Taking a Walk through Leaves of Grass
There was a man, Walt Whitman, who lived in the nineteenth century, in America, who began to define his own person, who began to tell his own secrets, who outlined his own body, and made an outline of his own mind, so other people could see it. He was sort of the prophet of American democracy in the sense that he got to be known as the “good gray poet” when he got to be an old, old man because he was so honest and so truthful and at the same time so enormous-voiced and bombastic. As he said: “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world,” writing in New York City probably then, thinking of the skyline and roofs of Manhattan as it might have been in 1853 or so. He began announcing himself, and announcing person, with a big capital P, Person, self, or one’s own nature, one’s own original nature, what you really think when you’re alone in bed, after everybody’s gone home from the party or when you’re looking in the mirror, shaving, or when you’re not shaving and you’re looking in the mirror, looking at your long, white, aged beard, or if you’re sitting on the toilet, or thinking to yourself, “What happened to life? What happened to Mommy?” or if you’re just walking down the street, looking at the people full of longing.
So he wrote a book called Leaves of Grass. And in the final version of that book, the very first inscription was:
One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the
Muse, I say the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The modern man I sing. (p. 3)
Well, that’s kind of interesting. He starts with the female equally with the male, so he begins in the middle of the nineteenth century by talking about “women’s lib”: “The Female equally with the Male I sing.” But he also says he’s going to talk about the body, about physiology from top to toe, he’s going to sing about the toes and the hair: modern man. This is on the very first page.
Then, further on, he has a little note, “To Foreign Lands”:
I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted. (p. 5)
An "athletic Democracy,” what does he mean by that? He means people who are able to get up off their ass and get out and look up at the blue sky in the middle of the night and realize how big the universe is and how little, tiny America is, or how vast our souls are, and how small this state is, or the Capitol building, magnificent and glorious as it is, how it’s rendered the size of an ant’s forefoot by the immensity of a cloud above it. And so, the soul that sees the cloud above the Capitol or the universe above the cloud is the giant athletic soul, you could almost say. It’s democracy, though, that is the key, which for him means, in the long run, the love of comrades, that men will love men, women will love women, men will love women, women will love men, and there will be a spontaneous tenderness between them as the basis of the democracy.
So he goes on, “To the States,” announcing:
To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist much, obey little
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty. (p. 9)
That’s a warning to America, much needed later on, as when Eisenhower, the president a hundred years later, warned: Watch out for the military-industrial complex which demands unquestioning obedience and slavery to military aggression. Fear, nuclear apocalypse, unquestioning obedience like “Don’t ask, maybe they know better than you do.” So this is a warning from Whitman about the difficulties of democracy. Then he, like a bodhisattva, that is to say, someone who has taken a vow to enlighten all beings in all the directions of space and in all the three times—past, present, and future—has a little poem or song to his fellow poets that would be born after him, who, like myself, will sit in a recording studio reading his words aloud to be heard by ears through some kind of movie/television/theater:
Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not today 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. (p. 12)
Ah, there’s some suggestion here that Whitman wants somebody to pick him up in the street and make love to him. But he wants to give that glance so that you know he’s open, but what kind of love does he want?
He wants a democratic love, and he wants an athletic love, he wants a love from men too, and he also wants a love in the imagination. He wants an expansiveness, he wants communication, he wants some kind of vow that everybody will cherish each other sacramentally. So he’s going to make the first breakthrough—that’s what he’s saying. So he’s got another little poem following that, “To You”:
Stranger, if you passing meet me and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me?
And why should I not speak to you? (p. 12)
Well, I don’t know why not, except everybody’s too scared to speak to strangers in the street, they might get hit for being thought a fairy or a nut talking in the subway or babbling to himself in the street. But Whitman was willing to talk to anybody, he said. Of course, he was living in a time when there was less fear.
His major work is known as “Song of Myself.” “Song of Myself” is a long thing, about thirty-two pages of not such big type; he wrote a lot. And this was a major statement, this was his declaration of his own nature. Now, what is a declaration of nature for a guy? in the nineteenth century, everybody was writing in closed verse forms. Some poets went to Germany for their education, like Longfellow, they went to Heidelberg University, and they studied esoteric sociology and epistemology and linguistics and ancient Greek and they thought back on the United States romantically and wrote long poems about Hiawatha and the Indian maidens under the full moon near the Canadian lakes. Whitman actually just stayed in America and slugged it out with the beer carts along the Bowery and wandered up and down and sat afternoons in Pfaff’s. Pfaff’s was a bar he used to go to, a Bohemian hangout, a downstairs beer hall, sort of like a German bierstuben. Bohemian friends used to meet there, probably like a gay gang, plus a newspaper gang, plus a theatrical gang, and the opera singers, and some of the dancers, a Broadway crowd sort of, but further down Broadway, near Bleecker. And that was his hangout.
He was very naïve at first. A young guy, he started out writing bad poetry, temperance novels, and newspaper articles, and editing the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Then something happened to him in his thirties, about thirty-four—well, you know, crucifixion time—maybe he realized he was going to die someday or that America was weird, or that he was weird, or maybe some kind of breakthrough of personal affection, maybe some kind of gay lib thing. Anyway, he discovered that his own mind and his own enthusiasm, his own expansiveness is the thing, that his mind was so expansive that it was completely penetrant; because of its curiosity and inquisitiveness it penetrated every crevice and nook, every tree, bowl, every vagina, every anus, every mouth, every flower stamen, every horse’s ear, every behind and cloud that he met. He wandered, he thought a lot, he wandered in his mind, and he wasn’t ashamed of what he thought.
Whitman was probably the first writer in America who was not ashamed of the fact that his thoughts were as big as the universe, or that they were equal to the universe, or that they fitted the universe. He wasn’t ashamed of his mind or his body. So he wrote “Song of Myself,” and it began tipping off where he was coming from and where he was going, saying that you, too, needn’t be ashamed of your thoughts:
I celebrate myself and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy. (pp.23-24)
Wow, what a thing to do!
In Part 2 of “Song of Myself”—going on with his original mind that he’s presenting— he looks out at the drawing rooms of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan and the rich and sophisticated culture of his day, and he sees that it’s pretty shallow:
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs.
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
the sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of sun and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
the feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen on all sides and filter them from your self. (pp. 21-25)
What he’s done here is he has completely possessed his own body, he’s gone over and realized he’s breathing, that his heart is beating, that he has roots that go from his crotch to his brain, he begins to sniff around him, and to extend his thoughts around him to the sea, to the woods, to the cities, recognizes his emotions, going all the way out to the millions of suns, then realizes that most of the time we take things second- and third-hand. Who actually looks out of their own eyes and sees the revolutions in the tress in the fall or the bursting forth of tiny revolutions with each glass blade? Well, Whitman looked that way and recommended that everybody else look at the actual world around them rather than the abstract world they read about in the newspapers or saw as a pseudo-image/event, screened dots on television: “You shall listen on all sides and filter them from your self.”
So, what is he going to do now? What is he going to say next about where we all come from, where we are going?
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Not any more of heaven or hell than there is now. (p. 25)
That’s a great statement, very similar to what some of the Eastern, Oriental mediators, transcendentalists, or grounded Buddhists might say. Their notion is that everything is here already, wasn’t born a billion years ago and slowly developed, and isn’t going to be dead a billion years from now and slowly undevelop, it’s just here, like a flower in the air. There’s never going to be any more hell than there is right now and never going to be any more understanding of heaven than there is right now in our own minds, with our own perception. So that means you can’t postpone your acceptation and realization, you can’t scream at your own eyes now, you’ve got to look out through your own eyes, as Whitman said, hear with your own ears, smell with your own nose, touch with your own touch, fingers, taste with your own tongue, and be satisfied.
I see, dance, love, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
And forthwith cipher and show to me a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead? (p. 26)
He’s not interested in that kind of invidious comparison and competition. In the midst of “Song of Myself” he does come to a statement about the very nature of the human mind, his mind as he observed it in himself and when the mind is most open, most expanded, most realized, what relation is there between human beings and between man and nature. There are some little epiphanous moments showing, for one thing, his meditative view; for example, in the fourth part of “Song of Myself” from “Trippers and askers surrounded me” down to “I witness and wait.” Now there’s a real classical viewpoint—the last person to announce that was John Keats, who said he had a little idea about what made Shakespeare great: “negative capability.” Which is to say, the possibility of seeing contending parties, seeing the Communists and Capitalists scream at each other, or the Muslims and Christians, or the Jews and the Arabs, or the self and the not-self, or your mommy and daddy, or yourself and your wife. You can see them all screaming at each other, and you can see it as a kind of comedic drama that you don’t get tangled and lost in, you don’t enter into the fantasy of being right and being one side or the other so completely that you go out and chop somebody’s head off. Instead you just sort of watch yourself, you watch them, in and out of the game at the same time, watching and wondering at it. That is to say, the ability to have contrary ideas in your head at the same time without freaking out, without “an irritable reaching after fact” or conclusions. Because maybe you don’t know the answer, maybe there is not even a question, though there may be perturbation and conflict. You are simultaneously in and out of the game, watching and wondering at it, which is the best we can do actually. The best thing we can do is wonder at everything, it’s so amazing. So, then what happens? If you take that attitude and open yourself up and allow yourself to admit everything, to hear everything, not to exclude, just be like the moon in the old Japanese haiku: “The autumn moon/shines kindly/on the flower-thief,” or like Whitman’s sun which shines on the prostitute in his poem “To a Common Prostitute”—“Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.” His mind is there, he’s aware of her, she’s aware of him and they’re both internally scratching their heads. So there is an epiphany out of this, or a rise, or a kind of exquisite awareness that intensifies. Part 5 of “Song of Myself”:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voce.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peach and knowledge that pass all argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love.
And limitless are leaves stiff or dropping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worn fence, heap’d stones, elder, mullein, and poke-weed. (p. 27)
Just out of that one experience of a touch with another person, of complete acceptance, his awareness spread throughout the space around him and he realized that that friendly touch, that friendly awareness was what bound the entire universe together and held everything suspended in gravity.
Given this, where could he go from here? Well, the answer was a long survey of America, which he did in “Song of Myself,” in which he extended his own awareness to encompass the entire basic spiritual awareness of America, trying to make an ideal America that would be an America of comradely awareness, acknowledgement of tenderness, acknowledgement of gentleness, acknowledgement of comradeship, acknowledgement of what he called adhesiveness. Because what he said that if this country did not have some glue to keep people together, to bind them together—adhesiveness, some emotional bond—there was no possibility of democracy’s working, and we’d just be a lot of separate people fighting for an advantage: military advantage, commercial advantage, iron advantage, coal advantage, silver advantage, gold advantage, even hunting up some kind of monolopy on molybdenum. On the other hand, there was the possibility of a total democracy of feeling, as in Part 11 of “Song of Myself”:
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men and all so friendly;
Twenty-eight years of womanly life and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.
Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glisten’d with wet, it ran from their long hair,
Like streams pass’d all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also pass’d over their bodies.
It descended trembling from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun, they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray. (pp. 31-32)
Erotic tenderness is of course implicit in this longing for closeness. He pointed to that longing as basic to our bodies, basic to our minds, basic to our community, basic to our sociability, basic to our society, therefore basic to our politics. If that compassion, erotic longing, tenderness, and gentleness were squelched, repressed, pushed back, denied, insulted, mocked, seen cynically, then the entire operation of democracy would be squelched, debased, mocked, or seen cynically, made into a paranoid, mechano-megalopolis congregation of freaks afraid of each other. That process may have been the very nature of industrial civilization; the roboting of work and the homogenization of talk and thought and imagery, cause people to speak not for themselves but talk falsely, unlike Whitman, as if they represented anything but themselves. Human society has become kind of messed up; so, in Part 32 of “Song of Myself,” he says:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago.
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth. (p. 50)
Not one animal is respectable, in all of creation. All these human beings want to be respectable, but he is pointing out that not one elephant in Africa would ever dream of considering itself respectable. So animals “show their relations to me and I accept them, they bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession” (p. 50).
Then, what does he do in the city? He’s lonesome, so there’s a little one-line description of himself in the city, “Looking in at the shop-windows on Broadway the whole forenoon, flattening the flesh of my nose on the thick plate-glass” (p. 52). But then, he can also mentally leave: “I go hunting polar-furs and the seal, leaping chasms with a pike-pointed staff, clinging to topples of brittle and blue” (p.54). He empathizes with everybody: “I am an old artillerist, I tell of my fort’s bombardment, I am there again” (p. 56). And in Part 34: “Now I will tell what I knew in Texas in my early youth” (p. 56), and then he goes on with a long anecdote. Or, in Part 35: “Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight?” (p. 58), and he goes on to telling about old-time sea-fights, and “Toward twelve there in the beams of the moon they surrender to us" (p. 59)—the moony imagination. Maybe he’s a sea-fighter, or he’s an Arctic explorer, or maybe he’s a jerk. Part 37:
You laggards there on guard! Look to your arms!
In at the conquer’d doors they crowd! I am possess’d!
Embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering,
See myself in prison shaped like another man,
And feel the dull unintermitted pain.
For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,
It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night.
Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side,
(I am the less jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.) (pp. 59-60)
He wasn’t afraid of that—as he says: “Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them, I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg” (p. 59). That’s like Bob Dylan in his film Renaldo and Clara, walking down the street and all of a sudden the camera catches him and stares him in the eye and he stares the camera in the eye and all of a sudden he shivers and holds out his right hand, “Some change? Spare change of love? Spare change?” And so you have,
Enough! enough! enough!
Somehow I’ve been stunn’d. Stand back!
Give me a little time beyond my cuff’d head, slumbers, dreams gaping,
I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.
That I could forget the mockers and insults!
That I could forget the trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!
That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning. (p. 60)
Ah, so he has suffered a bit here, he does empathize with all the beggars, the monstrous convicts with sweat twitching on their lips, but his point here is that everybody so suffers, everybody is everybody else, in the sense of having experienced in imagination or in real life all of the non-respectable emotions of the elephants and the ants. So he says, in part 44:
It is time to explain myself—let us stand up.
What is known I strip away,
I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown.
The clock indicates the moment—but what does eternity indicate?
We have thus far exhausted trillions of winters and summers,
There are trillions ahead, and trillions ahead of them.
Births have brought us richness and variety,
And other births will bring us richness and variety. (p. 67)
I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I an encloser of things to be.
My feet strike the apex of the apices of the stairs,
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps,
All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount.
Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me,
Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I knew I was even there,
I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist,
And took my time and took no hurt from the fetid carbon.
Long I was hugg’d close—long and long.
Immense have been the preparations for me,
Faithful and friendly the arms that have help’d me.
Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen,
For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings,
They sent influences to look after what was to hold me.
Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me,
My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it.
For it the nebula cohered to an orb,
The long slow strata piled to rest it on,
Vast vegetables gave it sustenance,
Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care.
All forces have been steadily employ’d to complete and delight me,
now on this spot I stand with my robust soul. (pp. 67-68)
So that’s great, he’s here, he recognizes he’s here:
My rendezvous is appointed, it is certain,
The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms,
The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will be there. (p. 69)
So he says:
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
Shoulder your duds, dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me,
For after we start we never lie by again. (pp. 69-70)
On the road, Walt Whitman prophesying what would happen to American 100 years later.
At the end of the poem he comes to his conclusions. He wants to tell finally what he can get out of it all, as in Part 50 from “There is that in me” to “It is not chaos or death—it is form, union, plan—it is eternal life—it is Happiness” (p. 74) and in Part 51:
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! 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 moment longer.)
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.
Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?
Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late? (p. 74)
Finally, in part 52, the last section, he’ll make his last prophecy, dissolve himself into you the listener, the reader, and his poem will become a part of your consciousness:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.
I depart as air, I shape my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
if you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you. (pp. 73-74)
That’s a very deep, tearful promise: “I stop somewhere waiting for you.” He’s going to wait a long, long, long time, and have to go through a great deal of his own loves and fears before he actually finds a companion.
What kind of companion does he want, what does he look for? “The expression of the face balks account.” This line is from the poem called “I Sing the Body Electric,” in which he begins to describe his own body and other people’s bodies in an intimate way, numbering all the parts, numbering the emotions, and naming them and actually attempting to give an accounting and itemization of all men. There is a little group of four or five lines where he describes what he’s looking for:
The expression of the face balks account,
But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face.
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strongest sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side. (pp. 77-78)
Well, everybody’s done that, man or woman looking at who is interesting, who’s got something going there. “Spontaneous me,” he says, and so he keeps walking around, “has native moments.”
In his short poem, “Native Moments,” he defines what they are, when some authentic flash comes to him:
Native moments—when you come upon me—ah you are here now,
Give me libidinous joys only,
Give me the drench of my passions, give me life coarse and rank,
Today I go consort with Nature’s darlings, to-night too,
I am for those who believe in loose delights, I share the midnight orgies of young men,
I dance with the dancers and drink with the drinkers,
The echoes ring with our indecent calls, I pick out some low person for my dearest friend,
He shall be lawless, rude, illiterate, he shall be one condemn’d by others for deeds done,
I will play a part no longer, why should I exile myself from my companions?
O you shunned persons, I at least do not shun you,
I come forthwith in your midst, I will be your poet,
I will be more to you than to any of the rest. (p. 91)
Here he is declaring his own feelings, he’s not scared of them, as if he were born for the first time in the world, recognizing his own nature. The last poem in the first part of Leaves of Grass is “As Adam Early in the Morning”:
As Adam early in the morning,
Walking forth from the bower refresh’d with sleep,
Behold me where I pass, hear my voice, approach,
Touch me, touch the palm of your hand to my body as I pass,
Be not afraid of my body. (p. 92)
Well, there is some false note there I guess; he really wants someone to love him, and he’s not quite able to say it right. Still, he does want to make democracy something that hangs together using the force of Eros, as in “For You O Democracy,” in the “Calamus” section of Leaves of Grass:
Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs. (p. 96)
That’s Whitman’s statement of his politics, but you never can tell, maybe he’s just a big fairy egoist.
The “Calamus” section of Leaves of Grass describes erotic pleasure and parts of the body. When Whitman sent it to Ralph Waldo Emerson, it shocked the elder American prophet, who suggested that Whitman leave it out of the next edition of Leaves of Grass, because people were not ready for it. Whitman persisted, feeling that “Calamus” was an integral part of his message, that if he were going to talk about honesty and frankness and openness and comradeship he did have to say the unsayable, he did have to talk about people’s bodies, he did have to describe them with beauty and Greek levity and healthiness and heroism. Nowadays “Calamus” seems very tame. However, he was a little worried:
I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,
But really I am neither for nor against institutions,
(What indeed have I in common with them? or what with the destruction of them?)
Only I will establish in the Mannahatta and in every city of these States inland and seaboard,
And in the fields and woods, and above every keel little or large that dents the water,
Without edifices or rules or trustees or any argument,
The institution of the dear love of comrades.
And that institution includes, like the prairie grass, everyone equal, so that there are “Those who look carelessly in the faces of Presidents and governors, as to say, Who are you?” (from “The Prairie-Grass Dividing”).
So where’s my big thrill like our big thrill nowadays?
Well, here’s my big thrill, here’s Whitman’s big thrill:
A glimpse through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the stove late of a winter night, and I unremark’d seated in a corner,
Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,
A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking and oath and smutty jest,
Thus we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word. (p. 106)
So that’s a recognizable emotion between friends.
But there may be things that he doesn’t want to say even:
Earth, my likeness,
Through you look so impassive, ample and spheric there,
I now suspect that is not all;
I not suspect there is something fierce in you eligible to burst forth,
For an athlete is enamour’d of me, and I of him,
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me eligible to burst forth,
I dare not tell it in words, not even in these songs. (p. 107)
So there’s more to come and it’ll come out of Whitman as he goes forward in his life, renouncing all formulas.
His next long poem is called “Salut au Monde!” saying, “Come on, let’s go out, let’s explore life, let’s find out what’s going on here. Let’s look at the tents of the Kalmucks and the Baskirs, let’s go out and see the African and Asiatic towns, go to the Ganges, let’s go to the groves of Mona where the Druids walked, and see the bodies of the gods, and wait at Liverpool and Glasgow and Dublin and Marseilles, wait at Valparaiso, Panama, sail on the waters of Hindustan, the China Sea, all the way around the world, on the road.” So he begins: “Oh take my hand Walt Whitman! / Such gliding wonders!”—he’s going to guide everybody on a trip around the world.
Then comes this very famous poem where he realizes, yeah, sure, but that’s all transitory, it’s going, there’s not much, you know, like twenty years, fifty years, seventy years, then zap it’s gone. So there is this great poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” in which he realizes okay, he’s had these feelings of being transitory, everybody has these kinds of feelings, but few have the chance to experience them deeply, much less say them aloud, much less propose them as politics, much less offer to save the nation with feelings, and at the same time even though it is very rare for people to understand all that, except that at the deepest moment of their lives, they do understand it. And, looking at the vast apparition of Manhattan and the masts of ships around it and the sunset and the sea gulls, he perceives the immensity of universe around him and the river on which he’s riding and his own feelings and his ability to call these feelings out to people in the future. He says:
We understand then do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish is accomplish’d, is it not?
Flow on river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sunset! drench with your splendour me, or the men and women generations after me!
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house or street or public assembly!
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name!
Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor of actress!
Play the old role, the role that is great or small according as one makes it!
Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
Receive the summer sky, you water, and faithfully hold it till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you!
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or anyone’s head, in the sunlit water! (pp. 131-132)
That’s very subtle. You see, he gives you the sunshine halo, aureole, aura around the hair reflected in the water. His noticing is so exquisite and ethereal and fine that he’s got the fine centrifugal spokes of light round the shape of his head shining in the water. The poem ends this way:
You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers,
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward,
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us,
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us,
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also,
We furnish your parts towards eternity,
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul. (pp. 132-133)
After “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” he needs someone to answer him; his next long poem is “Song of the Answerer,” in which he imagines the answerer: what can be answered he answers, and what cannot be answered he shows how it cannot be answered, and praises the words of true poems that do not merely please:
The true poets are not followers of beauty, but the august masters of beauty;
The greatness of sons is the exuding of the greatness of mothers and fathers,
The words of true poems are the tuft and final applause of science.
Divine instinct, breadth of vision, the law of reason, health, rudeness of body, withdrawnness,
Gayety, sun-tan, air-sweetness, such are some of the words of poems. (136)
But there’s a great tragedy coming up ahead. He’s passed through California and he’s written about lonesome Kansas and about birds of passage and a song of the rolling earth and the ocean; then he’s gone back to his birthplace in Long Island and looked at the city, seeing a vision of birth continuous and death continuous; again, sort of an ecstatic acknowledgement of the continuity of feeling from generation to generation—like the continuity of birth—that no matter what the appearances, there always is a rebirth of delight, of feeling, of acknowledgment, of the spaciousness of glittery sunlight on the ocean. Next come the famous lines:
Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-aroused words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing. (p. 198)
Of course the invocation here is classical: “Of Man’s First Disobedience and the Fruit/Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal taste/Brought Death into the World, and all our woe…Sing Heavenly Muse”— that’s John Milton’s opening of Paradise Lost. Or the opening of Homer’s Iliad: “Sing O Goddess of the wrath of Achilles, Peleus’s song, the ruinous wrath that brought down countless woes upon the heads of the Achaeans and sent many brave souls hurrying down to Hades and many a hero left for prey to dogs and vultures…” or something like that. That same long, long, long breath of realization that ends with a trumpet call (“a reminiscence sing”) leads to a reminiscence of a whisper of death, when he was young at the ocean-side. Then, a few prophecies of the presidents, and some patriotic songs, and more awareness of the problems of America as it was going into the Civil War.
In the Civil War, Whitman, following his instincts, followed the soldiers, went to Washington, did volunteer work in hospitals, took care of dying men, was out on the battlefields as a nurse and saw Abe Lincoln on the streets numerous times. As Whitman was walking around on his own mission of mercy he wrote a lot of poems, like “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”—this is a little snapshot, his same theme of human diversity in the midst of the degradation of war:
A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.
Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket;
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-gray’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?
Then to the second I step—and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming?
Then to the third—a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you—I think this face is the face of the Christ myself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies. (p. 243)
He took care of the injured and the dying soldiers, and had the same delicate emotional relationships:
O tan-faced prairie-boy,
Before you came to camp many a welcome gift,
Praises and presents came and nourishing food, till at last among the recruits,
You came, taciturn, with nothing to give—we but look’d on each other,
when lo! more than all the gifts of the world you gave me. (p. 253)
Then, in the midst of the tragedies of the war and his visions of death, there came the actual death of President Lincoln, and his great elegy for Lincoln, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which most every kid in America knew back in the twenties and thirties, with its very beautiful description of the passing of Lincoln’s coffin on railroad through lanes and streets through the cities and through the states and with processions, seas of silence, seas of faces and unbarred heads, the coffin of Lincoln mourned, and in the middle of his poem a recognition of death in a way that had not been proposed in America before. Just as he had accepted the feelings of his life, there was now the awareness of death that he had to tally finally. So there’s this great italicized song in Part 14 of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” from the section called “Memories of President Lincoln.”
Actually, the whole of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is so beautiful that it would be worth reading here, but it’s so long that I can’t do it and also it’s so beautiful that I’m afraid I’ll cry if I read it. Read the most beautiful passages: Parts 1,2,3,5, and 6, and go from there to the Hymn or Song to Death.
I visited Whitman’s house in Camden, New Jersey, and in the back yard of the old brick house on Mickle Street, where he lived the last years of his life (though not where he wrote this poem), there were lilacs blooming in the back yard, blooming by the outhouse which was right outside the back door in the garden.
The Whitman grew older, traveled, and extended his imagination to blue Ontario shore, and began to write about the declining of his own physical body in a series of poems called “Autumn Rivulets.” He wrote about the compost (“This Compost”):
Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward. (p. 291)
After the carol to death there is the realization of the recycling of body and soul, the inevitability of passage, transitoriness, or things entering the earth and emerging from the earth. He wrote poems about the city dead-house too. These were all autumn rivulets, including his “Outlines for a Tomb.”
Incidentally, he arranged for his own tomb at that point, made up a little drawing which he took from the opening page of William Blake’s last great prophetic book Jerusalem, of a man entering an open door with stone pillars on each side, stone floor, stone arch, a triangular arch on trop with a great stone door opened, a man carrying a great globe of light. A consciousness entering into this dark, he can’t see what’s in it, like passing through with a big black hat. This tomb is now standing in Camden, New Jersey, exactly like Blake's image. He wrote little poems to his own tomb then and to the negative and began to consider the negative: how do you recompost the negative?
He took a trip out to Kansas and wrote funny little poems about the burgeoning civilization that was beginning to cover the prairies. Here is a short poem, “The Prairie States”:
A newer garden of creation, no primal solitude,
Dense, joyous, modern, populous millions, cities and farms,
With iron interlaced, composite, tied, many in one,
By all the world contributed—freedom’s and law’s and thrift’s society,
The crowd and teeming paradise, so far, of time’s accumulations,
To justify the past. (p. 315)
That was an ambitious and hopeful view; he might have changed his mind if he had seen Kansas during the Vietnam War, with its army bases and airplane bases and “iron interlaced” above the plains there, horrific iron.
Next he wrote a great poem that started to show a recognition of the Orient and the ancient wisdom of death that were understood there—that is, the acceptance of death as well as the acceptance of life; he comes to see an identify between his own extended empathy and sympathy and compassion, and the ancient empathies and sympathies and compassions of the meditators of the Himalayas.
There’s a very interesting section in “Passage to India.” Remember, in the nineteenth century lots of poets and philosophers in America were interested in transcendentalism and oriental wisdom and Brahma and the Hindus and the romantic, glamorous wisdom of the East. There was also the Brook Farm experiment; Bronson Alcott and many other people were interested in Western gnosticism. Alcott went to England to buy up the neo-Platonic and hermetic translations of Thomas Taylor, the Platonist, translations from Greek Orphic and Dionysian mysteries, that were also read by the great British transcendental mystic poets like Coleridge, Shelley, and Blake—those same books were brought to Brook Farm and then these translations by Thomas Taylor of ancient hermetic Greek texts were circulated by Bronson Alcott to Emerson and to Thoreau and Hawthorne. So there existed this movement of transcendentalism and a recognition of the exotic East, along with the opening of Japan around that time. Lafcadio Hearn, maybe thirty years later, went to Japan and made great collections of Japanese art to bring to Boston to impress the New Englanders in the second wave of Oriental understanding, but in Europe, even at the time, Japanese prints by Hiroshige were circulating and were eyed by Gauguin and Van Gogh, who began imitating their flat surfaces and their bright colors. So, a whole new calligraphy of the mind was beginning to be discovered and absorbed by the West—at the same time that the West was peddling opium in China, oddly enough. That was the exchange, opium for meditation.
However, Whitman notes all these things in “Passage to India”:
Lo soul, the retrospect brought forward,
The old, most populous, wealthiest of earth’s lands,
The streams of the Indus and the Ganges and their many affluents,
(I my shores of America walking to-day behold, resuming all,)
The tale of Alexander of his warlike marches suddenly dying,
On one side China and on the other side Persia and Arabia,
to the south the great seas and the Bay of Bengal,
The flowing literatures, tremendous epics, religions, castes,
Old occult Brahma interminably far back, the tender and junior Buddha,
Central and southern empires and all their belongings, possessors,
The wars of Tamberlane, the reign of Aurungzebe,
The traders, rulers, explorers, Moslems, Venetians, Byzantium, the Arabs, Portuguese,
The first travelers famous yet, Marco Polo, Batouta the Moor,
Doubts to be solv’d, the map incognita, blanks to be fill’d,
The foot of man unstay’d, the hand never at rest,
Thyself O soul that will not brook a challenge. (p. 325)
He acknowledged that transcendent culture and, like D. H. Lawrence fifty years later, wrote about that great ship of death that goes forward to explore:
O we can wait no longer,
We too take ship O soul,
Joyous we too launch out on trackless seas,
Fearless for unknown shores on waves of ecstasy to sail
Amid the wafting winds, (thou pressing me to thee, I thee to me, O soul,)
Caroling free, singing our song of God,
Chanting our chant of pleasant exploration. (p. 326)
He’s talking about going through the soul as well as going through the world.
However, most of the world is asleep, alas. His long poem “The Sleepers” was written earlier, before 1855, but he moved it into his poems of middle age. Death is coming a bit into his mind as he gets into his fifties and sixties. To him it appears that most of the people living in the world are the living dead or the sleepers:
I wander all night in my vision,
Stepping with light feet, swiftly and noiselessly stepping and stopping,
Bending with open eyes over the shut eyes of sleepers,
Wandering and confused, lost to myself, ill-assorted, contradictory,
Pausing, gazing, bending and stopping.
How solemn they look there, stretch’d and still,
How quiet they breathe, the little children in their cradles.
The wretched features of ennuyés, the white features of corpses, the livid faces of drunkards, the sick-gray faces of onanists,
The gash’d bodies on battle-fields, the insane in their strong-door’d rooms, the sacred idiots, the new-born emerging from gates, and the dying emerging from gates,
The night pervades them and infolds them.
The married couple sleep calmly in their bed, he with his palm on the hip of the wife, and she with her palm on the hip of the husband,
The sisters sleep lovingly side by side in theirs,
The men sleep lovingly side by side in theirs,
And the mother sleeps with her little child carefully wrapt.
The blind sleep, and the deaf and the dumb sleep,
The prisoner sleeps well in the prison, the runaway son sleeps,
The murderer that is to be hung next day, how does he sleep?
And the murder’d person, how does he sleep? (p. 331)
All are sleepers, he says at the end of the poem, and begins to think of the future, what’ll happen to him:
I too pass from the night,
I stay a while away O night, but I return to you again and love you.
Why should I be afraid to trust myself to you?
I am not afraid, I have been well brought forward by you,
I love the rich running day, but I do not desert her in whom I lay so long,
I know not how I came of you and I know not where I go with you, but I know I came well and shall go well.
I will stop only a time with the night, and rise betimes,
I will duly pass the day O my mother, and duly return to you. (p. 338)
The next section in Leaves of Grass is called “Whispers of Heavenly Death.” Its poems are very interesting, beginning to get closer and closer to the grand subject of all poetry. “Quicksand Years” is a very charming little statement on that. Now he’s beginning to doubt himself a little:
Quicksand years that whirl me I know not whiter,
Your schemes, politics fail, lines give way, substances mock and elude me,
Only the theme I sing, the great and strong-possess’d soul, eludes not,
One’s-self must never give way—that is the final substance—that out of all is sure,
Out of politics, triumphs, battles, life, what at last finally remains?
When shows break up what but One’s-Self is sure? (p. 350)
How does he know that? Well, he’s going to get older; we’ll see what happens next.
This is an interesting thing, because now he realizes that it is the notion of an unconquerable self or soul that all along has sustained him, but that too, will dissolve and he’s going to let it dissolve. He has a few thoughts about the dissolution, also, incidentally, just as of his soul, of the soul of the nation, the dissolution of democracy, and in those days, of public opinion. His poem “Thoughts" makes you think of Watergate:
Of public opinion,
Of a calm and cool fiat sooner or later, (how impassive! how certain and final!)
Of the President with pale face asking secretly to himself, What will the people say at last?
and it foreshadows Bob Dylan’s “Even the President of the United States someday must stand naked.”
“So long!” finally he said. “So Long” I think of as the last great poem of Leaves of Grass, a salutation and farewell and summary, conclusion, triumph, disillusion, giving up, taking it all on, giving it all over to you who are listening. “So Long!”:
To conclude, I announce what comes after me.
I remember I said before my leaves sprang at all,
I would raise my voice jocund and strong with references to consummations.
When America does what is promis’d,
When through these States walk a hundred millions of superb persons,
When the rest part away for superb persons and contribute to them,
When breeds of the most perfect mothers denote America,
Then to me and mine our due fruition.
I have press’d through in my own right,
I have sung the body and soul, war and peace have I sung, and the songs of life and death,
And the songs of birth and shown that there are many births.
I have offer’d my style to every one, I have journey’d with confident step;
While my pleasure is yet at the full I whisper So long!
And take the young woman’s hand and the young man’s hand for the last time.
Dear friends whoever you are take this kiss,
I give it especially to you, do not forget me,
I feel like one who has done work for the day to retire awhile,
I receive now again of my many translations, from my avataras ascending, while others doubtless await me,
An unknown sphere more real than I dream’d, more direct, darts awakening rays about me, So long!
Remember my words, I may again return,
I love you, I depart from materials,
I am as on disembodied, triumphant, dead. (pp. 389-392)
But he wasn’t dead yet, he was only seventy. He’s still got to go through the actual dying, how does he do that? How does he take that? What has he got to say about that? There are some interesting “Sands at Seventy” thoughts about giving out—he was quite ill and old in his seventies—in the sense of old in body—his gallstones, paralysis, uremia probably, emphysema, and the great many of his heart difficulties. The poet Jonathan Williams noted that his autopsy showed him to have been as “universal” in his illnesses near death as he was universal in his healths in life. He wrote little poems, then, just whatever he could write now, his great major work over, and yet the little trickle-drops of wisdom of a man of seventy are exquisite and curious:
As I sit writing here, sick and grown old,
Not my least burden is that dullness of the years, querilities,
Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui,
May filter in my daily songs. (p. 394)
And he’s got a little poem to his canary bird: he’s stuck in his little upstairs bedroom in Camden, on Mickle Street, in a little house with low ceilings, visited by many people and talking to his canary bird:
Did we count great, O soul, to penetrate the themes of mighty books,
Absorbing deep and full from thoughts, plays, speculations?
But now from thee to me, caged bird, to feel thy joyous warble,
Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long forenoon,
Is it not just as great, O soul? (395)
Then, “Queries to My Seventieth Year”:
Approaching, nearing, curious,
Thou dim, uncertain spectre—bringst thou life or death?
Strength, weakness, blindness, more paralysis and heavier?
Or placid skies and sun? Wilt stir the waters yet?
Or haply cut me short for good? Or leave me here as now,
Dull, parrot-like and old, with crack’d voice harping, screeching? (p. 395)
Well, everything wasn’t all bad, he had his first dandelion, springtime:
Simple and fresh and fair from winter’s close emerging,
As if no artifice of fashion, business, politics, had ever been,
Forth from its sunny nook of shelter’d grass—innocent, golden, calm as the dawn,
The spring’s first dandelion shows its trustful face. (p. 395)
He still had this same witty awareness, even lying in his sickbed.
Then people began exploring the North Pole, and this amazes him:
Of that blithe throat of thine from arctic bleak and blank,
I’d mind the lesson, solitary bird—let me too welcome chilling drifts,
E’en the profoundest chill, as now—a torpid pulse, a brain unnerv’d,
Old age landlock’d within its winter bay—(cold, cold, O cold!)
These snowy hairs, my feeble arm, my frozen feet,
For them thy faith, thy rule I take, and grave it to the last;
Not summer’s zones alone—nor chants of youth, or south’s warm tides alone,
But held by sluggish floes, pack’d in the northern ice, the cumulus of years,
These with gay heart I also sing. (p. 402)
He’s no longer dependent on that youthful self, in fact the self is dissolving, as it will in these last poems—that’s what wisdom brings. In “To Get the Final Lilt of Songs,” he says:
To get the final lilt of songs,
To penetrate the inmost lore of poets—to know the mighty ones,
Job, Homer, Eschylus, Dante, Shakspere, Tennyson, Emerson;
To diagnose the shifting-delicate tints of love and pride and doubt—to truly understand,
To encompass these, the last keen faculty and entrance-price,
Old age and what it brings from all its past experiences. (p. 403)
You need that, otherwise you ain’t gonna learn nuttin’ if you don’t grow old and die, you just know what you have in your mind when you think you’ve got the world by the crotch.
Next comes an odd lament for the aborigines, an Iroquois term Yonnondio, the sense of the word is “lament for the aborigines.” It turns into an odd little political poem at the end, warning us of Black Mesa, of the Four Corners, of the civilization’s destruction of the land and its original natives. He’s also saying that as he dies, so may all the machinery of the civilization, so there’s nothing for anybody to get too high and mighty about.
But he’s got to give thanks in old age, in a poem of that title:
Thanks in old age—thanks ere I go,
for health, the midday sun, the impalpable air—for life, mere life,
For precious ever-lingering memories, (of you my mother dear—you, father—you brothers, sisters, friends,)
For all my days—not those of peace alone—the days of war the same,
For gentle words, caresses, gifts from foreign lands,
For shelter, wine and meat—for sweet appreciation,
(You distant, dim unknown—or young or old—countless, unspecified, readers belov’d,
We never met, and ne’er shall meet—and yet our souls embrace, long, close and long;)
For beings, groups, love, deeds, words, books—for colors, forms,
For all the brave strong men—devoted, hardy men—who’ve forward sprung in freedom’s help, all years, all lands,
For braver, stronger, more devoted men—(a special laurel ere I go, to life’s war’s chosen ones,
The cannoneers of song and thought—the great artillerists—the foremost leaders, captains of the soul:)
As soldier from an ended war return’d—As traveler out of myriads, to the long procession retrospective,
Thanks—joyful thanks!—a soldier’s, traveler’s thanks.
But there is also “Stronger Lessons”—is everything thanks for the memories and thanks for the good times, and thanks for the gifts and thanks for the loves? “Stronger Lessons”:
Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you, and were tender with you, and stood aside for you?
Have you not learned great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt, or dispute the passage with you?
That’s a good piece of advice on how to alchemize fear to bliss, how to alchemize contrariety to harmony, how to roll with the punches, so to speak. But what is it all about? So he’s got, finally, twilight, not quite sure about that old self. “Twilight”:
The soft voluptuous opiate shades,
The sun just gone, the eager light dispell’d—(I too soon will be gone, dispell’d,)
A haze—nirwana—rest and night—oblivion.
But there are still a few thoughts left in his mind before he goes off into that rest and night: “You Lingering Sparse Leaves of Me” and “Now Precedent Songs, Farewell.” Then, having sum-med up his life, well, just waiting around, “An Evening Lull”:
After a week of physical anguish,
Unrest and pain, and feverish heat,
Toward the ending day a calm and lull comes on,
Three hours of peace and soothing rest of brain.
Then, “After the Supper and Talk” is the last of the poems in “Sands at Seventy,” and perhaps his last. But that wasn’t his last word, no, because he lived on. There are also “Good-Bye My Fancy,” “Second Annex,” and “Preface Note to the Second Annex,” where he says:
Reader, you must allow a little fun here—for one reason there are too many of the following poemets about death, &c., and for another the passing hours (July 5, 1890) are so sunny-fine. And old as I am I feel to-day almost a part of some frolicsome wave, or for sporting yet like a kid or kitten— …
Still there are a couple of little last poems, such as “My 71st Year” and “Long, Long Hence”:
After a long, long course, hundreds of years, denials,
Accumulations, rous’d love and joy and thought,
Hopes, wishes, aspirations, ponderings, victories, myriads of readers,
Coating, compassing, covering—after ages’ and ages’ encrustations,
Then only may these songs reach fruition.
Well, that’s actually what happened to him, in the sense that his work was little famous, not much read, and a bit put down in the first years after his death.
Still clinging on, Whitman recognizes what it was that was his victory: the commonplace, ordinary mind, as it is known around the world.
The commonplace I sing:
How cheap is health! how cheap nobility!
Abstinence, no falsehood, no gluttony, lust;
The open air I sing, freedom, toleration,
(Take here the mainest lesson—less from books—less from schools,)
The common day and night—the common earth and waters,
Your farm—your work, trade, occupation,
The democratic wisdom underneath, like solid ground for all. (p. 426)
He knows the basis, where everybody could stand, which is where we all actually are, and is recognizable in our own bodies, in our own thoughts, in our own work, in our own nation, in our own local particulars—a wisdom that was inherited by Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams and whole generations of poets after Walt Whitman who had discovered that common ground of self and dissolution of self, common ground of his own mind and the common ground of city pavement he walked on with his fellow citizens and the common ground of their emotions between them.
Finally he can with good conscience say farewell to his part, to his own fancy, to his own imagination, to his own life’s work, to his own life, in “Good-Bye My Fancy”:
Good-bye my Fancy!
Farewell dear mate, dear love!
I’m going away, I know not where,
Or to what fortune, or whether I may ever see you again,
So Good-bye my Fancy.
Now for my last—let me look back a moment;
The slower, fainter ticking of the clock is in me,
Exit, nightfall, and soon the heart-thud stopping.
Long have we lived, joy’d caress’d together;
Delightful—now separation—Good-bye my Fancy.
Yet let me not be too hasty,
Long indeed have we lived, slept, filter’d, become really blended into one;
Then if we die we die together, (yes, we’ll remain one,)
If we go anywhere we’ll go together to meet what happens,
May-be we’ll be better off and blither, and learn something,
May-be it is yourself now really ushering me to the true songs, (who knows?)
May-be it is you the mortal knob really undoing, turning—so now finally,
Good-bye—and hail! my Fancy! (p. 429)
And that’s counted as almost his last poem, but then he didn’t die, he had to go on, poor fellow, thinking, allowing his executor to arrange Old Age Echoes, an appendix to Leaves of Grass, which ends with “A Thought of Columbus,” a forward-looking poem about exploration, navigation, going on into worlds unknown, unconquered, etc. “A Thought of Columbus” is not his most moving poem, or his greatest poem, but on the other hand is the last poem he wrote (December 1891) and contains maybe his last thoughts.
So, his life ended on a heroical historical note, congratulating the explorer, himself really, or the Columbus in himself, and the Columbus in all of us seeking outward in our spiritual journey looking not even for truth, because it wasn’t truth he was proposing, except the truth of the fact that we are here with our lusts and delights, our givings-up and our grabbings, growing into trouble and marriage and birth and growing into coffins and earth and unbirth. Good character, all in all, the kind of character that if a nation were composed of such liberal, large-minded gentlemen of the old school or young, large-bodied persons with free emotions and funny thoughts and tender looks, there might be a possibility of this nation and other nations surviving on the planet, but to survive, we’d have to take on some of that large magnanimity that Whitman yawped over the rooftops of the world.
From The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman, Ron Padgett, editor. Copyright © 1991 by Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Used by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 520 8th Avenue, Suite 2020, New York NY 10018. www.twc.org.