The words of my book nothing, the drift of it every thing,
A book separate, not link’d with the rest nor felt by the intellect,
But you ye untold latencies will thrill to every page. (“Inscriptions: Shut Not Your Doors”)
Often, I almost believe this kind of guff from Whitman. He is such an original. His inspiration comes from somewhere else, somewhere few poets can go.
Oxen that rattle the yoke and chain or halt in the leafy shade, what is
that you express in your eyes?
It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life. (“Song of Myself,” 13)
Or it could just be an ultra-Romantic stance, a claim to purity and authenticity.
Away with old romance!
Away with old novels, plots and plays of foreign courts,
Away with love-verses sugar’d in rhyme, the intrigues, amours of idlers, (etc., “Song of the Exposition,” 7)
I have landed on Whitman’s most irritating poem, the one where he turns into a Socialist Realist.
To sing in songs how exercise in chemical life are never to be baffled,
To manual work for each and all, to plough, hoe, dig,
[blah blah blah]
To use the hammer and the saw, (rip, or cross-cut) (“Song of the Exposition,” 7)
That last line is like self-parody. I am digressing.
Reading Whitman’s final arrangement of Leaves of Grass, I did not pay too much attention to the chronology of the poems, written from Whitman’s thirties to his seventies, but since the book functions as a kind of memoir in verse it was often clear enough how poems fit into Whitman’s life. Many are explicitly poems of old age. What a surprise to find Whitman turning directly to literature in a late edition:
The Cid, Roland at Roncesvalles, the Nibelungen,
The troubadours, minstrels, minnesingers, skalds,
Chaucer, Dante, flocks of singing birds, (“Good-Bye My Fancy: Old Chants”)
The most recent writers: “Shakspere, Schiller, Walter Scott, Tennyson.” And of course the birds, that wonderful, sly, perfect inclusion of the birds along with Homer and the “Biblic books and prophets.”
Whitman’s 1888 book November Boughs has a prose preface, “A Backward Glance o’er Travel’d Roads,” that has more detail. He describes his lifelong reading of Scott’s poetry, “an inexhaustible mine and treasury of poetic forage (especially the endless forests and jungles of notes),” which made me laugh since it is exactly those jungles in Scott’s novels that I find not inexhaustible but exhausting.
He describes the importance to him of reading outdoors, in the woods or on the seashore – “it makes such difference where you read”:
(I have wonder’d since why I was not overwhelm’d by those mighty masters [Homer, etc]. Likely because I read them, as described, in the full presence of Nature, under the sun, with the far-spreading landscape and vistas, or the sea rolling in).
Whitman even describes his debt to Edgar Allan Poe, a great surprise to me, not for his fiction or poetry (“melodious expressions, and perhaps never excell’d ones, of certain pronounc’d phases of human morbidity”), but rather for his criticism, for Poe’s writing as a theorist of poetry.
I say nourish a great intellect, a great brain;
If I have said anything to the contrary, I hereby retract it. (“Says,” 2)
But these lines from the 1860 Leaves of Grass are missing from the 1891 Leaves of Grass. Perhaps Whitman was retracting his retraction, but then in 1888 retracting that. Of course Whitman loved literature!