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Whitman's simple, optimistic poem is amazingly among those which caused uproar in his day. Whitman's poem celebrates the great level of American civilization in its [America's] ability to deliver a parcel across "a thousand miles" through storm and snow in a mere 3 days. But citizens suffering misfortune at the time, due to the March blizzard of 1888 that blindsided the coast, took great offense at Whitman's optimism and good fortune and many wrote poems mocking Whitman [though most of these took particular aim at "The First Dandelion," published 6 days earlier]. For more, see these notes from the Walt Whitman Archive:
The part of the poem that Whitman's contemporary readers seemed to miss, Whitman indicates his purpose in writing.
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.]
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).
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 " 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.
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.
"Twenty Years" tells of a meeting with a sailor who left the area as a boy and has now returned after 20 years of circling the world [Whitman first writes of time having "circled round and round" then immediately after speaks of the sailor "circling round and round" the globe]. But rather than focus on the adventures that transpired during the sailor's time at sea, Whitman focuses on how Time has changed the area while the sailor was gone: "How CHANGED the place -- ALL the old land-marks gone -- the parents DEAD" [emphases mine]. And even this focus on the 20 year-period is short-lived, as the poem quickly shifts to the sights and sounds of the scene. Though it is convenient for Whitman to explain detailed sights in a poem that he knew would be illustrated, the suddenness of the shift goes along with the theme of great change: Just as surely as Time leaves nothing unchanged [whether the land or the people], so Whitman's focus within the poem need not stay steady.
Originally written for the illustrated Magazine of Art in 1887, "Twenty Years" was illustrated by Walter Paget, whose brother, Sidney Paget, was the illustrator for the Sherlock Holmes stories. A digital image of a copy of the original issue can be found here:
Whitman's mention of "nirwana" [nirvana] actually cements both earlier meanings of "opiate" as probable, for nirvana is both a place of joy and relaxation, and a place of "disinterested wisdom" [perhaps the ideal of apathy].
The word "opiate" could indicate either, 1)a relaxing effect, or 2)a deadening, apathy-inducing effect. It seems, with its placement after "soft voluptuous" that "opiate" would here indicate a relaxing feeling. However, even assuming Whitman had wished to suggest apathy, this alternate "opiate" still indicates that his inevitable death does not bother him.
Though discussing [his inevitable] Death, Whitman does not treat the event with sorrow. Rather, as indicated in the first line, this is almost a sensuous, beautiful event.
In this case, "Twilight" stands for two natural events - 1)a just-completed sunset, and 2)the nearly-complete life of the poet: Just as the light disappears, so Whitman's life is vanishing. Whitman even uses the exact same word, "dispell'd" to describe both events.
This short poem is a kind of variation of a haiku; a 3-line nature poem, in which the lines are [respectively] short-long-short, rather than the more strict 5-7-5 [the number of syllables in each respective line of a standard haiku].