American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Posts Tagged ‘Whitman

For a Commonplace Book 9

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W. got talking of Emerson again: “The world does not know what our relations really were—they think of our friendship always as a literary friendship: it was a bit that but it was mostly something else—it was certainly more than that—for I loved Emerson for his personality and I always felt that he loved me for something I brought him from the rush of the big cities and the mass of men. We used to walk together, dine together, argue, even, in a sort of a way, though neither one of us was much of an arguer. We were not much for repartee or sallies or what people ordinarily call humor, but we got along together beautifully—the atmosphere was always sweet, I don’t mind saying it, both on Emerson’s side and mine: we had no friction—there was no kind of fight in us for each other—we were like two Quakers together. Dear Emerson! I doubt if the literary classes which have taken to coddling him have any right to their god. He belonged to us—yes, to us—rather than to them.” Then after a pause: “I suppose to all as well as to us—perhaps to no clique whatever.”

—from With Walt Whitman in Camden, volume 1 (1906), entry for Monday, April 23, 1888

 

Text courtesy The Walt Whitman Archive

Written by Ben Friedlander

October 3, 2019 at 1:00 pm

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The Whitman We Need

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And so, just as cuchi cuchi contains multitudes, Charo does as well.

An article on Charo can’t quite redeem these awful days, but this one (from the style section of today’s Sunday Times) at least made me smile.

Written by Ben Friedlander

June 23, 2019 at 7:36 pm

A Rhyme

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Historical consciousness is often out of joint, wrenching awareness away from the present, submerging now in then, coloring then in now‘s diffused tinctures. At present, for instance, the past appears to me a blood-red sea, and blood is all I can see of history.

Historians have other ways of inhabiting and appraising time, though they too, I imagine, have moments of confusion: moments when the past seems to encompass the present, while remaining out of reach, and when the present no longer seems the past’s successor. As a mode of analysis or understanding, this uncanny or untimely experience of history can be an achievement, a way of knocking the present off its pedestal. For not all successors are deserving. And sometimes, it takes a crisis to appreciate that.

This experience of history can also be alienating. Encompassed by the past, the present loses its autonomy, and we, as creatures of the present, lose ours, held captive by a past we thought to have escaped. In such a circumstance, the best we can hope to do is sever ties with the past, break off from those who would retain them, commence anew. A necessary, revolutionary program that is also, to some extent, a self-annihilating one, since the consciousness that rids itself of history is itself historical. The ordinary work of generations, frightening because it occurs in a flash instead of at the stately pace of centuries.

There is, however, an aesthetic version of this alienation: a sudden recognition of similitude between two finite moments, past and present coming together with just that shade of difference needed to keep them from collapsing together, yielding in their conjunction the pleasing qualities of a rhyme.

An instance of that rhyme today: a torn up old copy of the Democratic Review, found in a used book stall in Bangor, bought for a dollar. It contains many interesting literary artifacts (one of Whittier’s “Songs of Labor”; and an early work of Whitman’s, “Tale of a Murderer Escaped”), but what really caught my eye was the opening editorial, “Statue to Jackson.” God help us, will we ever be free of these statues? And Jackson, of all monstrous precedents; truly a rhyme with our present rogue populist. The entire text is reproduced below.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

August 17, 2017 at 8:05 pm

Our Position in the Universe

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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.

 

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 24, 2016 at 5:30 pm

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“the others have only knelt at her feet”

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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.

Written by Ben Friedlander

December 3, 2015 at 9:40 pm

Henry

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HDT

1856 daguerreotype of Henry David Thoreau (image by way of the Thoreau Society)

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.)

Good Gray Fade

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Walt Whitman Service Area, New Jersey Turnpike

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.

Written by Ben Friedlander

March 31, 2010 at 10:58 am

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