More Than Just a Dot: Whitman’s Love of That Crazy 4th Blot

. . . . (Whitman’s Early Love of Ellipses) . . . .


Brandy Anderson

Walt Whitman uses a plethora of ellipses in his first edition of Leaves of Grass, and these pronounced pauses change the way the poems are read. Silent readers register the pronounced pause, as they read to themselves, allowing the words to have more time to resonate. The reader performer, meaning the person who reads the poem aloud to others who are listening, must turn these ellipses into verbal pauses. In “Song of Myself”, Whitman not only uses many ellipses but he employs four ellipses rather than the standard three. This causes the reader and the reader performer to elongate the pause, to elongate, in fact, the feeling of “lean[ing] and loaf[ing] at ease . . . . ” (“Song” 1st ed. 5).

This prolific use of four ellipses affects not only the pauses but also the stress and intonation. It adds structure to the poem; it adds a new tone. This tone is altered in later editions of Leaves of Grass when Whitman removes the ellipses and either replaces them with commas or, in some cases, removes the ellipses and does not replace them with any other punctuation. Therefore, the pauses are omitted completely when no further punctuation stands in for the missing ellipses. Even the comma, which indicates a slight pause, alters the structure of the poem. The first line in the first edition complete with four ellipses:

“I lean and loaf at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass.” (“Song” 1st ed. 5)

reads quite differently than the same words do when formatted in the structure of the later editions:

“I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” (“Song” Norton 5)

In the first edition we have that pronounced pause that asks the reader, the reader performer,and the listener to STOP . . . to stop for a moment and relax into the words. The speaker of “Song of Myself” asks the reader, the reader performer and the listener to think about what the speaker is saying. The speaker is indicating that they should not rush through the words. In later editions, when the ellipses are omitted, the meaning and the structure are completely different without these pauses in place. The accentuated ease at which the words are to be read is gone. Though, certainly, that does not mean that the words should be rushed. However, that languid signal to relax, to slow down, is missing.

The ellipses not only affect the speed at which the words that fall directly before and after the ellipses are to be read, but it also affects the way in which the entire stanza is to be read. For example, the first three lines in the second stanza of section two of the first edition of “Song of Myself” have three ellipses breaks and no ellipses in the last two lines of the stanza. It appears thusly:

“The atmosphere is not a perfume . . . . it has no taste of the distillations . . . . it is odorless,

  It is for my mouth forever . . . . I am in love with it,

  I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.” (1st ed. 9-12).

The ellipses in the first two lines employ the languid pauses, but when they are omitted in the last two sentences it creates a juxtaposition of pause versus speed. This causes the reader and reader performer to pick up speed as he or she reads the last two lines, and this accelerated speed changes the tone of what is being said. A clear difference can be seen when this first edition is compared to the later ellipses-free editions:

“The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,

  It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,

  I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,

I am mad for it to be in contact with me.” (“Song” Norton 9-12).

In this later edition, where the ellipses are missing, there is no indication that the speed at which the lines are read should alter between the first two lines and the last two lines. This difference is striking since there is now no partition between the tone of the two pairs of lines. At first glance, the ellipses versus commas or no punctuation may not seem to be crucial to the poem’s meaning but further examination shows that this detail is significant. Therefore, even though the words in some stanzas may remain the same from edition to edition, the meaning and tone of the poetry is unquestionably altered.

Works Cited:
Whitman, Walt. “Songs of Myself”. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Malcolm Cowley. Pennsylvania: Penguin Books, 1980. Print.
Whitman, Walt. Selected Poems. Norton Anthology American Literature Vol B. Ed. Robert S. Levine and Arnold Krupat. New York: Norton, 2007. Print.


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