"The Great Starlit Vault of Heaven": Walt Whitman's Treatment of Death through Astronomy

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Damon Duc Pham


Death, or more accurately the defiance of death, is a recurring theme in Walt Whitman’s poetry. It is also an elusive one: though he consistently asserts humankind’s immortality, Whitman never arrives at a final treatment of death, instead allowing both his disposition toward death and the basis for his beliefs to be continually informed by his experiences. In this paper, I seek to better understand the metamorphosis of Whitman’s faith in immortality by exploring his use of astronomical imagery. He repeatedly calls upon stars, planets, and the night sky when discussing death, and his use of these motifs varies considerably throughout his career. To observe how the overlap between death and astronomy changes over time, I analyze poetry from three editions of Leaves of Grass: the first (1855), the edition published after the Civil War (1867), and the last (1891-1892). In doing so, I show that while Whitman initially found validation for immortality through external sublimity, this validation eventually collapses upon itself, leading him to discover an even more intense (yet still indefinite) proof within his own, internal poetic intuition.


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Pham, D. (2017). "The Great Starlit Vault of Heaven": Walt Whitman’s Treatment of Death through Astronomy. IU Journal of Undergraduate Research, 3(1), 36-41. https://doi.org/10.14434/iujur.v3i1.23319