Walt Whitman (1819 – 1892)
A favorite poet of mine, Whitman captured the essence of mid-19th century America. Explosive growth westward, the rise of great cities, and the expanding minds of the men and women who witnessed a still young nation come into its own along with a Civil War that divided the nation, the abolition of slavery, and the rise of the United States as an industrial power.
In thinking about mortality and the introspection that comes so naturally with advancing years, Whitman wrote the look at mortality offered here. I’ve coupled some songs that address the topic as well as a partial reading of the poem below…
Enjoy the weekend!
“To Think of Time” – by Walt Whitman
To think of time–of all that retrospection!
To think of to-day, and the ages continued henceforward!
Have you guess’d you yourself would not continue?
Have you dreaded these earth-beetles?
Have you fear’d the future would be nothing to you?
Is to-day nothing? Is the beginningless past nothing?
If the future is nothing, they are just as surely nothing.
To think that the sun rose in the east! that men and women were
flexible, real, alive! that everything was alive!
To think that you and I did not see, feel, think, nor bear our part!
To think that we are now here, and bear our part!
Not a day passes–not a minute or second, without an accouchement!
Not a day passes–not a minute or second, without a corpse!
The dull nights go over, and the dull days also,
The soreness of lying so much in bed goes over,
The physician, after long putting off, gives the silent and terrible
look for an answer,
The children come hurried and weeping, and the brothers and sisters
are sent for,
Medicines stand unused on the shelf–(the camphor-smell has long
pervaded the rooms,)
The faithful hand of the living does not desert the hand of the
The twitching lips press lightly on the forehead of the dying,
The breath ceases, and the pulse of the heart ceases,
The corpse stretches on the bed, and the living look upon it,
It is palpable as the living are palpable.
The living look upon the corpse with their eye-sight,
But without eye-sight lingers a different living, and looks curiously
on the corpse.
To think the thought of Death, merged in the thought of materials!
To think that the rivers will flow, and the snow fall, and fruits
ripen, and act upon others as upon us now–yet not act upon us!
To think of all these wonders of city and country, and others taking
great interest in them–and we taking no interest in them!
To think how eager we are in building our houses!
To think others shall be just as eager, and we quite indifferent!
(I see one building the house that serves him a few years, or seventy
or eighty years at most,
I see one building the house that serves him longer than that.)
Slow-moving and black lines creep over the whole earth–they never
cease–they are the burial lines,
He that was President was buried, and he that is now President shall
surely be buried.
A reminiscence of the vulgar fate,
A frequent sample of the life and death of workmen,
Each after his kind:
Cold dash of waves at the ferry-wharf–posh and ice in the river,
half-frozen mud in the streets, a gray, discouraged sky
overhead, the short, last daylight of Twelfth-month,
A hearse and stages–other vehicles give place–the funeral of an old
Broadway stage-driver, the cortege mostly drivers.
Steady the trot to the cemetery, duly rattles the death-bell, the
gate is pass’d, the new-dug grave is halted at, the living
alight, the hearse uncloses,
The coffin is pass’d out, lower’d and settled, the whip is laid on
the coffin, the earth is swiftly shovel’d in,
The mound above is flatted with the spades–silence,
A minute–no one moves or speaks–it is done,
He is decently put away–is there anything more?
He was a good fellow, free-mouth’d, quick-temper’d, not bad-looking,
able to take his own part, witty, sensitive to a slight, ready
with life or death for a friend, fond of women, gambled, ate
hearty, drank hearty, had known what it was to be flush, grew
low-spirited toward the last, sicken’d, was help’d by a
contribution, died, aged forty-one years–and that was his
Thumb extended, finger uplifted, apron, cape, gloves, strap, wet-
weather clothes, whip carefully chosen, boss, spotter, starter,
hostler, somebody loafing on you, you loafing on somebody,
headway, man before and man behind, good day’s work, bad day’s
work, pet stock, mean stock, first out, last out, turning-in at
To think that these are so much and so nigh to other drivers–and he
there takes no interest in them!
The markets, the government, the working-man’s wages–to think what
account they are through our nights and days!
To think that other working-men will make just as great account of
them–yet we make little or no account!
The vulgar and the refined–what you call sin, and what you call
goodness–to think how wide a difference!
To think the difference will still continue to others, yet we lie
beyond the difference.
To think how much pleasure there is!
Have you pleasure from looking at the sky? have you pleasure from
Do you enjoy yourself in the city? or engaged in business? or
planning a nomination and election? or with your wife and
Or with your mother and sisters? or in womanly housework? or the
beautiful maternal cares?
–These also flow onward to others–you and I flow onward,
But in due time, you and I shall take less interest in them.
Your farm, profits, crops,–to think how engross’d you are!
To think there will still be farms, profits, crops–yet for you, of
What will be, will be well–for what is, is well,
To take interest is well, and not to take interest shall be well.
The sky continues beautiful,
The pleasure of men with women shall never be sated, nor the pleasure
of women with men, nor the pleasure from poems,
The domestic joys, the daily housework or business, the building of
houses–these are not phantasms–they have weight, form,
Farms, profits, crops, markets, wages, government, are none of them
The difference between sin and goodness is no delusion,
The earth is not an echo–man and his life, and all the things of his
life, are well-consider’d.
You are not thrown to the winds–you gather certainly and safely
Yourself! Yourself! Yourself, forever and ever!
It is not to diffuse you that you were born of your mother and
father–it is to identify you;
It is not that you should be undecided, but that you should be
Something long preparing and formless is arrived and form’d in you,
You are henceforth secure, whatever comes or goes.
The threads that were spun are gather’d, the weft crosses the warp,
the pattern is systematic.
The preparations have every one been justified,
The orchestra have sufficiently tuned their instruments–the baton
has given the signal.
The guest that was coming–he waited long, for reasons–he is now
He is one of those who are beautiful and happy–he is one of those
that to look upon and be with is enough.
The law of the past cannot be eluded,
The law of the present and future cannot be eluded,
The law of the living cannot be eluded–it is eternal,
The law of promotion and transformation cannot be eluded,
The law of heroes and good-doers cannot be eluded,
The law of drunkards, informers, mean persons–not one iota thereof
can be eluded.
Slow moving and black lines go ceaselessly over the earth,
Northerner goes carried, and Southerner goes carried, and they on the
Atlantic side, and they on the Pacific, and they between, and
all through the Mississippi country, and all over the earth.
The great masters and kosmos are well as they go–the heroes and
good-doers are well,
The known leaders and inventors, and the rich owners and pious and
distinguish’d, may be well,
But there is more account than that–there is strict account of all.
The interminable hordes of the ignorant and wicked are not nothing,
The barbarians of Africa and Asia are not nothing,
The common people of Europe are not nothing–the American aborigines
are not nothing,
The infected in the immigrant hospital are not nothing–the murderer
or mean person is not nothing,
The perpetual successions of shallow people are not nothing as they
The lowest prostitute is not nothing–the mocker of religion is not
nothing as he goes.
Of and in all these things,
I have dream’d that we are not to be changed so much, nor the law of
I have dream’d that heroes and good-doers shall be under the present
and past law,
And that murderers, drunkards, liars, shall be under the present and
For I have dream’d that the law they are under now is enough.
If otherwise, all came but to ashes of dung,
If maggots and rats ended us, then Alarum! for we are betray’d!
Then indeed suspicion of death.
Do you suspect death? If I were to suspect death, I should die now,
Do you think I could walk pleasantly and well-suited toward
Pleasantly and well-suited I walk,
Whither I walk I cannot define, but I know it is good,
The whole universe indicates that it is good,
The past and the present indicate that it is good.
How beautiful and perfect are the animals!
How perfect the earth, and the minutest thing upon it!
What is called good is perfect, and what is called bad is just as
The vegetables and minerals are all perfect, and the imponderable
fluids are perfect;
Slowly and surely they have pass’d on to this, and slowly and surely
they yet pass on
I swear I think now that everything without exception has an eternal Soul!
The trees have, rooted in the ground! the weeds of the sea have! the
I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!
That the exquisite scheme is for it, and the nebulous float is for
it, and the cohering is for it;
And all preparation is for it! and identity is for it! and life and
materials are altogether for it!
- “To Think of Time” (Whitman) – First section read by Hans Ostrom.
- “Dust In the Wind” – Kansas
- “Time Stand Still” – Rush
- “Time” – Pink Floyd
- “I Will Follow You Into the Dark” – Death Cab for Cutie
- “1956 Vincent Black Lightning” – Richard Thompson
- “We Will All Go Together When We Go” – Tom Lehrer