Walt Whitman: “Time to Come”
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.
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...