coming up with something to write about. That is, until I read Whitman’s poem “Scented Herbage of My Breast.” After reading it I wanted to write about it. With this work he again confronts the role of the poet (remember in the intro to Leaves where we discovered that for Whitman the poet equals the orator of America); he also pits life against death in this work and in my opinion reaches an unexpected conclusion.

In the opening of the poem, Whitman creates a beautiful image of the poet as its own muse. He believes here that his source of inspiration lies within him, literally and that the inspiration will continue to bloom from him year after year. He also, for the first time that I recall, faces the idea of his work becoming known by an audience; he doesn’t know if his poetry will be discovered, but hopes it will. He writes:

Scented herbage of my breast, Leaves from you I glean, I write, to be perused best afterwards,

Tomb-Leaves, body leaves growing up above me above death,

Perrenial roots, tall leaves, O winter shall not freeze you delicate leaves,

Every year you shall bloom again, out from where you retired you shall emerge again; 

O, I do not  know whether many passing by will discover you or inhale your faint odor, but I believe a few will; (Whitman 268).

The stanza continues with Whitman stating that the bits of inspiration that spring from him tell his own story, but that at times the honesty of his own words is more powerful than expected (Whitman 269, lines 7-9). In an interesting twist, Whitman’s words don’t celebrate the goodness within him as usual, here a darkness is revealed. We are used to celebrations of life from Whitman, but with this poem he seems to choose death, or at least accepts it as a reality. Until now, we have seen Whitman view death with an immortal air…as inevitable yes, but as a continuation of the soul, as another “step” of life, but I think the end of this poem shows Whitman accepting death as more of an absolute. He writes: ” O I think it is not for life I am chanting here, my chant of lovers,I think it must be for death,…Death or life I am indifferent, my souls declines to prefer,…Indeed O death, I think now these leaves mean precisely the same as you mean, (Whitman 269). He continues, stating that although he has declined to choose between life or death in the past, he now is inspired by and accepting of death and will not hide from expressing his more solemn side as he may have done in the past as evidenced by line 21, “Come I am determin’d unbare this broad breast of mine, I have long enough stifled and choked;” (Whitman 269).

He goes on to say that his job now with this poem is to make death exhilarating for his audience (line 27) and that we (everyone) are bound equally by love and death. But most importantly he concludes that life is not the real reality, but that maybe death is instead. In the final two lines he writes: That may-be you are what it is all for, but it does not last so very long, But you will last very long. These final lines are the key to the poem. The first you after the maybe refers to life (or love) and Whitman says that maybe that’s what we are all here for (that’s definitely what we want to believe we are here for: to live and love to the fullest), but Whitman challenges that and reminds us that love and life are fleeting, so he proposes what if that’s not what we are here for, which brings us to the second you. The second you refers to death, which is lasting so Whitman suggests, What if death is the real reality? In the lines precluding the last two, he reminds is that we form relationships, buy material things and participate in daily activities, but instead of relishing in those experiences as he usually does, instead here he seems to ask what for?. He doesn’t take a stance on what death is specifically like yet, but does seem more certain about its finality here than in previous works. Welcome to a slightly darker side of Whitman, which for me doesn’t make his work any less beautiful, or relevant.

One Response to “Erin M. for Sept. 29th”

  1. bmzreece Says:
    Avatar of bmzreece

    Yes, I agree about this treatment of death. Certainly a step in the direction of his later take on death [particularly in the odes of all sorts to Lincoln].

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