Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’
I love Leaves of Grass, but sometimes, it’s true, I get more pleasure from the six volumes of notebooks and unpublished prose manuscripts, scraps of paper scattered across archives, transcribed lovingly, with notes, and organized by theme. This comes from the section “Natural History,” in volume five.
Hersschel’s theory is that the millions of orbs are not promiscuously scattered through space, but collected in a great line or highway, with two branches, something like the letter Y — and that the position of our sun system, earth &c. is about at the crotch or centre.
In 1860, one Simeon Carter, “a Wood Choper by profession,” wrote a fan letter to Emerson:
Being housed with a bad cold & a cut thumb for a few days I have been reading your Essays for the 2nd time, I have to laugh right out, or make some exclamation of surprise evry few moments, they are just as fresh evry time you them them up as the Bible is. I call them concentrated Poetry, or a cargo of Poetry in bulk. It dont make any odds where you begin to read whether at the beining midle or end, They are rather too rich diet for ‘evry day.’ but if a Wood Choper cant digest them I dont know who can, for I believe smart exercise in the open air is about as necessary for the digestion of thought as for pork and beans….
The letter was printed in the Harvard College Bulletin in 1979 along with a few others to Emerson that touch on Leaves of Grass (the others are from a Harvard undergraduate, a geologist and Presbyterian clergyman, and a gentleman philosopher–this last James Eliot Cabot, who became Emerson’s editor. But the letter from Simeon Carter is the most interesting, in part because it’s the sort of response I associate with Whitman’s own reception, and Thoreau’s, more than Emerson’s. Here is what he writes of the other two men:
Is Thoreaus cabin yet alive? I should judge from what little I have read of him that he was one of the untamed. I have never read his book “Walden” but I swam across walden pond one day, some years ago, just to see what I could do and a fine pond to swim in it is. I have lately got hold of a book with which I am delighted, viz. “Leaves of Grass” by Walt. Whitman, and I must just whisper, Ralph, look well to your laurels or this uncouth bawler will slide them off your brows. He is a new man, he is fresh, he has been in the real presence; he has embraced the Goddess naked, while the others have only knelt at her feet, kissed the tips of her fingers, & some few, her lips. His Egotism is admirable, equal to that of Jesus, hear him, “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” “My voice is Orotund sweeping & final!” Could anything beat that? we are all groping in shadows, he takes hold of the reals. God bless him! I should like to hug & kiss him.
The article containing this , by Eleanor M. Tilton, is freely available online, in volume 23, number 3 of the Bulletin. Begins here.
Hawthorne found Thoreau “ugly as sin, long-nosed, queer-mouthed, and with uncouth and somewhat rustic, although courteous manners”; while Alfred Munroe, a schoolmate, in later years recalled, “He seemed to have no fun in him.” But seeming only went so far; Mary Hosmer Brown: “During his father’s illness his devotion was such that Mrs. Thoreau in recalling it said, ‘If it hadn’t been for my husband’s illness, I should never have known what a tender heart Henry had.'” This perhaps explains Elizabeth Hoar’s remark, recorded by Emerson: “I love Henry, but do not like him.” Not contradicted by Whitman but turned at an angle: “I liked Thoreau, though he was morbid.”
(Some choice bits from The Quotable Thoreau.)
Rereading the Calamus poems this morning I had a realization, an obvious one — but then, who am I to turn down a belated insight? To wit: Whitman’s general tendency is to start with a magnificent sweep of language, then peter out into short bursts of speech. This is the case with the first edition of Leaves of Grass, which starts with the long preface and long first section (“Song of Myself”), then ends with several shorter sections; and this is the case with the work when it’s surveyed chronologically — there are very few poems of more than a single page after 1867.
And this is the case with the Calamus poems in 1860: though none of the sections is really long, yet the length steadily decreases as the poem goes forward. There are 45 sections, and after the 26th all are eight lines or fewer.
I’m guessing that someone has written about this. I’ll have to check. In the meantime, what it makes me think is that the negative judgments of Whitman’s late work are misleading, in that they ascribe to old age a tendency (understood in that context as a fading of powers) that Whitman had made space for since the very beginning. The question is “Why?” Why make space for what looks like a fading or petering out? Is it honesty alone that has him show this, or is it a tendency central to Whitman’s project? Curious.
I’ve been rereading Kenneth Irby’s poetry with pleasure this week, in a book I didn’t even know was in production: The Intent On: Collected Poems, 1962-2006 (North Atlantic Books, 2009) — a book that also includes a fair amount of writing new to me. Pierre Joris has already written a note, a brief one (link here). This will be more like a footnote; a lengthy one.
Irby’s work has deep roots in nineteenth-century American poetry. Whitman is a particular source — Whitman and Shelley provide the book’s epigraphs — though the result has little in common with the Shelleyan Whitman of Allen Ginsberg. Irby is hardly a “bard”! His Whitman’s tone is best caught, I think, in the sequence “Delius” (1974), about the British composer Frederick Delius, who made an orchestral setting of Whitman’s “Sea-Drift.”  It’s a moody piece of music, which like the sea touches disparate shores. In Irby’s poem, too, the sea is sound. His shores are places where the poem has left its lilac scent — the North Atlantic shore of Whitman; Grez-sur-Loing, in France, where Delius lived; Irby’s own California coast, at Point Reyes: Read the rest of this entry »
Saturday, February 14, 1891
I had heard the criticism that Grant was greater than Napoleon. Napoleon fought all his battles in the accepted rules of war — Grant met new fields with new weapons. W. said, “There is a striking ring to that: in some ways it recommends itself to me — goes straight to the truth — at least about Grant. Whether Napoleon is the right man to quote on the other side I doubt. It seems to me Napoleonicism — to make a word—means the very thing praised in Grant. The old fellows would have said — ‘Cross the Alps? It is impossible — fatuous!’ Which only excited Napoleon the more to say, ‘Impossible? Then we will do it!’ — and other impossible things he did — till at last his mastership could not be denied. All genius defies the rules — makes its own passage — is its own precedent. But I can see how all this is emphasized in Grant: it is part of him. I more and more incline to acknowledge him. His simplicity was much like old Zack Taylor’s.”
— Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden, volume 8
In 1859, no longer able to speak from a pulpit (he had TB), Theodore Parker wrote a long letter to his congregation, in effect an autobiography. It was published as Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister, a book precious in its succinct eloquence, and surely one of the earliest retrospects on a revolutionary period. A premature retrospect, one might say, except that Parker, 49 years old, knew he was dying.
But the letter is not just a retrospect. Parker is also concerned here to set forth theological and political principles. At one point, he slyly notes that these principles often went disguised in literary drag. Only in this disguise, he implies, could his ideas be shared freely in public. Why? Because literature is a sphere apart, valued for its independence from worldly strife. Or rather, it operates under the illusion of that independence.
For Parker, the illusion is intrinsic to literature’s social function, a function he describes in terms Stuart Hall might embrace. An early member of “the party of resentment” (Harold Bloom’s derisive name for those who would reform the world through culture), Parker believed that literature is not simply an expression of social forces, but one of the ways those forces gain legitimacy. He also believed that literature’s ability to do good — which is to say, its ability to question legitimacy and so reshape society — is kept in check by the powers and authorities that control its dissemination. Read the rest of this entry »