AG: (Whitman) – So what happens when he gets older, then?. now seventy? – “Sands at Seventy”. I read one little thing, but I wanted to get that disillusionment (or, it’s not totally disillusionment, it’s adjustment) – he’s got this idee-fixe, he’s got a big solid block of fantasy going, and (he’s) developed his entire life, and then, at seventy..”
As I sit writing here, sick and grown old/Not least my burden is the dulness of the years, querilities,/ Ungracious gloom, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering/ennui,/May filter in my daily songs” – And then he ended “Queries to My Seventieth Year” – “Approaching, nearing, curious,/ Thou dim, uncertain spectre – bringest thou life or death?/Strength, weakness, blindness, more paralysis and heavier?/ Or placid skies and sun?/Wilt stir the waters yet?/ Or haply cut me short for good? Or leave me here as now/Dull. parrot-like, with crack’d voice harping, screeching?” – He actually sort of acquiesced to the moods of the day and was able to register them as he drifted off.
Here’s “Of That Blithe Throat of Thine”. He’s read, in the National Geographic, or the newspapers, that “more than eighty-three degrees north – about a good day’s steaming distance to the Pole by one of our fast oceaners in clear water – Greely, the explorer heard the song of a single snow-bird merrily sounding over the desolation”. So, in “Sands at Seventy”, he takes off on that – “Of that blithe throat of thine from arctic bleak and bleak,/I’ll mind the lesson, solitary bird…”…”Not summer’s zones alone – not chants of youth, or south’s warm tides alone,/ But held by sluggish floes, pack’d in the northern ice, the cumulus of/ years,/ These with gay heart I also sing” – More comments on his age there, then. So – “The Final Lilt of Songs” –
“To get the final lilt of songs/To penetrate the inmost lore of poets – to know/ the mighty ones,/ Job, Homer, Eschylus, Dante, Shakespeare/, Tennyson, Emerson/ To diagnose the shifting delicate tints of love /and pride and doubt – to truly understand,/ To encompass these, the last keen faculty/ and entrance-price./ Old age, and what it brings from all its past experience.”
So, “Sands at Seventy” explores that area. It’s not much noticed, the little poems there, but, I would say, worth checking out to see what’s going to happen to you – “old age, sickness and death” –
“Thanks in Old Age” – “Thanks in old age – thanks ere I go,/ For health, the midday sun, the impalpable air – for life, mere life,/ For precious ever-lingering memories…”…”As soldier from an ended war return’d – As traveler out of/ myriads to the long procession retrospective,/ Thanks – joyful thanks! – a soldier’s traveler’s thanks” –
So that was a little address to you. But then he begins to doubt himself, actually. You get doubt (about) the whole universal dream he had – “Stronger Lessons” – and this begins to get a little bit sounding like the upstairs guru! – “Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside/ for you?/ Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who/ rejected you, and braced themselves against/ you? or who treated you with contempt, or/disputed the passage with you?” – that’s two lines – well, (so) maybe he was wrong then – “Twilight” – “The soft voluptuous opiate-shades,/ The sun just gone, the eager light dispelled – (I too/ will soon be gone, dispelled),/ A haze -nirvana – rest and night – oblivion.” – Well, he was willing to leave it there, just sort of drift off, but... “You Lingering Sparse Leaves Of Me” – “You lingering sparse leaves of me on winter-nearing boughs/ And I some well-shorn tree of field or orchard-row/ You tokens diminute and klorn 0 (not now the flush of May, or/ July clover-bloom – no grain of August now:)/You pallid banner-staves – you penants valueless/ You over-/stay’d of time,/ Yet my soul-dearest leaves confirming all the rest,/ The faithfulest- hardiest – last.” – So it’s a last effort at speech , the last attempts to record what he saw of reality – “An Evening Lull” – “After a week of physical anguish,/ Unrest and pain, and feverish heat,/ Toward the ending day a calm and lull comes on/ Three hours of peace and soothing rest of brain.” – Three hours was about the best he could get out of the situation there.
Then, the final poem in “Sands at Seventy” (which is not his last book) – “After The Supper and Talk“. It indicates the variability of his temperament there – “After the supper and talk – after the day is done,/ As a friend from friends his final withdrawal prolonging,/ Good-bye and Good-bye with emotional lips repeating….”…”Soon to be lost, for aye, in the darkness – loth, O so loth to depart!/ Garrulous to the very last.”
But then he’s still got more going – “Goodbye My Fancy” (which is concluding the Leaves of Grass) – there are still a few poems left. And he’s even got a little note, a little Preface to that, saying: “Reader, you must allow a little fun here – for one reason there are too many of the following poemets [sic] about death, etc , and for another, the passing hours (July 5, 1890) are so sunny-fine. And old as I am I feel today almost a part of some frolicsome wave, or for sporting yet like a kid or kitten – probably a streak of physical adjustment and perfection here and now. I believe I have it in me perennially anyway)”
Okay, so what’s he got to say at the very end? – “My 71st Year” – “After surmounting threescore and ten,/With all their chances, changes, losses, sorrows/ My parents’ death, the vagaries of my life, the many tearing passions of me, the war of ’63/ and ‘4/ As some old broken soldier, after a long, hot, wearying march, or as haply after battle,/At twilight, hobbling, answering yet to company roll-call, Here, with vital voice, Reporting yet, saluting yet the Officer over all” – Capital “O” – “Officer” – so I guess he’s still got some idea that there might be someone in charge.
And, a little more thought about his own prophecies – “Long Long Hence” – “After a long, long course, hundreds of years, denials,/ Accumulations, rous’d love and joy and thought,/ Hopes, wishes, aspirations, ponderings, victories, myriads of readers/Coating, compassing, covering – after ages’ and ages’ encrustations/ Then only may these songs reach fruition”
And (from “Old Age Echoes”) – “Sounds of The Winter” – “Sounds of the winter too,/ Sunshine upon the mountains – many a distant strain..”…”An old man’s garrulous lips among the rest – Think not we give out yet,/ Forth from these snowy hairs we too keep up the lilt.” – So he’s willing – It’s like he can get passionate about it again. “As I sit in twilight by the flickering oak-flame,/musing on long-passed war scenes… [Allen concludes by reading, in its entirety, Whitman’s 1891 “A Twilight Song” –
“As I sit in twilight by the flickering oak-flame…
“…”Henceforth to be, deep, deep within my heart recording, for many a future year,/Your mystic roll entire of unknown names, or North or South,/ Embalm’d with love in this twilight song.”
[tape ends here – continues]
[Audio for the above is available here, beginning approximately thirty-one-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-three-and-a-half minutes in]