My Annotation, or Taking it Apart, and Putting it Together Again

First, I will reproduce the poem for easy access.  Please disregard the different font colors for now; I will explain what the colors mean, eventually.

Election Day, November, 1884

If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,

‘Twould not be you, Niagara–nor you, ye limitless prairies–nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,

Nor you, Yosemite–nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,

Nor Oregon’s white cones–nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes–nor Mississippi’s stream:

–This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name–the still small voice vibratingAmerica’s choosing day,

(The heart of it not in the chosen–the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing,)

The stretch of North and South arous’d–sea-board and inland–Texas to Maine–the Prairie States–Vermont, Virginia, California,

The final ballot-shower from East to West–the paradox and conflict,

The countless snow-flakes falling–(a swordless conflict,

Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,

Or good or ill humanity–welcoming the darker odds, the dross:

–Foams and ferments the wine?  it serves to purify–while the heart pants, life glows:

These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,

Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.

The next logical step is to look at the title “Election Day, November, 1884.”  As a few of my classmates pointed out in their posts last week, this election was very close and intense.  The candidates James Blaine (Rep) and Grover Cleveland (Dem) slung mud at each other throughout their campaign.  Grover Cleveland narrowly defeated his opponent by winning New York state, and the election.  Blaine probably would have won New York state, but something happened during his campaign that pushed enough people to vote for Cleveland, allowing him to win the election.  During a campaign meeting with several hundred pro-Blaine Protestants,

Reverend Samuel D. Burchard delivered a warm welcoming address which ended with the words: “We are Republicans, and don’t propose to leave our party and identify ourselves with the party whose antecedents have been Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.”

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Blaine didn’t catch the slur directed towards Irish Catholics, but a reporter hired by the Democrats to cover the meeting did.  Blaine didn’t give himself enough distance from Dr. Burchard, and it cost him the election.

Whitman is in part reacting to the tumultuous, intense election, but, primarily, he is writing in awe of the electoral process, “America’s choosing day.”  Because he is both in awe of the act of voting, and reacting to the intensely heated campaign, Whitman combines positive and negative images–sometimes in the same line.  Now, I think my highlighting will make more sense.  I have highlighted the positive images and words in green, and the negative ones in red.

The poem begins straightforward enough.  Line 1 reveals that the speaker wants to name the best illustration of America’s power.  Lines 2-4 list in typical Whitman fashion all of the things the speaker doesn’t want to talk in his poem.  However, at second glance, these lines are doing more than listing:  They are describing, briefly, various images of strength, but also instability and turmoil.  As you can see, there are both green and red colored words in the first four lines.  Whitman describes the prairies as “limitless” and the canyons as “huge rifts.”  The limitlessness of America’ s potential is something Whitman awes, but he also recognizes the divisions.  I would argue Whitman chose these various images to coincide with his feelings about the election of 1884, and the electoral process.  The words, “rifts,” “spasmic,” and “seething” mean, respectively, divisions, convulsive, and tumultuous or intensely heated.  All of these words could be used to describe the campaign of 1884.

In Line 5, the speaker reveals his intended topic of discussion:  “America’s choosing day.”  Now, there are some absent things I should mention.  Nowhere in this poem, does the speaker mention Cleveland’s victory or even hint at it.  He is, as far as I can tell, non-partisan, a neutral voice reacting to a particularly heated political battle, and the resounding voice of Democracy making a choice, which has potential for good or ill.  The speaker doesn’t seem to care much about the winner:  “The heart of it not in the chosen,” (6) but he does care about the process of voting:  “the act itself the main, the quadrennial choosing” (6).  Quadrennial simply means every four years, as in America’s presidential elections taking place every four years.

The next line (7), simply takes note that the entire country was involved in the election.

Line 8 threw me the first wrench when initially dealing with the poem.  “The final ballot-shower from East to West” was simple enough to understand.  The votes were coming in from across the country.   It’s the “paradox and conflict” that threw me.  First of all, I expected to see the word conflict, especially after reading about the history of the election itself.  But, “paradox” didn’t seem to make sense to me.  At first I thought he meant “paradoxical conflict” as in “swordless conflict,” (9) or the idea of a peaceful revolution every four or eight years—sometimes longer, like, in the case of FDR.  Only he didn’t seem to be using “paradox” as an adjective but as a noun, indicating the election itself was a paradox.  This compelled me to look “paradox” up in the OED to see if there was another meaning I was unaware of, and there was.  Paradox can, rarely, mean an outcome that doesn’t seem logical, or doesn’t make sense, but when evidence is accounted for, it does prove true.  With this possibility in mind, I looked further into the history of the event.  This is when I learned about the “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion” debacle, which cost Blaine the election.  Using the new definition of paradox, the word could be a description of Cleveland’s victory.  This didn’t seem to fit in with the phrase, “the heart of it not in the chosen,” (6) at first.  But, after I looked at the entire poem again, and again, and again, I noticed the language of conflict throughout.  Plus, if all he wanted to do was glorify voting, Whitman could have called the poem “America’s Choosing Day” rather than the event itself.  Whitman wasn’t writing in a vacuum; he was inspired by the events surrounding the election and wrote about them.

“The countless snow-flakes falling” (9) seems to be modifying “The final ballot-shower” (8), and would imply that each vote was like a snow flake, cleansing, purifying, rejuvenating the country, allowing a fresh start—a new president.

The conflict between the candidates was “swordless;” however, it was very intense:  “Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s” (10).  With this line, I had to answer the question:  more what?  More peaceful? More intense? More paradoxical?  In the end, I decided I don’t think Whitman meant more peaceful than Rome’s wars or Napoleon’s because that wouldn’t make much sense.  Of course our elections are more peaceful than their wars were; nobody is killed during our elections, typically.  Plus “swordless conflict” already covers the peaceful angle, so I’d guess Whitman was referring to the intense mudslinging between the candidates and comparing that intensity to that of warfare and claiming war doesn’t always have to involve violence and death and swords.

The phrase “the peaceful choice of all” (10) seems to say, the choice of all Americans, the ones permitted to vote, create the peace.  Voters end the “swordless conflict” by choosing a candidate to become America’s president.  This is the most important part of election day for Whitman, “The act itself” (6).

The next line seems to present the possible consequences of “America’s choosing day.”  The “chosen” could work for the “good or ill [of] humanity.” (11). Voters are potentially “welcoming the darker odds, the dross” (11).  I take “odds” to be part of the phrase “odds and ends,” which means bits and pieces.  This meaning, with the word “darker,” fits best with “dross,” which means impure matter, or rubbish.  These darker items working for the ill of humanity would “foam or forment the wine” (12) making it impure, in other words, ruining the purity of America.  There is a question mark at the end of the phrase, obviously, implying there is a question somewhere.  After rereading the poem a number of times, I came to the conclusion it questions the role of “America’s choosing day.”  This question doesn’t mean the speaker has a negative view of the role of voting in America.  It is a rhetorical question for him to answer:  “it serves to purify,” (12) like “the countless snow-flakes falling” (9).

The concluding lines explain how “America’s choosing day”(5) “serves to purify.”  He gives examples of positive outcomes from negative situations.  “While the heart pants,” (12) has a negative connotation.  Usually when I think of panting, I think of dogs, or my breathing after running.  So I looked it up in the OED and discovered there is a rare use for pant, mostly for poetry that means the heart is pulsating, throbbing, due to powerful negative emotion.  But, when the “heart pants,” (12) “life glows” (12) or shines bright.  From a negative situation comes a positive outcome.

The final two lines provide the ultimate example of hope for America.  “These stormy gusts and winds” (13) refers to the intense battle of elections.  In the phrase “waft precious ships,” (13) waft means to guide, convoy, or propel like the wind.  In the next line, the “precious ships” are revealed:  Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln, Whitman’s heroes.  Literally, Whitman is saying each of the great presidents of America’s history arose from turbulent times.

Bottom line:  Whitman doesn’t know what the outcomes of Cleveland’s presidency will be.  He seems to be pretty non-partisan.  The poet is reacting to the turbulent conflict, though swordless, between the candidates, and to the way “America’s choosing day” ended the conflict.  He ends by saying the president—without revealing his identity—has the possibility of rising to greatness out of the turbulent, stormy conflict of the election and other storms of America—“rifts,” “spasmic” situations, and examples of “seething humanity.”  Whitman ends his poem on a hopeful note.

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