Last May, for the 200th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birth, saw a plethora of tributes to – some say – America’s greatest poet. I had an old edition of Leaves of Grass kicking around for ages, most recently in my bathroom, so I thought, if I don’t read Our Greatest now, when?
So the book moved from the bath to the bedroom, where I like to keep one or more sleep-inducing reads. On target! I just finished the 400+ pages of this last, “death-bed” edition, and besides a number of rude shocks here and there was repeatedly lulled into slumber-land.
As you can tell, I’m not wired for poetry. I’ve only knowingly read one poet’s entire works (Elizabeth Bishop) and enjoyed Camille Paglina’s (she’s a contrarian, like me) Break Blow Burn, an engaging study of “forty three of the world’s best poems,” including one by Joni Mitchell. Fun. I’m less adverse to poetry’s different rhythm since then.
Whitman “sings” in free verse, of course, with nary a rhyme in sight. No doubt he opened poetic possibilities – a flood gate, perhaps – for future generations.
First eulogized by none other than his elder contemporary Ralph Waldo Emerson, who declared the book “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed,” its continental spread and full cast of characters led Thoreau to declare Whitman “probably the greatest democrat that ever lived.” Strong praise!
The introduction of my 1958 paperback edition sets the background: “For years orators, authors and editorial writers had been calling for a native literature commensurate with American natural resources, ample geography, and political idealism.” [p.vii]. Gay Wilson Allen begins his introduction with strong words: “Leaves of Grass is almost universally recognized as one of the masterpieces of world literature.” [p.v]
I’m not convinced. First off, while Allen quotes Whitman (from a letter to a friend) that he wrote the first edition “under great pressure – pressure from within” [p.xiii], I have to liken such pressure to a fire hydrant’s.
Then there are the graphic bits. Take from “Sing the Body Electric” [p.101]:
Limitless limpid jets of love hot and enormous, quivering jelly of love, white-blow and delirious juice
While Whitman lauded the true-grit American of all backgrounds, and extolled the “new race” being formed far from the Old World, he felt compelled to larder his work with sexual imagery and lustful frankness, contending in an open letter to Emerson (as the introduction puts it) “that sex must be brought out into the open in order to foster a sane, healthy attitude toward this important phase of life…” [p.ix] These were the rude shocks that sometimes postponed my slumber.
A review of several Whitman-themed books printed in the Wall Street Journal last June, starts with the anecdote of an irate reader visiting the elderly Whitman in his Camden, N.J. home and asking “if Whitman didn’t feel ‘rather sorry on the whole’ that he had written all these dirty poems. Whitman, unfazed, responded with another question, “Don’t you feel rather sorry on the whole that I am Walt Whitman?’” This clever put-down of the visitor and question, of course, fits in with today’s gestalt of non-stop polemic. But I recall my grandmother inviting her neighbor, John Updike, to her at-home book club, where the older ladies put it to him. Apparently he treated the question with more respect than Whitman did.
As Camille Paglia explains (she highlights a fractional excerpt of the torrential centerpiece poem, “Song of Myself”), “the heroic narrative centers on himself, or rather the inflated superself of the Romantic poet, isolated and rapacious. That the first word of Song of Myself is an unmannerly ‘I’ illustrates the American genius for self-advertisement, which has characterized our commercial life as well as our political history.” [p.87] Not to mention an increasingly sexually libertine culture.
The poem’s first stanza, after the all-seeing “I,” continues,
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good as belongs to you.
Well, that certainly is claiming the universality, and greatness, of his singing!
No doubt, Leaves of Grass dazzles. I appreciate Whitman’s over-flowing enthusiasm for our new country (bordering on nationalism: surprisingly not emphasized in recent tributes), elevating of all citizens (including support, if mild, of abolition) as dignified subjects of art, dogged persistence (his nine editions over thirty-seven years of the work), and love of the open road [“Song of the Open Road,” 1st stanza, p.136]:
Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.
But how free to choose was he really? As Allen opines,
Whitman accepted unreservedly the Romantic philosophy that the natural world is a vast analogue of the spiritual. With the pantheists he believed that God incarnated Himself in His Creation, and that to understand God man has only to commune with visible Nature. [p.xii]
Quoting from section 48 of “Song of Myself,” Allen continues,
Yet he is “not curious about God,” because God is everywhere, and because he worships not God, but the Divinity innate in the individual self. In section 24 he even declares himself to be “Divine…inside and out.” This pride and arrogance of selfhood shocked many of Whitman’s contemporaries, but it was not so much man as his potentialities that the poet worshiped. [p.xii]
No such luck today. The God-is-everything and -in-everything is prevalent in New Age beliefs, borrowed from Eastern Mysticism, especially Hinduism. This sourcing is made clear, when Allen concludes the paragraph,
Belief in the spirituality of the innate self became the core of Whitman’s religion, and the source of his faith that death is no more to be feared than birth, because both are merely stages in the never-ending transformations of body and soul. [p.xii]
This explains why one of the collections most evocative poems, “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” [p.213-214], which sources Whitman’s poetry muse to a childhood encounter with a bereaved thrush whose mate disappears, veers suddenly into a paean to death.
The young boy “translates” for us the bird’s mournful aria, which he claims will “Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was what there in the night,” going so far as recharacterize his muse as follows:
Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
Whitman follows his lament of the peaceful child lost with,
By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
“Sweet hell within”? And later:
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again, death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
One might interpret this as a hyper-sensitive youth’s first premonitions of fatality, but the mature poet holds no such fear, and continues in the next stanza:
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach
As Allen affirms in the introduction, “his poetic message is the transcending of time and achieving a philosophy of death.” [p.x] But who really needs or wants “a philosophy of death,” where human wisdom doesn’t reach?
The one non-glowing review of Whitman’s work I came upon was written by Sarah Ruden in the National Review (August 18, 2019). Titled “Song for Himself,” she, like Paglia, traces many of contemporary culture’s ailments to our first national bard. She doesn’t hold punches regarding Whitman’s personal life and morals, writing [p.49],
He only didn’t deny having sex with his tenant’s teenaged son, for example, but he also posed with the boy for a photo in the style of married couples’ portraits.
She points out that while he is “the America intelligentsia spoiled darling since the time [of] Emerson” [p.50], at the time he was,
factually, the poet whom ordinary Americans reviled (inasmuch as they noticed him) in the days when the genre was democracy’s main artistic expression, and ignored with the most determination thereafter.
Allen somewhat delicately treats Whitman’s orientation by writing, “despite their intensity, Whitman’s sexual impulses were somewhat ambiguous.” And then continues in the same paragraph [p.ix]:
the compulsion to confess and to justify his emotions indicated at least a strong psychic disturbance. Later Whitman used the word “perturbation” for this disturbance…
While Allen may have, in the Freudian terminology all the rage at the time, been referring to his sexual impulses as the source of such a disturbance or perturbation, could not the “dusky demon” muse of “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking”, that ended his childhood and incited him to praise death, be just as valid a source?
Who am I to point to the elephant in the living room? Paglia takes 11 stanzas of the massive “Song of Myself” and imbues line after line with meaning that I would never have guessed at. But then could she, generously, be lending some of her own abundant knowledge?
Allen cited two collections within the book, Sea Drift and Birds of Passage, as Whitman at the height of his powers. So, after finishing my nighttime reading, I duly went back to re-read the dozen or so poems. I found only two of them, “Pioneers! Oh Pioneers!” and “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” readable.