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A Clear Midnight


ISSUE:  Spring 2005

Midnight: the witching hour, a haunted time, moment of epiphany. It is at this moment that our swaggering national bard, epic chanter of democracy, becomes a tender and delicate solitary, who addresses something wordless and imperishable inside himself, which he would free and let roam in the world.

Walt Whitman’s “A Clear Midnight,” the final poem in the cluster “From Noon to Starry Night” in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, has such spaciousness that I have to remind myself the entire poem consists of one sentence made up of forty-two words. It is only four lines long: one quatrain. And yet it enacts a threshold experience, a visionary crossing, an incantation that delivers a sense of overpowering spiritual immensity.

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes
        thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.

Whitman’s poem exemplifies the correspondence between our inner and outer worlds. It is all about transport, about the imagination in cooperation and harmony with the universe. Whitman seems to address his soul to achieve that harmony. This is a dramatic utterance, but it is also a conjuration. Whitman is playing a magician to his own soul on our behalf. The real addressee of the incantation is the reader who exists on the distant horizon of the poem. I cannot help but feel that one part of the poem’s meaning is that the reader, too, has an imperishable soul. The poem wants to trigger that soul to dwell on the eternal. It would release something wordless and equivalent into any of us who read it.

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