Thursday, February 5, 2015

I say nourish a great intellect, a great brain - Whitman reads

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!


  1. I admit that I never really got Whitman. "Oxen that rattle the yoke and chain" is, for me, a good description of his poetry: loud and clanking, and I can't quite say what it is he expresses. My attention gets pushed away from his poetry, and I find myself quickly annoyed. There's something unmusical about it all. Though I do like "If I have said anything to the contrary, I hereby retract it." I could use that one all day long.

  2. His is the music of the chant, not the song.

    Then there is Whitman's maddening vagueness, except on the occasions when he is not vague, almost always the poems I think are Whitman's best, most of which are seashore poems.

    Whitman was a highly conceptual poet. We have had discussions in other contexts about conceptual art. You might have run into some of the same issues with Whitman.

    1. Conceptual, yes, that's helpful. I'll think about that. I discover myself to be oddly hidebound in some of the ways I interact with art. I think I've said that before, and it always puzzles me.

      Chant vs song: I'll think about that, too. I can almost see it.

  3. Whitman as a conceptual poet, yes, sometimes. But he also was capable of moving his readers like few other poets. Consider his experiments with time in poems like Crossing Brooklyn Ferry (, which must be read to be believed; or stanzas like these from other poems:

    The past and present wilt—I have fill'd them, emptied them,
    And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.
    Listener up there! Here, you! What have you to confide to me?
    Look in my face, while I snuff the sidle of evening;
    Talk honestly—no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.
    Do I contradict myself?
    Very well, then, I contradict myself;
    (I am large—I contain multitudes.)

    POETS to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
    Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
    But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
    Arouse! for you must justify me.
    I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
    I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.
    I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping,
    Turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
    Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
    Expecting the main things from you.

  4. "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" hardly counts here - it is too good. "Song of Myself" maybe requires a little more conceptual sympathy for a reader to even get to those Shakespeare-like lines.

    I do not think I ever really noticed "Poets to Come." I love the middle lines ("I myself but write" etc).

    Is it not strange - this thought just occurred to me - is it not strange that two of the greatest elegies in centuries of English poetry were written within a couple of years of each other one for Abraham Lincoln, one for Charles Baudelaire of all people? I was thinking about my discomfort with Whitman's frequent vagueness, but "Lilacs' is a perfect example of the art of vagueness.

  5. Whitman was constantly revising and redacting. I have lost track of which version/edition is the current Rx by English professors. But, I wonder, does it matter? What I mean is this: when is a text complete? which text among the variables should a reader read? do we entrap ourselves in something like an "intentional fallacy" when we worry about the "correct" text? Hmmm. I wonder.

  6. Whitman is a special case. My answer - I think the common answer - to the "which edition" question is "several." There is no "correct," but there are several that are good and different. The first 1855 edition is wonderful and I think essential to anyone who enjoys Whitman, but it is obviously nothing like "complete." The 1860 edition is wonderful. Drum-Taps has a lot of more fibrous stuff to chew through, as does any Complete Poems.

    Anyway, correct, complete, those are not my questions. Whitman is a poet of abundance, and is best read in that spirit.

  7. AR(T), I enjoy reading the enthusiastic postings and comments, and perhaps I will someday give Whitman another chance. Although some might say that it is wrong-headed for me to think this way, but Whitman's poetry does not "sing" to me. Whatever he is saying, I am not hearing. For now, though, I am moving in different directions with my reading, and Whitman remains on the sidelines.