Everything is Oll Korrect!

An eclectic bibliophile's journal…

Category: 100 Friends (100 Poems 100 Poets)

Fifteenth Friend: Walt Whitman, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”

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.…

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Fourteenth Friend: Ezra Pound, “A Pact”

I’ve written about today’s friend, Mr. Ezra Pound, a few times before, including addressing his war literature, a very short poem, and a brief reflection on his birthday. In literary terms, he’s a strong contender for the most accomplished friend we’ll meet during this whole series, as he was a great poet, a skilled though idiosyncratic translator, a thoughtful and opinionated critic, and an editor with a knack for finding and fostering talented writers. Because of all that he may be, apart from the Bard himself, the most important poet in English. His reputation suffered because of his support for Benito Mussolini, but I feel confident predicting that in a few centuries Mussolini will be a footnote to theĀ Cantos, much as many great and powerful men are now footnotes to theĀ Divine Comedy.

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Thirteenth Friend: Edmund Waller, “Go, Lovely Rose”

Today, we’ll meet Mr. Edmund Waller, another Cavalier poet (well, more-or-less, as we’ll see). Yes, he’s certainly not the first, and won’t be the last. In fact, the general era has been well-represented among our acquaintances so far, and they’ll continue to show up throughout this project. This is debatable, but I think it’s an easily defensible position that the peak of English literature was roughly the period from the Elizabethan era up to the Civil War. During these decades one could scarcely throw a stone down a London street without hitting a poet of note, and many of them have stood the test of time admirably. When one thinks of the archetypal English poem, one is likely to think of one of the works produced by this formidable literary roster.

With the Elizabethans, for instance, we had Shakespeare, Spenser, and Marlowe. Among the “Tribe of Ben” and the Cavaliers more broadly we had, of course, Ben Jonson himself, Robert Herrick, Richard Lovelace, and Thomas Carew. More broadly, their contemporaries include such luminaries as John Donne, John Milton, and James Shirley. Not coincidentally, this was also the era that produced the King James Bible, by far the most enduring translation of Scripture, and deservedly so (but don’t tell the Protestants I said that).…

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Twelfth Friend: John Crowe Ransom, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”

Today’s friend is a good Tennessean, Mr. John Crowe Ransom. Even if you don’t read much poetry, if you read a lot of Southern or political history you may recognise Mr. Ransom as one of the Southern Agrarians, a contributor to I’ll Take My Stand. Some schools will also touch on his critical ideas, since he was important to New Criticism, which, very briefly, emphasises reading literature as self-contained, without too much emphasis on the author, social background, and the like. Of course, this is mostly covered at the college level if the student is lucky. I took a course on Southern literature specifically and even there, we only touched on Mr. Ransom’s work (coincidentally, we spent more time discussing New Criticism in a course on British literature). He also edited the poetry magazine The Fugitive, and taught first at Vanderbilt University and then Kenyon College, in Ohio.

Anyway, he only wrote two volumes of poetry, but most school curricula will include at least a couple of them, including the one I memorised, “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter.”

There was such speed in her little body,
And such lightness in her footfall,
It is no wonder her brown study
Astonishes us all.

Her wars were bruited in our high window.
We looked among orchard trees and beyond
Where she took arms against her shadow,
Or harried unto the pond

The lazy geese, like a snow cloud
Dripping their snow on the green grass,
Tricking and stopping, sleepy and proud,
Who cried in goose, Alas,

For the tireless heart within the little
Lady with rod that made them rise
From their noon apple-dreams and scuttle
Goose-fashion under the skies!

But now go the bells, and we are ready,
In one house we are sternly stopped
To say we are vexed at her brown study,
Lying so primly propped.…

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