Facing Death

One trait that is arguably unique about humans is their supposed identity as the being who is conscious of his own death. That is, death is something a human being struggles with in their head through their whole life. This may have a lot to do with religion as a mass phenomenon among our species, that is people are often afraid of not having a purpose, their existence not mattering, so therefore attach themselves to some meaning.
One of my main criticisms of Western mass religion, is the ever too common exaggeration of one’s size in the universe. Some examples which come to mind are the following beliefs:

  • that god intervenes in every day lives
  • that god created man in his image (the human in the sky idea)
  • marriage as the act of God making 2 people 1

Walt Whitman is not guilty of any exaggeration of size whatsoever. He is completely aware of his less than miniscule size in the universe, and comes out with a more beautiful and romantic version of faith from this.

His version of nature is universal and all encompassing. He sees institutions like organized religion, and marriage, as human creations. I could imagine him considering his poetry to be a more powerful method of prayer, he seems to almost be chasing at this “nature” with his pen at times. Through his catalogues in “Song of Myself” for example he compares animals and people, giving animals comparison of people and vice versa, demonstrating his realization that we all share one common origin therefore we are all the same. The ways in which humans have furthered themselves from this universal thing are the ugly, “corrupted,” sides of man, bringing light to why Whitman shows so much admiration for the common man who lives off the land, therefore lives a life closer to nature. While being equally important as an aunt might drive some humans mad, it increases the meaning of life for Whitman, just being apart of something so vast, universal, beautiful, and unknown.

This ability to reconcile death and be fine with it, almost similar to the way an animal dies, at peace, is present in a few of Whitman’s poems. In his poem on Abraham Lincoln’s death, there is as much joy present, as sorrow, and he seems to reconcile the civil war deaths as meaningful in some way. Likewise in “Good-Bye my fancy,” we see him give a rather optimistic farewell to the world, further reassuring us that Whitman left this world in peace.

I’m going away, I know not where,
Or to what fortune, or whether I may ever see you again …
May-be it is you the mortal knob really undoing, turning—so now finally,
Good-Bye—and hail! My Fancy.

Through all of the world’s flaws, the sadness the corruption of humanity brings to him, the uncertainty of where he is to go, he embraces this uncertainty and welcomes death, faces it satisfied, reconciled. This is similar to John Keats whose time on Earth was extremely grueling, losing almost his entire family before falling himself to tuberculosis at age 26. Still in his poem, “ode to a Grecian Urn,” he manages to embrace uncertainty and reconcile his own death. This is perhaps even more impressive considering the concentration of extreme misery and loss, he faced still he reconciled a form of poetic optimism, ending his poem, “Beauty is truth, truth is beauty.”

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One Response to Facing Death

  1. Katherine Fox says:

    I like the idea that Whitman had a certain romantic veiw of religion and nature being almost on in the same. His appreciation of the ‘working man’ whose ties are so closely connected to nature reminds me of the Wordsworth poem Tintern Abbey, “For I have learned to look on nature, not as in the hour of thoughtless youth, but hearing oftentimes the still, sad music of humanity.”

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