WHITMAN'S FINAL PAEAN TO AMERICA.
WHITMAN, WALT. 1819-1892. Autograph Manuscript Signed ("Walt Whitman"), a draft of the final lines to his final poem "A Thought of Columbus," 2 lines on the verso of an envelope, postmarked November 9, 1891, ink, with numerous additions and corrections.
AUTOGRAPH PORTION OF WHITMAN'S "FINAL LIFTING OF THE FLAME" — his last words on the destiny and greatness of America, "A Thought of Columbus." Composed in the months leading up to his death and in expectation of the Columbian Exhibition of 1893, "A Thought of Columbus" represents a coda to Whitman's lifelong poetic work, his swan song to the American ideal.
Walt Whitman's America was the global Spirit of Progress – the dynamic expansion and opening up of the "cloy'd and stifled" culture of the Old World, a future-oriented and transcendent ideal of progress, democracy and technology. In his final poem, "A Thought of Columbus," written in November-December of 1891, Whitman links himself to Columbus, representing the "potent 'thought' that generates the America Whitman inhabits" (Vogel, p 13) and signifying the core of Whitman's poetical ideal. Whitman wrote about Columbus in three other major works, "Passage to India" (1870), "Song of the Exposition" (1876), and "The Prayer of Columbus" (1874), but this fourth and final "voyage" ties together these three earlier poems and conjoins them directly to the Columbian Exhibition. A Thought of Columbus "speaks to the westering of civilization and the culmination of progress; it praises the broad continent that supposedly made such political innovations as democracy and technological inventions like the engine important; it speaks to the development of new arts, customs, and social forms appropriate to America; it applauds the freedom from as well the perfection of European institutions; it advances faith in American transcendence" (Vogel, p 14).
The completed manuscript of "A Thought of Columbus" resides in the Library of Congress, composed of fragments of verse written on diverse scraps of waste paper, envelopes, and old letters, and pasted together to form a whole. Begun in November 1891, Traubel records that Whitman gave him the manuscript along with bits and pieces of draft manuscript on March 16, 1892, just ten days before his death.
The present manuscript, composed on the verso of an envelope dated November 9, 1891, is of a piece with the LOC copy (which similarly evidences revisions to its text even in its final draft). In Traubel's account of the composition of "A Thought of Columbus," he notes "That he [Whitman] considered the poem in some sense complete is proved by the signature which he affixed." The present manuscript is signed in the same fashion just beneath the text, suggesting that Whitman originally conceived this verse as the terminal line of the poem, and accordingly signed it. Though the actual printed poem continues beyond this verse, the succeeding text is a parenthetical postscript address to Columbus. Encapsulating the central idea of the poem, the present manuscript represents the culmination of Whitman's Columbian ideal — the "untying" and "eclaircissement of human life and hopes" — a fitting summation of Whitman's lifetime of poetic effort.
Vogel, Andrew. "Whitman's Columbia: The Commemoration of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in 'A Thought of Columbus,'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 29 (2011), pp 1-18.
Traubel, Horace. "Walt Whitman's Last Poem." Once a Week: An Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, July 16, 1892, p 3.
"...with his heart in affairs to the very end, this 'thought' of Columbus marks the final lifting of the flame—his last august touch with that divine energy which through a heroic life had imparted to him its highest and rarest potencies of prophecy and song."