Archive for » September, 2009 «

Sunday, September 27th, 2009 | Author:

All right, so. The Civil War. It’s a subject we Southerners know like the back of our hands, and sometimes I think I learned what the Confederate flag was just as early as the American one (if only because I saw so many floating around the backs of every truck that passed me by. I  know Lee; I know Grant.

Whitman’s role in the war strikes me as an interesting one.   He’s a brother, a civilian, a nursemaid, and a writer. To me (sappily enough) he’s also become a sort of a friend. I think it’s interesting how quickly Whitman’s mood fades; there is a singular set of jubilant entries, with such quotes as “The volcanic upheaval of the nation, after that firing on the flag at Charleston…will remain as the grandest and most encouraging spectacle yet vouchsafed in any age..” (I wonder if he regretted these words later?). Only two entries later, Whitman’s mood is defeated with the soldiers at Bull Run.

Whitman’s prose strikes me exactly like his poetry does. There are times when Whitman can’t stop listing, especially when things are at their worst. Whitman’s summation of the dead  is a frenzy similar to that of “Song of Myself.” Here we have the graves of “Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh” (800). It’s as if even with these (or rather, especially, since they have died for the cause), Whitman seeks to show these men united as a nation. Whitman’s language throughout “Speciman Days” is, as always, expansive, with most sentences lasting several lines and not fitting on the page. These are excepting the few worst days, such as “Down at the Front,” where Whitman’s length is cut short. He seems merely intent on focusing on the facts; he shows us “a heap of amputated feet, legs, arms, hands” (736), and that’s it. They’re in front of a cart. There’s no poetry in that, no “good manure” (85) or fear of the compost, and I’m dying to know what Whitman was thinking, or why he didn’t record that there . Perhaps it was too much for him. Then again, when Whitman sees the released Union prisoners later, his diction can’t can’t help but demonstrate horror; he calls them “monkey-looking corpses” (789). What was it about that day or that mood that silenced him? Surely the living dead would be more horrifying than the actual?

But I’m rambling at little, I think. Throughout this section of “Specimen Days,” we again get asides, but not in such an inclusive way as “Song of Myself.” Again, I see Whitman rushing to include important facts, especially in sections such as “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up.” So many of his asides here have to do with numbers, whether it be the breakdown of all the soldiers killed, or the number of soldier cemeteries now existing in the nation. It’s interesting that Whitman, normally so expansive and word-loving, uses numbers to literally “sum”  the men up; eventually, it becomes all that they are (for evidence, all you have to do is go look at the graves in the Confederate Cemetary just a couple minutes from here). But perhaps that’s the point that he’s getting at later, in “The Real War will Never get into the Books.” We forget the loving husband, and instead remember that he was one of “25,000 national solders kill’d in battle and never buried at all” (800). Perhaps Whitman was balancing the reality of his words, with the sterile factoids that he knew the war would become today.

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Sunday, September 20th, 2009 | Author:

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is perhaps one of my newest favorite Whitman poems. The theme of death is rampant in it, and at times, the imagery of the lost mates made me ache. But, despite all the loss, there is hope within the text; to quote a great movie and even greater king, we have this thing called the circle of life. Whitman and Mufasa seem pretty on par with this theme: with loss, there is always a new beginning. Like so many of the poems that we read before, this “Out of the Cradle” seems made for the Civil War. The country had a death; it lost half itself and its “mate.” But with that, there is the chance for regrowth and renewal. This poem originally appeared in 1860, and by then, the destruction of the nation was already upon us.

The 1860 text is here, if you wish to compare it to the 1867 and 1881 editions that we read. I sat up all night going back and forth between the three. Stanzas like this were particularly interesting:

Two together!

Winds blow south, or winds blow north,

Day come white, or night come black,

Home, or rivers, and mountains from home,

Singing all time, minding no time,

while we two keep together.

This stanza is taken from the 1860 and 1881 versions. In the 1867 version, however, the last line goes like this: “If we two keep together.” The certainty that “while” possesses is taken from the text. “While” implies that the singing and playing is already going on. However, the instance of “if” makes the stanza a plea instead of a  statement. Whitman, having worked in the hospitals, has seen the chaos and pain of a fractured America, and the dream of his joined country shattered. It’s as if he presenting his earlier promise again, showing the grandeur that America could be. He speaks of uniting both the  black and the white, the north and the south. It’s interesting that he speaks in these strictly binary terms here as well. I’m normally used to his meandering lists, naming North and South and Southeast and Midwest, not just the opposition. Here, Whitman displays our lost mates, mirroring the binary oppositions in the war.

There is also a section in the 1860 and 1867 editions of this poem (Whitman 8:32) that is completely taken out of the 1872 edition. This stanza also shows me a Whitman touched by a fractured nation. There are lines such as “O what is my destination! (I fear it is chaos..” Whitman can’t see whether fortune “smiles” or “frowns” on America. I wonder if he was watching with a sort of baited breath. The prophet doesn’t seem so clairvoyant anymore. By 1881, Whitman is triumphant; he jumps straight to the line about conquering death. This is more like my 1855 Whitman, devil may care and ready to take on America’s metaphysical salvation. There is no doubt about the nation anymore. America has healed, has been reborn, and has begun greatness again.

Finally, there’s a line I can’t really account for. In the 1881 edition, Whitman compares the whisper of the sea to “some old crone rocking the cradle” (394). The other two simply…end.  Perhaps Whitman felt that the others were incomplete, or perhaps it better accounts for some sort of God, rocking the cradle of life. But I’m not really so sure Whitman needed that explanation. I’ll keep thinking about it, and let you know later, perhaps. Until next week, Whitmaniacs.

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Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 | Author:

There are so many things that I want to say, or ask, or do in response to Whitman. I guess the best place to start tonight is that I’m still trying to place Whitman in the scheme of religion–in his own personal, in the Christian, and in others. I  know we’ve gone over it extensively, but especially in poems like “Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand,” where I find places so identical to scripture, I find myself marveling at how closely Walt must have looked at others’ spirituality. Okay. Good night, all. I have a lot to think about.

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Sunday, September 13th, 2009 | Author:

Okay, so this is going to sound kind of weird, but hear me out. When I was reading Calamus, I couldn’t help but start comparing many of the concepts in here to those of ancient Greece. Even the name, Calamus, is associated with Greek mythology; it was the name of a man who was turned into a reed upon his male lover’s death. I was also reminded of  pederasty. For the most part, and in most cases, the affair was meant to be a sort of mentorship, with the older man leading the boy and teaching him. Whitman often took this role with the men he loved, acting as sort of an uncle or father. This is a role he often takes in his literature as the poet-prophet, but I think that in his reality, this concept of mentorship was brought to a whole other level, especially since he could name the face that he was teaching, and not just embrace an entire nation.

In “I Dream’d in a Dream,” Whitman remarks, “I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth/I dream’d that was the new city of Friends” (284). This puts me in mind of the Sacred Band of Thebes, a Greek army consisting only of lovers, who, up until their massacre, had never seen anything remotely like defeat. This kind of army is Whitman’s ideal (although I don’t think he had any resolve for them to pillage and fight and whatnot). Whitman wants a band of men who are joined—mind, body, and soul—without negative feelings between them. What would destroy and separate them, pettiness and anger, is in turn destroyed because of the immense love among them. This lack of negativity is reflective in anything they do (hence, it is “seen every hour” (284)), and spreads to others, who are in turn inspired.  This sentiment is even argued by a character in Plato’s “Symposium:”

And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their… it is scarcely an exaggeration to say that when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world.

Furthermore, ancient Greece reminds me of Whitman’s America. Greece was a nation of city-states, prone to fighting and going to war amongst each other. However, when they fought together for a common goal, they were frequently invincible. For the most part, America’s states ruled in a similar fashion, and had been brutally defeated by the fracture of the Civil War. There is so much more that I could talk about in relation to this—for example Plato’s idea of the concept of love, and how all souls are only half of a soul that was split in two.

Interestingly enough, in “The Base of all Metaphysics,” Whitman outright claims that he has studied this model of companionship. More still, he says that it’s the same as other models that he identifies with, such as Christ. At the end the poem, he amends again that all these philosophies of joining are within man and woman themselves. Again, we have this concept of divinity that we merely need to unlock. And here is Whitman, Adam, lover of man, the first, to lead us past our sins and bond with one another. Like us, he’s searching for that other half of a soul to be joined and be complete in our divinity.

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Tuesday, September 08th, 2009 | Author:

“To his work without flinching the accoucheur comes…” (“Song of Myself” 85)


An accoucheur is a french term used to describe a male midwife, or obstetrician.  It was first bestowed upon Juliann Clement by King Louis XIV in order to distinguish his work from the much more disregarded midwives. Following this, the study of birth became fairly popular. To ensure the modesty of the patient, a sheet would often be tied around her neck, as well as the neck of the mid-man. This meant that he virtually worked the delivery blind. Due to the obvious inconveniences of this practice, mid-wives more commonly attended to the birth, while the accoucheur worked as an assistant (

The use of this term works for Whitman on many levels. For one, this male term serves to emphasize the masculinity that Whitman so often proclaims within “Song of Myself”. It also, however, works as a blending of masculine and feminine spheres. This is a man working an effeminate practice, within a realm commonly considered to be a woman’s, and he does so without thought or care to its connotations. On this plane, man and woman have become equals. The subject of birth also connects with Whitman’s mention of a corpse (death) later in the stanza. Here, all aspects of life—from beginning to end—are to be appreciated, no matter how disgusting.

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