Leaves of Grass | Study Guide

Walt Whitman

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Leaves of Grass | To Think of Time | Summary

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Summary

Whitman's speaker reflects on time and its effect on the living. He asks, "Have you guessed you yourself would not continue?" and "Have you feared the future would be nothing to you?" While men and women are alive, they take interest in a great many things, such as building a house. But once they are gone, they are indifferent to future men and women who build houses.

The speaker observes a funeral in the cold month of December. He reminisces on how lively this man was, and how quickly he is buried: "the earth is swiftly shoveled in ... a minute."

Despite the fleeting nature of a human, individual life, there is something eternal in that life, too, for each individual is unique and makes his or her own mark on the world. Whitman's speaker catalogs all the various types that "are not nothing." He sees "that every thing has an eternal soul," and thinks, "there is nothing but immortality."

Analysis

"To Think of Time" uses repetition and anaphora liberally to create an introspective, rhythmic effect as Whitman's speaker ponders the immortality of the soul. This poem reflects Whitman's transcendentalist philosophy and the idea held by adherents to the 19th-century American movement of the inherent goodness of the soul.

He begins his argument for the immortality of the soul by facing the fact that all humans must physically die. Not a second on Earth passes "without a corpse." In the first stanza, he directly asks readers, in a rhetorical question, if they fear becoming "nothing." After vividly describing death and a funeral, Whitman's speaker assures the reader later that just like various people throughout time are not "nothing," neither is the reader "nothing." The opposite of "nothing" is "something," and the speaker explicitly states, "Something long preparing and formless is arrived and formed in you, / You are thenceforth secure, whatever comes or goes."

Whitman's speaker admits he may not understand the why or the how of the soul's immortality, but he believes in it anyway because he sees perfection in himself and nature around him: "I cannot define my satisfaction ... yet it is so, / I cannot define my life ... yet it is so." The speaker believes all processes of life and death are a preparation for the eternal. He repeats the word "nothing" in the last stanza as an echo of the first stanza—but where "nothing" was part of a question there, "nothing" is part of a declaration here. Consider this initial, rhetorical question: "Have you feared the future would be nothing to you?" And consider this the wholly emphatic answer: "I swear I think there is nothing but immortality!"

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