Time to Come

O, Death! a black and pierceless pall
    Hangs round thee, and the future state;
No eye may see, no mind may grasp
    That mystery of fate.

This brain, which now alternate throbs
    With swelling hope and gloomy fear;
This heart, with all the changing hues,   
    That mortal passions bear—

This curious frame of human mould,
    Where unrequited cravings play,
This brain, and heart, and wondrous form
    Must all alike decay.

The leaping blood will stop its flow;
    The hoarse death-struggle pass; the cheek
Lay bloomless, and the liquid tongue
    Will then forget to speak.

The grave will take me; earth will close
    O’er cold dull limbs and ashy face;
But where, O, Nature, where shall be
    The soul’s abiding place?

Will it e’en live? For though its light
    Must shine till from the body torn;
Then, when the oil of life is spent,   
    Still shall the taper burn?

O, powerless is this struggling brain
    To rend the mighty mystery;
In dark, uncertain awe it waits
    The common doom, to die.

Writing Ideas

  1. As David Baker notes in his guide, “Time to Come” was written before Whitman developed his trademark long-lined free verse. Compare this poem to “Song of Myself.” Then, try to Whitmanize “Time to Come” by rewriting its rhyming stanzas into the lines and rhythms of later Whitman. Use as many of the poem’s original words as possible, even as you might rearrange or drastically alter its syntax.
  2. Take the final words of each line and use them as the first words of lines in a poem that creates a mirror-effect to “Time to Come.” Feel free to pick up other language from the poem as well.
  3. Though conventional in some ways, “Time to Come” is full of weird, arresting images and word pairings (“liquid tongue”; “oil of life”). Choose one and use it as the title or central image in your own poem.

Discussion Questions

  1. Whitman’s poem, as Baker points out, treats a favorite theme of Romanticism: the implications of bodily death for the soul. How does Whitman explore the duality of mind-body? On what does he spend the most time elaborating, mourning, and imagining?
  2. It is common to assume poems like Whitman’s—that is, lyric poems—have a speaker that is not necessarily the poet himself. Yet who, or what, is speaking in “Time to Come”? Note the places in which mind, heart, body, and soul are mentioned. How, or to whom, are they attributed? If not exactly a “speaker,” what might be articulating this poem?

Teaching Tips

  1. As a class, read “Time to Come” and “Song of Myself” and discuss the differences between early and late Whitman. You might have them complete the first writing idea, or read and discuss David Baker’s guide to the poem. Use either tactic as a way to begin a discussion on poetic careers and stylistic change. Do poets (or other writers) change drastically over the course of a long career? In what ways? Does perhaps style change while, as Baker suggests, certain themes remain constant? Students might research poets who had long careers, tracking their styles from early to mid to late. Or, if your class has been writing poems all semester/year, they might read one another’s work and write mini-reviews of how their classmates’ work has developed over the course of their “career.”
  2. As David Baker notes, in this poem Whitman sounds more like a Romantic poet brooding over death and bodily decay than the lusty breaker of “new wood” (Pound’s phrase) we associate with Leaves of Grass. Have your students peruse other Romantic era poems about death. What attitudes seem consistent across the poems they’re encountering? How does the Romantic view of death differ from the ways death is represented in contemporary culture? How does Romantic “gothic morbidity” play out in contemporary poetry? Students might try to find examples of recent poetry that strikes them as particularly “Romantic” or anti-Romantic. You might discuss the trademarks of such poetry: hyperbole, apostrophe, perhaps allegory or the Ubi sunt tradition. Finally, students might write a pastiche or parody of a Romantic poem of “gothic morbidity.” 
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