Saturday, February 7, 2015

A book expressing this liquid, mystic theme - Whitman explains himself

The Civil War episodes of Specimen Days, Whitman’s memorials to soldiers he tended, soldiers who suffered and died, are the best part of the book.  I am clear on that.  The latter parts, mostly about Whitman’s travels, are lesser, and Whitman was not a first-rate nature writer.  Still, he is often intensely interesting.

There are a number of fine descriptions:

Then there is a beautiful weed cover'd with blue flowers, (the blue of the old Chinese teacups treasur'd by our grand-aunts,) I am continually stopping to admire – a little larger than a dime, and very plentiful.

It’s the parenthetical interruption that is especially good.  This is soon followed by a pure list of “perennial blossoms and friendly weeds.” Whitman, poet laureate of weeds.  Here, Whitman is on the Camden ferry at night:

On the edges of the river, many lamps twinkling – with two or three huge chimneys, a couple of miles up, belching forth molten, steady flames, volcano-like, illuminating all around – and sometimes an electric or calcium, its Dante-Inferno gleams, in far shafts, terrible, ghastly-powerful. Of later May nights, crossing, I like to watch the fishermen's little buoy-lights – so pretty, so dreamy – like corpse candles – undulating delicate and lonesome on the surface of the shadowy waters, floating with the current.

New Jersey in the 1870s.  Maybe this is not strictly speaking nature writing.  Industrial writing.

More often, just as in his poems, Whitman moves rapidly from the specific to general, too often into twaddle, but not always.  I have mentioned my admiration for Whitman’s sea shore poems, today under his influence almost a specific genre of American poetry.  In Specimen Days he describes their origin in his childhood on Long Island:

Even as a boy, I had the fancy, the wish, to write a piece, perhaps a poem, about the sea-shore – that suggesting, dividing line, contact, junction, the solid marrying the liquid – that curious, lurking something, (as doubtless every objective form finally becomes to the subjective spirit,) which means far more than its mere first sight, grand as that is – blending the real and ideal, and each made portion of the other.

I’ll interrupt Whitman to note that even for a writer as drawn to manifestos and statements of purpose as he was, this is as explicit and, for me, useful description of his poetry as I remember.  On the one hand, it is all metaphor, and on the other, no, this is what his poems are like, and not just the seashore poems:

Hours, days, in my Long Island youth and early manhood, I haunted the shores of Rockaway or Coney island, or away east to the Hamptons or Montauk.  Once, at the latter place, (by the old lighthouse, nothing but sea-tossings in sight in every direction as far as the eye could reach,) I remember well, I felt that I must one day write a book expressing this liquid, mystic theme.  Afterward, I recollect, how it came to me that instead of any special lyrical or epical or literary attempt, the sea-shore should be an invisible influence, a pervading gauge and tally for me, in my composition.

I suppose it is inevitable that Specimen Days has become a supplement to Whitman’s major work, his best poems, whatever merit the book has on its own.  More of the same in a different format, but Whitman is the great poet of “more.”


  1. You are slowly converting me to being at least curious again about Whitman; I like the examples of imagery you've offered, and -- if Whitman is ever likely to draw me like a moth to the light -- it will be through the imagery. Yeah, I'm an old-fashioned formalist with respect to poetry. Give me the bright lights of startling, original imagery, and I am the moth.

  2. You know, I think you would get a lot out of the first third of Specimen Days, the part about the Civil War. If you are continuing your Civil War history reading, you might want to include it. Whitman's memoir is a valuable historical account.