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Though only 5 lines long, “A Prairie Sunset” contains a natural brilliance greater even than the colorful description seems at first to indicate.
Whitman is not merely listing the array of colors across the sky. The second line of the poem intimates that Whitman’s collection of color is actually a complete expression of all natural force gathered into a single sight: Within this view of a prairie sunset is contained all the power of the natural world. When Whitman says, “No limit, confine,” he really means it: He can see limitless wild organic power in this occasion [that just so happens to be an ordinary, or at least daily, event]. Sunsets are beautiful everyday events, but Whitman finds a way to see them as even more spectacular than we imagine.


Whitman also sees the sunset not just as a time when humans will go to sleep, but a time for Nature itself to go to sleep, with the “color fighting the silent shadows to the last” being Nature’s last struggle to stay awake before succumbing to sleep.

This language of “fighting…to the last” also represents [even perhaps primarily] a kind a mortal struggle, with the sunset as a death of Nature, likely [though not explicitly in this poem] followed by Nature’s “rebirth” with sunrise the next day.


Ed Folsom writes of Whitman’s connection to the prairies:
“Throughout [Whitman’s] career, the prairies struck him as the emblematic heart of democratic America, and he was convinced they would produce not only the nation’s physical nutriment, but eventually its art, its capital city, and its essential character: ‘the prairie States,’ he said, ‘will be the theater of our great future.'”

This particular prairie poem follows from Whitman’s trip West in 1879, though it was not written until 1888 (Folsom).


With the luminous color encompassing the entire sky, Whitman sees this natural event as one which covers and unites the once-broken America, particularly indicated by the phrase, “North, South, all.” [This view is shared by many Whitman scholars.]

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Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn,
The earths whole amplitude and Natures multiform power con-
signd for once to colors;
The light, the general air possessd by them colors till now un-
No limit, confine not the Western sky alone the high meri-
dian North, South, all,
Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last.