Whitman sings of a hot October sun in “Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling.” He tells the sun that he has always loved it, even as a boy, and that now as a man he may launch his “invocation” to it. Whitman says that he understands the sun, how “before the fitting man all Nature yields” and Whitman says that he knows its flames and “perturbations” well. In “Faces,” Whitman speaks of crossing the country and encountering a multitude of faces of the people he passes. He sees the brave and sturdy faces of the laborers and common people of the land, yet he also sees the disgusting and “slobbering” faces of death and evil. All of these faces “show their descent from the Master himself…are all deific…..”
Whitman describes a “wild trumpeter” in the poem “The Mystic Trumpeter.” He is a “strange musician” and Whitman calls him to blow “free and clear” so that he can follow. Whitman calls on the trumpeter to take on the “pulse of all” and to let the theme of love be his only song. All love is worth singing of, “Love, that is all the earth to lovers – love, that mocks time and space….” Whitman begins to think that he is, himself, “the instrument thou playest” since his heart and soul have melted in the song. The trumpeter’s song turns dark and Whitman takes on the songs of all those that are oppressed in the whole earth. All of the “measureless shame and humiliation of my race” becomes his to bear. Whitman calls on the trumpeter to give him a vision to renew his soul. In a “culminating song” the trumpeter plays a song of victory, a song in which “reborn races appear” and Whitman is filled with joy.
In “Mannahatta” Whitman sings a song for his city. He recounts asking “for something specific and perfect” for his city. This is when he encounters its “aboriginal name.” This name shows him something new of his city, that “the word of my city is that word from of old” and embodies all that the city has been and will be. This hurried city with its boats and commerce and immigrants is his city. It is “A million people – manners free and superb – open voices -- / hospitality – the courageous and friendly young men…..”
Whitman boasts in his own way in “Excelsior.” He asks, “Who has gone farthest? For I would go father.” He goes through a list of traits, from cautiousness, to happiness, to boastfulness and says that he would outdo all in their extremes. It is he that makes hymns “fit for the earth” and is “mad with devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole / earth.” Whitman’s thought is more reflective in “Weave In, My Hardy Life” as he admits that “We know not what the use O life, nor know the aim….” He only admits that we must always go on “the death-envelp’d march…..”
Whitman begins with a foreboding tone in the section entitled “Songs of Parting.” He seems to despair that the time of his life “draws nigh” and that his travels will one day cease. Yet, he ends this first poem, “As the Time Draws Nigh,” with the thought that his soul has “positively appear’d – that is enough.” In “Years of the Modern,” Whitman takes on a grander view of history. He sees millions of men marching through time, across “frontiers and boundaries of the old aristocracies broken” and he decides that this modern, democratic people, are “more like God” than ever before. America has grown to be a light where Europe had dimmed and retired “in shadow behind me….”
Whitman remembers those millions of marching men in “Ashes of Soldiers.” He asks the “Phantoms of countless lost” to never desert him while he lives. His love or these fallen comrades is pervasive through time, even if their sacrifice is lost and gone in memory. Whitman then takes the time to chastise those that would only look to previous ages for inspiration while ignoring the genius of the American age. These historians “hold despairingly yet to the models departed, caste, myths, obedience…” while ignoring the modern “athletes, the Western States” and the “freedom or spirituality” of this great nation. Those that shed their blood to unite the Union stays ever in Whitman’s mind.
Whitman reflects on the end of a day as a symbol of the end of his own life. Everything, he says, is “illustrious;” everything is “Good in all.” For Whitman, to live is wonderful and to die is also wonderful. “Wonderful to depart! / Wonderful to be here!” Breathing the daytime air is “delicious” while preparing for sleep is to be “satisfied.” It is an incredible existence, he says, to both be a God and “To have gone forth among other Gods, these men and women I love.” These men and women he celebrates, just as he celebrates himself. Even after he is gone, all things continue. Whitman looks around at his life and at the world around him and sees nothing but beauty; there is no thing that is “lamentable at last in the universe.”
Whitman concludes his book with the poem, “So Long.” He reflects on his journey and announces “what comes after me.” He says that his due will come “When America does what was promis’d / When through these States walk a hundred million of superb persons….” In summation, he says that he has sung of “the body and the soul,” of “war and peace,” and of “life and death.” In the end, Whitman says that his poems announce the best in all humanity and the best in the nation. He calls for people to rise up in justice and for the Union to become “more and more compact, indissoluble….”
Whitman knows that his songs are now ceasing, not only because this book is closing but because his life is ending as well. He wants the reader to know, however, that “Camerado, this is no book / Who touches this touches a man,” and that by reading this work he himself leaps “from the pages into your arms….” As he professes his love for the reader, he reminds them that he might one day return. For now, he is “disembodied, triumphant, dead.”
Like other sections of Leaves of Grass, the poems comprising “From Noon to Starry Nights” come from all periods during Whitman’s career. This section is, in a way, a review of many of the previous themes that he has engaged throughout the book. “Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling” is an ode to the sun. This can be understood as Whitman’s own cry for light in the closing years of his own life. He calls for the “perturbations” of the sun that inspired his earlier work to come now and inspire these later poems as well. Whitman uses the contrast of day and night to describe a particular period in his own life from which is now able to judge his earlier work (light) while understanding that his own death is imminent (night). Whitman engages the same themes in his poem of a wild trumpeter. The music has led him in many directions and he calls for the notes to be clear now and to guide his way.
In these poems, the reader finds Whitman varying in theme and tone. The reader almost does not recognize Whitman in “Excelsior:” he takes on a boastful voice and the tone is perhaps the book’s most vibrant and celebratory since the opening poems of “Drum-Taps.” This celebration is countered with meditation and calm reflection on life. Whitman is truly showing the reader both the day and the night in these poems. Each is quite different from the other.
The poems in “Songs of Parting,” while taken from various points in Whitman’s career, are organized in order to highlight the theme of closure and farewell. “So Long!” is the most well known of these closing poems. In this, Whitman gives a summation of his work – “I have sung the body and the soul, war and peace have I sung, and the songs of life and death.” While he has traversed many themes and literary landscapes throughout the work, this line is his attempt to capture an essence of the book.
This final poem is also a reminder of the promise that Whitman sees in the American democratic experiment. By the end of Leaves of Grass, it is undoubtedly true that this promise has been fought for and hard won. What stands out most of all here is Whitman’s continued belief in the perfectibility of the United States. Though he has gone through the most turbulent period in the nation’s history, he remains unwavering in his belief that American democracy, once fulfilled, will be the shining achievement of humanity. It is the culmination of the realization of the individual and the collective population. Each support and sustain the other.
“So Long!” is Whitman’s goodbye, but as he announced in his previous poems, his parting is not forever. Instead, this is a parting goodbye for the time being. Whitman announces himself once again to the personal reader and the closing lines read as if they are a personal note from the author. He implores the reader to not see these poems as simply a book; instead, they are a manifestation of Whitman himself. Whitman wrote in his autobiographical letters that he was less concerned with Leaves of Grass being taken seriously as a literary work than he was with the book becoming a chronicle of a life. It is both his life, the life of his country, and the life of his reader.