Emily for Nov. 5

November 5th, 2009

I hope when I reach the end of my life that I have the strength of character to write a final send off like Whitman did.  In The Songs of Parting, especially in “So Long,” Whitman takes control of his life, death, and work.  He makes himself larger than life, immortalizing himself through his art, and ends the poem “disembodied, triumphant, dead” (71).  At first glimpse, the word “disembodied” has a negative connotation—literally being without a body isn’t a particularly nice image.  But then, I looked it up in the OED, instinctively knowing the word would help me better understand the line and the poem, and found that it actually means to be “freed from that in which it has been embodied” (OED Online).  Using this definition, I’m able to reread the line:  free, triumphant, and dead.  In this sense, death for Whitman is a positive thing.  However, some of the other poems in this section and the account of his final weeks in With Whitman in Camden paint death in a different light.  In the end, Whitman, as a man and poet, has a complete view of death, much like he did of war, and writes of death from every angle.  Ultimately, Whitman chooses to accept the fact of his impending death.  This allows him to take control over it and the final image his readers will have of him.

In “So long!” Whitman briefly recounts his lifelong career as poet (Singer) and writes of his fate after dying.  He sets the tone in the line “To conclude, I announce what comes after me” (1).  This act of concluding has multiple meanings.  He is concluding his book, his career, his life.  Notice also, the word “announce:” He is making one final proclamation, singing one last song, and he is doing it about his own death.  What better way is there to take control of one’s life and death, but to make a proclamation about it?

In the next stanza, Whitman refers to a time before he was a published poet:  “I remember I said before my leaves sprang at all,/I would raise my voice jocund and strong with reference to consummations” (2-3).  Whitman promised to sing joyfully and strong, and he has.  He always knew he would sing of consummations, which has several meanings:  perfections, completions, sex, the end, and death (OED Online).  Whitman, indeed, sung of every item on this list, and more.  Now, at the end of his life, he will sing of his ultimate consummation—his death.

The next few stanzas recount his previous songs, which lead to several stanzas of announcements.  When he returns to the idea of his songs, he writes “My songs cease, I abandon them,” (51) which he further explains in the stanza:

Camerado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man,

(Is it night?  are we here together alone?)

It is I you hold and who holds you,

I spring forth from the pages into your arms—decease calls me forth (53-57).

Whitman immortalizes himself through his work, a motif he as used before in his earlier poems, but now it is his last hope for immortality.  His book is more than a book; it is him, and after his death, Whitman will only exist in his writings—and anything written of him.  As people continue to read Whitman, his “avataras,” (67) or manifestations to the world, will ascend.  In one final message, Whitman requests:

Remember my words, I may again return,

I love you, I depart from materials,

I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead (69-71).

Whitman is free from the world of physical pain, he exists only in his words, and will continue to do so, as long as we read them.

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