Last week we discussed Ezra Pound’s “Pact” with Walt Whitman, which turned out to be about as peaceable and long-lasting as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. This week, we’ll meet with Walt Whitman himself.
Mr. Whitman was born in 1819 and grew up in Brooklyn. Professionally, he struggled for most of his life both in his day jobs (editing newspapers and as a clerk for the Department of the Interior) and as a poet. Some of this was just bad luck, like one publisher going bankrupt at the start of the War Between the States, while others stemmed from the content of his poems; Ralph Waldo Emerson was a supporter of his, and he also became popular in England because of his reputation as a champion of the common man, but the first few editions of Leaves of Grass did not sell well and critics responded poorly to his use of free verse. Exacerbating matters were accusations of indecency in his poems, which is why he was dismissed from his post at the Department of the Interior, and in 1881 a Boston publisher stopped publication of Leaves of Grass thanks to the efforts of an outfit called the Society for the Suppression of Vice. The controversy did bring some attention to the book, though, and once he found a new publisher finally found some moderate financial success.
I should also mention that Whitman was a supporter of the Free Soil Party, which opposed the extension of slavery into new territories and was eventually absorbed into the Republican Party. As one might guess, then, he also supported the Union cause in the War Between the States, despite being disturbed by the level of suffering the war caused. To his credit, he often went to hospitals to visit wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate.
Now, to his poetry. Here’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Folks, I’m gonna be honest: I’m pretty sympathetic to Mr. Pound’s assessment of Mr. Whitman’s poetry, and I chose this poem in large part because it’s short. It does have its virtues; I like how the lines get progressively longer, making the lecture feel heavier and more oppressive, until we get some relief when he goes outside. He does get his point across by contrasting the abstract “charts and diagrams” and so forth with the more concrete “moist night-air” and “stars,” though “mystical” doesn’t convey much. He also contrasts the crowded and noisy lecture room with his later solitude and silence. However, none of these images really grab me like those in some of the other, better poems so far have, and because of the free verse it also doesn’t have as much musicality as I like.
Well, I’ll still respect Mr. Whitman for what he does do well, and for his influence on later poets, but frankly, American icon or not, I can take it or leave with his poetry.