Poem Guide

Walt Whitman: “Time to Come”

The young poet shows the first stirrings of genius.
Walt Whitman

On July 6, 1855, the first advertisement appeared in the New York Tribune for the slender green book that changed the course of American poetry. Two dollars was a fair price for the first edition of Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman intended to make his book available on July 4, but the bookstores were closed that day.

It is impossible now to measure the newness of those first twelve untitled poems—the sprawling free-verse lines, the cocksure optimism of his “democratic” voice, and the idiom, which fused street lingo and operatic grandeur with religious conviction and erotic candor. Ralph Waldo Emerson recognized his brilliance immediately. His letter to Whitman, written on July 21, famously “greet[s Whitman] at the beginning of a great career.” Whitman carried the letter in his pocket all summer. If Leaves seemed to spring out of thin air, still Emerson shrewdly guessed that it “must have had a long foreground somewhere.”

Critics commonly mark the beginning of Whitman’s poetic career in 1855. Whitman himself encouraged such a notion, suggesting in “Song of Myself” that “I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin.” (This line doesn’t appear until the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, published when Whitman was sixty-two.) But Emerson correctly assumed the long preparation. By the late 1830s, still in his teens, Whitman was writing hard, and through the 1840s he published many poems, two dozen short stories, a novel, as well as dozens—perhaps hundreds—of sketches and editorials for New England newspapers and magazines.

Whitman’s first published poem appeared unsigned on October 31, 1838, in the Long Island Democrat. “Our Future Lot” is the work of a talented teenager, conventional in taste and form, whose speaker mines the traditional gloom and melodrama of the period’s magazine verse. Appearing in the Aurora on April 9, 1842 and written by “Walter Whitman,” “Time to Come” is a substantially revised version of “Our Future Lot.”

I don’t claim that “Time to Come” is a great poem. Rather it is a fascinating early poem by a great poet. Few know it; fewer have examined it. Between the appearance in 1838 of “Our Future Lot” and Leaves of Grass in 1855, Whitman himself evolved: from failed teenager to journeyman printer to editor to poet; from shy teenager to foppish Brooklyn dandy to “one of the roughs,” complete with open-collared, broadcloth shirts and undomesticated beard. Likewise, “Time to Come” falls midway between his sentimental earliest poems and the audaciously original Leaves of Grass. It foreshadows some of Whitman’s greatest later themes while still demonstrating residuals from his earliest work.

“Time to Come” will strike new readers for its conventional poetics. We are just not prepared to hear rhyme and meter from Whitman, our first great free-verse poet. His rhymes are obvious but (at least) not forced. In fact, their frequent ideational juxtapositions show a sophisticated wit. The physicality of “state” is ironized by the abstractness of “Fate”; one must “bear” the “fear” of obliteration; the body’s “play” inevitably must “decay,” and so forth. The final quatrain’s rhyme of “mystery” and “die” is the poem’s most distant and unbalanced rhyme, and that final, fatal infinitive seems effectively to bite off any further development of the narrative.

Whitman’s iambic rhythm is traditional and, occasionally, graceful. Notice how each stanza’s fourth line—trimeter rather than tetrameter—serves to emphasize the shortened life of the stanza, thus marrying form and content. For such a conventional poem, “Time to Come” features a number of well-enjambed lines, as in stanza four. Whitman’s extended syntax unfolds with poise, though he clearly does get tangled in the sixth stanza. Here, as he turns from the interrogative to declarative back to interrogative mode—in a single sentence—his emphatic “Must,” as well as his strained phrasing and ineffective punctuation, all seem to befuddle the poem’s progression.

From Gray to Keats, from Poe to Dickinson, to a myriad of lesser “magazine poets,” death was a favorite subject of the Romantics. Whitman’s poem possesses no small portion of gothic morbidity. His tone is didactic and his diction is archaic, perhaps even a touch Quakerish (his mother, a strong influence, was Quaker), though occasionally he breaks into a cleaner and more contemporary phrasing. “This curious frame of human mould, / Where unrequited cravings play,” for instance, anticipates tones and gestures of his later, greater poems. He derives a clever doubleness from “mould,” as the word signifies both a physical shape and the texture of decay.

But notice further that “curious frame” and those “unrequited cravings.” In his 1856 “Sun-Down Poem” (recast as “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in 1860), he wonders about the “curious” population in their evening commute. His curiosity suggests a subtle eroticism: Whitman wants contact, to be “fused” with “ever so many generations” of people. Physical union, in turn, provides for spiritual connectedness. “[C]urious abrupt questionings stir” there in Whitman’s speaker, suggesting not only his passion for physical contact but his specifically homoerotic desire, embodied by the young men on the ferry-dock “leaning. . .their flesh against me.” The “unrequited cravings” in “Time to Come” may be Whitman’s first guarded intimations of homoerotic passion.

“Time to Come” initiates one of the great conundrums of Whitman’s work, the problem of death: that is, the inevitability of death, the individual body’s decay, and the soul’s resulting dislocation. Because the body dies, the soul is imperiled as well, and the speaker’s “struggling brain” remains admittedly “powerless” to propose any answer. The mournful tones express Whitman’s metaphysical concern over a physical, bodily dilemma. Of course, he doesn’t solve the problem in this poem. That will come later, in poems like “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” and “Song of Myself.” In these poems he will resolve the problem of death by joining it, enlisting its aid, and returning reborn to the world singing a “victorious song, death’s outlet song”—the transcendentalist’s song of grief-turned-to-praise.

The distance between “Time to Come’ and his later, greater transcendental poems is thus substantial—in form, theme, and ambition. Before Walter Whitman becomes Walt, he must absorb Emerson. He must soak up the expansive grandeur of opera. He must study the rhetoric of the Bible. He must delight in the stump-speeches of local politicians. He must immerse himself in the life and language of working-class areas around Brooklyn and Manhattan. He must tend the broken bodies of soldiers at a hospital in Washington, D.C. And he must work out the scheme of his free-verse formulations. But already, in “Time to Come,” he is asking the single most important question that will guide his greatest poems toward their ends.


David Baker on Walt Whitman’s “Time to Come” from Dark Horses: Poets on Overlooked Poems. Copyright 2007 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Used with permission of the author and the University of Illinois Press.
Originally Published: November 19th, 2008

Though he is known primarily as a poet of the Midwest, David Baker was born in Bangor, Maine in 1954. He spent his childhood in Missouri and attended Central Missouri State University before receiving his PhD from the University of Utah. He has won fellowships and awards from the Poetry...

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  1. November 25, 2008

    It reads pages too.

    It talks through words on a page.

    It expresses things

    that are untold to nature,

    so a book has feelings too.

  2. November 25, 2008

    There once was a horse in a pool,

    he always thought he could rule.

    He swam with the duck

    who was stuck-up,

    and now he's the king of the fools.

  3. November 25, 2008

    The leaves do not die.

    "Hello", said the other tree.

    My leaves are falling.

    (think deep)


  4. November 25, 2008

    p.s. the poems above (from me)

    arent that great because i had to do them for a english assignment.

    (im young) ( :] )

  5. January 11, 2009
     David Matuskey

    Words still unheard, words still untold.

    The meaning of one mans poem is constantly changing. Teach what shall be taut, but dance in your fame.

    Glow along distant tides walk along broken minds.

    Makes sense to I, but I doesn't make sense to them...

  6. March 7, 2009
     Ashley M

    I really liked David Baker’s argument and analysis of this poem. Even though “Time to Come” is old, and one of Walt Whitman’s first pieces, it is very intelligible.

    David Baker states how Whitman had to climb up a “ladder” in order to be successful with his later poems and career as a poet. I always thought that was the way things worked. In order to be successful in something, you have to work hard to build yourself up to better things and opportunities. David Baker did a good job explaining this. This poem is a great poem for people who are just learning how to read and analyze poems. It is not to challenging but yet simple to understand. It has the basic poetic terms. For example it contains Enjamblement, Alliteration, Rhyme Scheme and Irony.

    Mr. Baker states in his Evaluation of “Time to Come” that “I don’t claim that “Time to Come” is a great poem. Rather it is a fascinating early poem by a great poet”. Later in the Evaluation he said “It foreshadows some of Whitman’s greatest later themes”. In order for Whitman to build off of his poem like Mr. Baker said it must have been a “good” poem. In all actuality a better poem was able to be created from this particular piece for example “Song of Myself” like he said. “Time to Come” had to be more then just fascinating in order for him to continue on with it trying to discover the meaning of death.

    I also notice while reading this analyis that there was a lot of camparing to Walt Whitmans other pieces of work. Honestly, I do not understand where “homosexuality” come in from reading this poem. I do not think it started with “Time to Come”. He is talking about death and the body. When Walt Whitman states in the third stanza “This curious frame of human mold, Where unrequited cravings play” I think he is leaning more towards how interesting the human body is, and wondering why do we have cravings that we can not control? But then he says they decay, along with the rest of the body. I got cravings like hunger sleep. I do not think when he uses “mould” it has to do with textures, more shapes, like the shape the body t akes when it deays.

    Everyone has there own opinions and since this poem is old like Mr. Baker said it could have a totally different meaning then what we both think. Overal it was a very judicious examination with a lot of approbation to Mr. Whitman.

  7. March 9, 2009
     William Sutton

    The speaker's views reflect on death

    but they also question many beliefs that

    humans have about death. I think that

    may be one of Whitman's main reasons

    for writing this poem. He wanted to

    express how he felt or the opposite of

    how he felt about death. There are

    many underlying clues that can lead a

    reader to recognizing this. The speaker

    talks about human emotion and the

    thoughts of death in the second and

    third stanzas. In this part of the poem

    the word “mould” appears. The reading

    guide talked about “mould” and said

    that it was about decay and the way a

    body changes. I disagree with that and

    believe there is a greater underlying

    meaning being overlooked. I have

    interpreted “mould” as a word Whitman

    may have tried to use to trick or

    blindfold the reader. Instead of what

    was written in the reading guide, I

    believe the speaker is saying that

    Humans have molded the thoughts of

    death and given it there own meaning.

    The speaker discredits these thoughts

    by describing humans, and their very

    unstable emotions. This is the first

    place where thoughts of death and what

    happens after are questioned. In the

    fifth stanza the speaker questions

    nature for the answers to death and the

    after life instead of asking his own. The

    last thing the speaker does to discredit

    and object to the beliefs humans have,

    is by questioning whether or not a soul

    lives on forever. The speaker is talking

    about the cycle of death, but

    underneath he or she is questioning all

    that has ever been said about death

    and the afterlife.

  8. March 10, 2009
     Anthony Berman

    Whitman wrote this poem about what it is to die. He wrote about the cycle the body takes to shut down and how one experiences death. The speaker is the one dying, but Whitman wrote this from what a living person believes death is. One can not describe this feeling and live to tell the tale, but Whitman wrote this poem describing death from a living person's point of view. The poem has an ominous tone which carries through out, almost making the reader feel as though they have experienced death.

    There is not a person alive who can not say they don't ponder the after life, and Whitman made the point to mention his own wonder during the fifth stanza. I believe this was Whitman's motivation to write the poem. Whitman continues in the sixth stanza to ask the question, "What happens to the soul after the body dies."

    The text is as erie as the thought of death itself. Whitman uses words like burning, and decay to describe what happens to the body. This is a hard thing to wrap your head around, death, it happens to everyone but no one wants it to ever happen. Whitman described the mystery as best a living person could.

  9. March 25, 2009

    This has more to do with the afterlife than Walt's poem, but the exploration is the same.

    Given the force of habit, and especially the habit of mind, the soul after death must continue for a while to believe it is still "living". So the world it creates will be very similar to this one. But over time the memory will begin to fade and that new emptiness will be replaced with the deeper mental movements. Thus one will live one's tendency toward self-destructiveness or toward creation of new and brighter things. The necessity for an Inner Guide is heavily underlined.

  10. May 1, 2009
     Marilyn Okon

    I found the following Walt Whitmas quote in a magazine and would like to know where it came from.

    This is what you shall do: Love
    the earth and sun and the animals, despice riches,give alms to every
    one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, late tyrants,
    argue not concerning God, have
    patience and indulgence toward
    the people...and your very flesh shall be a great poem.

  11. August 19, 2009

    Marilyn, the quote is from the Preface to Leaves of Grass.

  12. August 19, 2009

    ... and you can read the full text of it here: http://www.bartleby.com/39/45....

  13. September 7, 2009


    While you rightly mention that "Time To
    Come" is a highly revised version of
    "Our Future Lot" -- with this latter poem
    being the first one we know Whitman
    published -- you have mysteriously
    chosen to print the much later,
    significantly different, latter version over
    the first version. The first version
    continues on for several stanzas and
    has a rather redemptive ending instead
    of this somewhat ambivalent one. The
    oversite is at best unfortunate. Readers
    who want to read the first piece of
    poetry Whitman published should
    consult The Early Poems and the Fiction.
    Thomas L. Brasher - editor. Publisher:
    New York University Press. Place of
    Publication: New York. Publication Year:
    1963. Page Number: 27-28