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Whitman the Man

Reading the chapter from Morris, which I loved by the way, I found myself feeling for Whitman in a way I hadn’t quite grasped before. We talked a lot last time about how his attitude towards the world, and specifically death, changed from 1855 to 1867. We talked about how seeing death up close would cause Whitman to cease seeing death as a part of a renewal cycle and begin seeing it as something to be feared. On one level I understood this and my heart ached to read Whitman’s poetry as he lamented the chaos that the Civil War had inflicted upon his beloved country. However, I wasn’t really able to grasp how much it affected him until I read his diary excerpts.

Looking back on my previous post I feel ashamed that I accused Whitman of abandoning his personal style of poetry for one of a more universal style, after reading his diaries I can see he did nothing of the sort. Every time a soldier died Whitman felt it, every time a cannonball tore through a line of troops and left craters in the blood-soaked battle field Whitman died a little inside. To him the Civil War was personal, that his fellow country men could inflict such pain and horror upon each other appears to have hurt Whitman in ways I can hardly grasp.

I’ve been struggling with the dichotomy between Whitman-the-Poet and Whitman-the-Man, hence the poem I posted earlier this week, but I feel like now that I’ve had  a glimpse of Whitman-the-Man I understand his poetry all the better for it.

In 1855 Whitman wrote poetry with the optimistic, carefree wonder of a child. He saw good and beauty in everything: the body, the soul, nature, speech, song, even death. His entire being was founded on his faith that if everyone could learn to experience the world with the same love and admiration that he did then the world would truly be perfect. He believed that if any group of people were capable of such a transformative world view it was the American people. To have these same people that he glorified in his poetry be the cause of something so horrendous as the Civil War must have been like being shot by a beloved friend. The fact that Whitman was able to maintain any sort of adherence to his prior optimism is amazing, to face the bowels of Hell and still maintain belief in Heaven is a skill reserved for only the strongest of people (I’m wandering into the field of flowery prose here, I apologize).

This post has become rather emotional and presumptuous, in that I seem to be claiming that I know Whitman in an emotionally intimate way, but I think that this may be the response Whitman was seeking all along. To stir the emotions of his reader, to have their hearts break every time one of the soldiers he loved was found laying on a stretcher covered by a gray cloth, to have them sing for joy when the soldiers returned from battle celebrating the chance to live another day.

I still need to sort out my feelings on the changes he made from 1855 to 1867, and I think reading the deathbed edition will help with that, but for right now I am content to sit by the bedside of Whitman and listen to his tales.

~ by bcbottle on September 27, 2009.


4 Responses to “Whitman the Man”

  1. I love your comparison of Whitman being almost child-like in the 1855 edition, then reading for the next class is almost like watching Whitman grow into a young adult. This may be a horrendous analogy considering Whitman’s personality, but it’s like watching a fun loving child grow into a depressed, almost emo teenager. Somewhat moody, with fun days, but for the most part wandering in a sea of dark, gloomy images.

    I don’t think you’re being presumptuous that you “know whitman in an emotionally intimate way”, at all! Whitman’s poetry invites you to come in, especially in reading his memorandum, morris, and other critics/biographers I too almost feel like I know/knew Whitman. Thus, if your theory of his aim to be emotionally catching his readers, he has succeeded with you and I. Great post!

  2. Thank you for such an honest comment. I too, was a bit disappointed at first by his style. I’m more of a personal/first-person narration type of girl, but as we delve further into Whitman’s poetry, I can feel a more personal closeness he expresses underneath the lines. Great point in feeling anguish and pain when he writes of the war, dying soldiers and everyday citizens.

    But what I really liked about your post is your point about Whitman being like that of a child. I was thinking of writing my paper in connecting Whitman and his ‘innocence’ seeping from his writings… so it’s good to know that I wasn’t alone in thinking that! :)

  3. Brendon, this summer I wrote a post that I titled using something that Whitman wrote about his man Lincoln: I love the man personally. Sometimes I turn this phrase to Whitman in my head also, since the intimacy with which we feel we come to know him is so powerful, and it was definitely the war writings and NOT the list of his private parts that brought me to this sense.

  4. I didn’t ever feel quite right either with the accusations that Whitman was kind of “selling out” and going for a more universal approach in the ’67 edition. I think that it’s really easy for us as readers (or, perhaps, more particularly as college students) to immediately jump on the man for changing his style from the initial, groundbreaking formula, or to at least characterize it in a somewhat demeaning way. However, when we see the larger scope of things, it becomes obvious that Whitman has not lost his poetic vision: it has simply evolved a bit. Thinking about “Specimen Days” makes me wonder about prose poems too (not that I think Whitman wrote those, but his free verse is so close to it, which is now coupled with his actual prose. Prose poems just seem like the obvious middle ground). Anyway, yours was a very heartfelt post :-)

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