Throughout my readings I have mentioned Walt Whitman with sweeping, vague references to his eminence and looming spirit. Sweeping because deeming something Whitmanian suffices as analytical synecdoche to say there is a strong sense of metaphysical unity in the poem; and vague because, to be honest, I don’t think I could define it, that is pinpoint it with accuracy. Whitman is a paradoxically elusive poet, burying his visionary power within his superficial simplicity (superficial meaning on the surface, nothing negative). I am no great reader of Whitman. I have glanced at his lesser works and have read “Song of Myself” several times. Strangely, I came to “When Lilacs Last in Dooryard Bloom’d” with some fervor after I lost my brother. It is his best poem, and that gentle elegy (for Lincoln) will haunt me when I venture to memorialize my brother in verse. The poem is especially significant today for not just myself, but the world, as we collectively mourn the assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago, Friday. The poem remains important not only because of its strength, but also because it is an elegy for every one that has ever passed. Here we see that unity I mentioned (the initial ‘you’ is Lincoln. Also, a quick note that I have noticed confuses some new to poetry. When you see an awkward indent in verse, as we see at ‘and sacred death’, it is not the poet’s intended line break. The line is just too long for the page. In Whitman’s original text there is no break there: ‘For fresh…death’ is all one line):
(Not for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O sane
and sacred death.
All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)
But where is the vision? And what makes it great? Why, when he writes, ‘I am to see to it I do not lose you’ (‘To a Stranger’) does it bear a heft as great or greater than a poetry well wrought and rife with, well, poetry; there is no ‘My life had stood—a Loaded Gun’, which we get in Dickinson, his withdrawn contemporary of equal eminence. I think his greatness is due to his self-regard, which stands separately from an egotism. He does deem himself ‘august,’ but he knows that any honor he is due is rendered wholly through his unbridled commitment to not only humankind but also the entire earth and cosmos. He is the paradoxical poet of expansion—manifested formally in what is called the operatic line due to its brea(d)th—as this expansion is only found in the psychological death-of-self. His self is selfless. He sings this self (which is not the Me Myself) only because it is the only way to appropriate and sing the entire world. (All italics are mine throughout.)
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
This is how ‘Song of Myself’ opens. Immediately he sees his presence in everything, every body, each gust of wind, and indeed every leaf of grass. I think the word assume here is often misread; Whitman’s stature is too large for him to admit that he is merely making assumptions and not stating universal truths. I read assume to mean take the shape of. So as we read his work we take the shape of the ‘the woman the same as the man.’ The truths are universal in that the truth he sings, the body, the body politic, and the nation’s body, are all literally the stuff of the universe, stardust smattered and strewn from the unifying explosion of our shared origin.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the
And the pismire [ant] is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and
the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’œuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
I find I incorporate gneiss [rock], coal, long-threaded
moss, fruits, grains, esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over…
This ‘assuming’ continues throughout ad nauseam:
‘I am the hounded slave’
‘I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the
‘I am the mash’d fireman’
This is what makes Whitman a great poet and a visionary. At a time when the country was torn apart in ‘fratricidal war’ Whitman volunteered as a nurse and wound dresser in Washington D.C. What little money he received went to buying clothes, pens, and even ice cream for the wounded. He read and wrote letters for the newly blind and amputated. This is why when he states ‘I am to see to it I do not lose you,’ it is so impactful. And this is why he is the great American poet. He cared. He placed himself among the suffering, suffered with them and, as a great lover of America, strove for a unifying vision that would end the madness and create equality for all. He saw, as we see through him, each individual in utter communion with every living and inanimate thing. That is what it means to be Whitmanian. I leave you with an excerpt from Song of Myself:
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands,
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and
remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive
them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colourless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken soon
out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.