Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
'There Was a Child Went Forth' [1855]
Author:
Aspiz, Harold
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Untitled in the first edition, called "Poem of The Child That Went Forth, and Always Goes Forth, Forever and Forever" in 1856, and grouped in the "Leaves of Grass" cluster in 1860 and 1867, the poem received its present title in 1871. Successive revisions improved its style but probably lessened its emotional impact. 

Called by Whitman "the most innocent thing I ever did" (Traubel 157) and by Edwin Haviland Miller "one of the most sensitive lyrics in the language and one of the most astute diagnoses of the emergent self" (27-28), this 39-line poem is a retrospective view describing the absorption of everything the poem's child beholds. Each sensation becomes "part of" the child (a phrase repeated six times) and by implication foreshadows his maturation into the Whitman poet-persona. 

Sandwiched between the poem's opening assertion that each experience "became part of" the child and the closing line's recapitulation of the same idea, a compact catalogue records an astounding four dozen metaphorically-charged images or sounds that the child absorbs (in a phrase deleted in later editions) "with wonder or pity or love or dread" (1855 Leaves). His development is shown objectively by interlinked patterns of space, colors, passing time, and social phenomena; subjectively by his developing cognitive powers. 

Coincidentally or not, the poem illustrates the phrenological formula for educating the superior child by cultivating its powers of observing all surrounding phenomena. "The inductive method of studying nature, namely, by observing facts and ascending through analogous facts up to the laws that govern them is the only way to arrive at correct conclusions" (Spurzheim 16-17). The young child progressively observes a colorful array of plant and animal life, including the grass, "early lilacs," the ovoid "white and red morning-glories" (corresponding to the glorious morning of his world), young farmyard animals, and—in language suggesting the intersection of his objective and subjective worlds—fish "curiously" suspended in "the beautiful curious liquid." In an intimation of good and evil, he views the passing spectacle of children and adults. The statement that "all the changes of city and country" became "part of him" signals his growing powers of cognition. 

The poem's second half tests the child's cognitive powers. Whitman was aware of the phrenological principles that a child's character is basically formed by the blending of the physical and mental characteristics of its parents and by its familial nurture. These principles also state that great poets are descended from gifted mothers—hence the poem's eugenically significant statement that the child's parents "became part of him." Lines 22-25 are sometimes read as literal portraits of Whitman's parents, but the mild, sweet-smelling matriarch resembles the idealized mother figures in Whitman's poems and the "strong, self-sufficient, manly" father is not demonstrably Walter Whitman, Senior. In phrenological terms, the father's aggressive traits endow the child with the self-confidence needed to balance the gentler traits inherited from the mother. 

The growing child's innocence—his perceptions and his "yearning and swelling heart"—is threatened by "The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time." His questionings are not resolved, but his departure from home, through the bustling city, affords him auguries of divinity: views of sunset "[s]hadows, aureola, and mist" and the "strata of color'd clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away solitary by itself, the spread of purity it lies motionless in." (These luminous tints complement the pastels of the child's earlier sightings.) The final image of the "horizon's edge . . . salt marsh and shore mud" mingles metaphors of land and sea, suggesting the man-child's initiation into the mysteries of life and death. 

The poem's ending repeats the idea that this child who "will always go forth every day" has been molded by his absorptions. The first published version ends with the (deleted) line: "And these become [part] of him or her that peruses them now" (1855 Leaves), implying that the poem can recapture the child's wonder world for every reader. Although the poem's child-persona is apparently an isolated observer, Whitman's musical and sensuous rendering of its observations has kept the poem perennially fresh. 

Bibliography 

Aspiz, Harold. "Educating the Kosmos: 'There Was a Child Went Forth.'" American Quarterly 18 (1966): 655-666. 

____. Walt Whitman and the Body Beautiful. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1980. 108-141. 

Doherty, Joseph P. "Whitman's 'Poem of the Mind.'" Semiotica 14 (1975): 345-363. 

Miller, Edwin Haviland. Walt Whitman's Poetry: A Psychological Journey. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. 

Spurzheim, J.G. Education: Its Elementary Principles Founded on the Nature of Man. 1821. New York: Fowler and Wells, 1847. 

Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Ed. Gertrude Traubel and William White. Vol. 6. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1982. 

Waskow, Howard J. Whitman's Explorations in Form. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1966. 

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 1. New York: New York UP, 1980.


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