Now when Whitman is not speaking bad prose he sings, and when he sings at all he sings well. (Swinburne Letters, Vol. 3, Feb. 20 1875 to E. C. Stedman)
After a couple of decades rummaging through Walt Whitman I finally managed to read his complete poems, the 1891 Leaves of Grass, in my edition 400 packed pages of bad prose and fine singing. Some of my “reading” was pretty mechanical, more of a one-eyed check that this particular poem was another one of those poems, one of the many returns to the same subject. Sometimes reading is like flying; sometimes it is more like digging, and Whitman is a poet of the earth:
Who has gone farthest? for I would go farther…
And who has made hymns fit for the earth? for I am mad with
devouring ecstasy to make joyous hymns for the whole earth. (“From Noon to Starry Night: Excelsior,” ellipses mine, skipping many other strong claims)
Earth poems; mole poems. Compost poems. Literally so – see “Autumn Rivulets: This Compost.” Readers may remember when, several years ago, I invoked Whitman as the patron poet of weeding. He is suitable for gardening, too, although in this poem the compostable material is man:
O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’s corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?
Reading Whitman in bulk did finally pound in the significance the Civil War had for him – the destruction he saw on battlefields and in his work as a nurse, none of which turned him away from the Union cause, and how could it?
Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions
of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from
them at last.
A happy ending, in an ecological sense. So many poems return to the war.
I do not see where to include my favorite line, so it goes here: “Behold this compost! behold it well!” Is this bad prose or singing? As radically different as they are, Whitman and Swinburne share a tendency to trip into kitsch, a necessary risk of their innovative verse. They are poets who “would go farther,” poets who go too far.
O to make the most jubilant song!
Full of music – full of manhood, womanhood, infancy!
Full of common employments – full of grain and trees.
O for the voices of animals – O for the swiftness and balance of fishes! (“A Song of Joys”)
And heck if the poem does not have some wonderfully described scenes of fishermen at work – “the dark green lobsters are desperate with their claws as I take them out, I insert wooden pegs in the joints of their pincers.” Prose or singing? This is how Whitman sings.
O to have life henceforth a poem of new joys!
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on!
To be a sailor of the world bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,)
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.