Allison for Nov. 3

What lurks behind editing?

We know now a great deal about his personal life through his letters, Memoranda, information given to us by our pals Reynolds, Morris, and Erkkila, but there still remains a void. Whitman, containing multitudes, is not easily pieced together. His poetry, though we can only speculate, reveals some thing deeper than biographical information. Through the evolution of his poems, we see the evolution of the man himself– an edited poem flows from an edited mind. Song of Myself, even within its title, serves as Whitman’s mirror, and the changes that occur within the poem over 36 years reveal much about the mindset of our beloved poet not long before his death. What was even more revealing to me, however, were not the things that changed over three decades, but what stayed the same.

Within the first stanza of the 1891 version of Song of Myself, Whitman immediately makes an edit, reminding the reader that this is a different poem from a different man:

“My tongue, every atom of blood, form’d from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here of parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death” (188).

Whitman was, of course, not thirty-seven years old when he made this revision. Instead he reminds us of from where and who the poem originates; Song of Myself is birthed from vitality, from youth, and not from the current state of the writer at the time (nearing death). With the following line, Whitman links his thirty-seven year old self with his current self, knowing that he has achieved the “hope” of his younger self. With this, Whitman re-writes Song of Myself reflectively, and we read it reflectively. Whitman desires and challenges the reader to see the meaning behind his editing.

We have discussed at length the concept of “en masse” and its significance to Whitman, i.e. his philosophy of the American identity, unity through diversity, and comradeship, and it’s no surprise that “en masse” has become capitalized (literally) in Whitman’s writing after 36 years of theorizing it. Along with the capitalization, Whitman describes “En-Masse” as, “without flaw, it alone rounds and completes all, / that mystic baffling wonder along completes all” (210); whereas in 1855, he defines “en-masse” as, “a word of the faith that never balks,/ One time as good as another time…. here or henceforth it is all the same to me” (49). His attitude towards “En-Masse” shifts from a favorable, yet semi-apathetic one, to something he exaggerates passionately about. Whitman couples “En-Masse” with a thought on reality. In 1855 he submits a “word of reality” (49), and in 1891 he “accepts Reality and dare not question it” (210).¬† Reality, capitalized like En-Masse, has become a force worth recognition, something he must¬† submit to; for Whitman to set aside something (anything!) that he will not question, reveals the reverence he has developed for Reality. We, of course, know the reality that Whitman will meet one year later.

Despite the fact that Whitman is ailing in 1891 and nearing death, he maintains his optimistic, almost flippant, remarks about death. The 1891 SOM asserts, just as the 1855 version, that life springs from death, that death is nothing to fear: “And as to you death, and you bitter hug of mortality… it is idle to try to alarm me” (85 and 245). The only difference within these lines about death is that in 1891 “death” is capitalized, as are “corpse” and “life.” So though Whitman maintains his same theory about life and death, but in 1891he pays more respect to their significance and presence. Some lines, however, do not change at all, not even in syntax or punctuation. Most notable of the unchanged lines are the very last 8 lines of the poem. At age 37 and at age 73, Whitman chooses to end his poem with the same enigmatic, enduring words. No matter his age, we will find him under our boot-soles.

  1. Avatar of tallersam

    #1 by tallersam on November 2, 2009 - 2:11 am

    I like that you looked at what stayed the same, since so many other blogs looked at what changed in the two editions. While some things did change, Whitman’s message remained consistent during his published life, and that is probably much more notable than the things that we’ve picked out as having changed.
    I do think it’s very crucial to point out how Whitman’s views about death change throughout the editions; obviously, the man had to deal with his own impending end. However, like you say, he remains defiant and hopeful. What a nice thing to find under your boot-soles.

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