Thinking now of the trajectory of his own life, from the “ever-push’d elasticity” of his youth to his “balanced, florid and full” maturity to his “old age superbly rising,” right on up to the “ineffable grace of dying days,” the poet realizes that every single life instantiates the endless transmutations of time. Nothing is steady or unchanging, he reminds us; all is incessant transformation, and a glance at our own shifting lives—from zygote to corpse—underscores the wondrous mystery of material change. And that change is fueled by our unstoppable interaction with the world around us, from our first sentient encounter to our last, from the first thing we swallow to the final breath we exhale. “My lovers suffocate me,” Whitman says, and those “lovers”—from the lice in the pores of his skin to the strangers who jostle him in the streets to the naked lover in his bed at night—all alter him as they enter or jostle or kiss his body. “Suffocate” means, etymologically, “under or down the throat.” “Song of Myself” is a poem of sublime suffocation, where all the things around the poet are swallowed (recall the vast catalog of Section 33, where Whitman says “All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it”), and where the overwhelmingly diverse things outside the self are taken into his body through his physical senses and then struggle to get out of his clogged throat as he works to give every thing voice.
“Every condition promulges not only itself, it promulges what grows after and out of itself,” Whitman claims, using the unfamiliar word “promulge” (which in its roots means to “bring forth in public” to “to publish” or “to cause to emerge”): whatever event or thing or person that appears in the present moment not only manifests itself, appears fully in the physical world, it also contains all that it will change into. We cannot see the future transformations, but we can be confident that there will be transformations, and whatever emerges from the present conditions is essentially contained in the present conditions. Even the “dark hush”—the mysteries of silence itself—contains a future sound. Our spoken and written words, after all, emerge from silence: that is the miracle of language.
So Whitman concludes this section by evoking again that new vast cosmos that astronomers were opening to him: no matter how far into the universe we go, there are universes beyond (theoretical physicists today speculate that there may be an infinity of universes). We simply cannot travel in time or space far enough to come to an end. Whitman’s universe is not one that has a beginning and end, but rather only what we might call an ongoingness. There cannot be “stoppage.” Even if we imagine an apocalyptic end that would reduce all that now exists back to a “pallid float,” the forces of life and transformation and evolution would begin working again on that “float” of matter and in “a few quadrillions of eras” produce again a sentient world with sentient beings.
We contain within ourselves, then, vast and unimaginable futures. Originally, Whitman ended this section with the line, “Our rendezvous is fitly appointed . . . . God will be there and wait till we come.” He altered the ending to make the vast cosmos even more personal and intimate: Whitman’s “Lord” turns out to be “the great Camerado,” a bedfellow, a longed-for lover, for whatever the materials of the present come to be in hundreds or thousands or millions or quadrillions of years hence, they will be intimately related to us, because they were us, in very real ways.
Time and space expand and collapse in the act of love; the one constant in the span of an hour, a life, an era, is the law of attraction, which all things obey, the arc of desire, at different points of which history and geography merge and then go their separate ways: the secret theme of poetry. In this section Whitman traces that arc through his experience—lovers suffocating him, calling to him like birds, “lighting on every moment of [his] life” from youth until old age and beyond; in his vision of an endlessly expanding universe the stars that he sees from a window in his roof are but “the rim of the farther systems,” which he already inhabits.
So do we. With our first intimation of “the dark hush,” the void, we apprentice ourselves to the logic of a cosmos we do not understand. Thus as a child, through the dining room window of my grandparents’ house in Maryland, I would watch the parking lot fill with patients arriving for their evening appointments. My grandfather, a country doctor, would leave the table before dessert to go to his basement office; and though I was oblivious to the pain of the men, women, and children in the waiting room I felt a certain fear rise up the stairs, which has never left me. My grandfather, returning after many hours, would sit in the kitchen eating cheese and crackers, talking about the people he had healed: stories that became for me a stay against terror.
Such stories “are but parts,” Whitman might say, since “any thing is but a part.” I want to believe that in the afterlife, which for the poet is located in the eternal present, the Lord and “lover true for whom I pine will be there.” I hope it is the case that “There is no stoppage and never can be stoppage;” that from the elasticity of youth old age will rise in our bodies, like sap, before the “ineffable grace” of the end; that what lies before us is in the here and now: limitless time and space. This is where I will wait, am waiting, have always waited, for you.
In this section, Whitman refers to his “youth” as “ever-push’d elasticity.” How is youth elastic? What are the implications of Whitman’s image here?