This poem made me think of my recently departed friend Bill Dalzell, and of our talks during his last months.
AFTER THE SUPPER AND TALK.
After the supper and talk—after the day is done,
As a friend from friends his final withdrawal prolonging,
Good-bye and Good-bye with emotional lips repeating,
(So hard for his hand to release those hands—no more will they
No more for communion of sorrow and joy, of old and young,
A far-stretching journey awaits him, to return no more,)
Shunning, postponing severance—seeking to ward off the last
word ever so little,
E’en at the exit-door turning—charges superfluous calling back—
e’en as he descends the steps,
Something to eke out a minute additional—shadows of nightfall
Farewells, messages lessening—dimmer the forthgoer’s visage
Soon to be lost for aye in the darkness—loth, O so loth to depart!
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Having finalized the arrangement of Leaves of Grass, Whitman published a supplemental volume of prose and poetry with the autumnal title November Boughs. Many of its sixty-four lyrics and what Whitman labeled its “poemets” … were added as an “Annex” to the 1888 edition as “Sands at Seventy.” These verses reported his cheerful bearing as he faced physical deterioration—solemn-sweet announcements of his readiness for death, and cheerful expressions of farewell. … In the prose preface “A Backward Glance O’er Travel’d Roads” (1888), Whitman wrote: “In the free evening of my day I give you reader the foregoing garrulous talk, thoughts, reminiscences,” and suggested that, alive or dead, he would ever aspire to talk to the living reader. That sentiment is beautifully developed in the bittersweet vers de société masterpiece ”After the Supper and Talk.” Against the onrush of the ultimate night the poem shows the Whitman figure striving to the very end to preserve his voice—the same “garrulous talk” he had referred to in the introduction to “A Backward Glance”—the “talk” that embodies his life force and his spiritual selfhood. He feels that his words alone will perpetuate him in the mortal sphere. Standing at the “exit-door” of life but loath to leave for the unknown, he clings compulsively to the warmth of human hands, to the music of human voices, and to the sound of his own voice. Although he hopes that his poetic voice will endure into the future, he wishes to prolong his mortal vocal powers as long as he can. In order to achieve dramatic distance, and perhaps to cushion the shock of his impending death, the poet employs a rhetorical device that is rarely found in his poems. He refers to himself in the third person and pictures himself observing from a distance the vanishing figure of the mortal Whitman. His reluctance to depart from the House of Life is expressed in a series of death-related metaphors. And as a master of participials, Whitman constructs a verse that (except for three lines contained within parentheses) forms an uncompleted statement, so that his departure, as he might have wished, seems to be postponed indefinitely.
— Harold Aspiz, So Long! Walt Whitman’s Poetry of Death
posted by Roger W. Smith, March 2018