Friday, February 6, 2015

I stopp’d long and long - poems from Whitman's Specimen Days

The autobiographical side of the 1891 Leaves of Grass would have been clear enough on its own, I hope, but I also read Walt Whitman’s fragmentary memoir Specimen Days in America (1881-2), “some authentic glints, specimen-days of my life,” alongside – more like ahead of – the poems.  I had thought that the book was primarily about Whitman’s experiences as a volunteer nurse in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War, but I was incorrect.  Only about a third of the book covers, and was written during that time.  Probably the best third, so I see why I had that impression.  But there is also plenty of travel, nature writing, and thoughts on writers, often upon their deaths.

And just random what-I-saw, on Broadway in New York City:

A few days ago one of the six-story clothing stores along here had the space inside its plate-glass show-window partition'd into a little corral, and litter'd deeply with rich clover and hay, (I could smell the odor outside,) on which reposed two magnificent fat sheep, full-sized but young – the handsomest creatures of the kind I ever saw.  I stopp'd long and long, with the crowd, to view them – one lying down chewing the cud, and one standing up, looking out, with dense-fringed patient eyes.  Their wool, of a clear tawny color, with streaks of glistening black – altogether a queer sight amidst that crowded promenade of dandies, dollars and dry-goods.

I guess you do not have to be a particularly observant writer to have noticed this, or even to come up with this description.  “I stopp’d long and long” is a good description of what Whitman does in his book.

In the lane as I came along just now I noticed one spot, ten feet square or so, where more than a hundred [light-yellow butterflies] had collected, holding a revel, a gyration-dance, or butterfly good-time, winding and circling, down and across, but always keeping within the limits.

Whitman never becomes a serious naturalist like Thoreau, but he knows how to stop and watch.

The paragraph with the butterflies would not be too hard to turn into a Whitman poem titled “Butterfly Good-time.”  Just as some of Whitman’s poems are prose, some of his prose could just as well be a poem:

The dead in this war – there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the South – Virginia, the Peninsula – Malvern hill and Fair Oaks – the banks of the Chickahominy – … and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, etc., (not Dante's pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell'd those prisons)--the dead, the dead, the dead – our dead – or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)

Wonderful stuff – just insert line-breaks where appropriate – culminating in the origin of the compost poem:

… the infinite dead – (the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes' exhalation in Nature's chemistry distill'd, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw) – not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil – thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.

In fact, or I guess opinion, a poem quite a bit better than the compost poem, hidden in Specimen Days along with a dozen others almost as good.


  1. Hola.
    I'd like to ask you a question, but don't want to write it here, so do you have an email address or something?

  2. I do! For some reason it is hidden way at the bottom of the site. I do not know why.