Song of Chelsea

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Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,

Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,

Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,

Looks with its sidecurved head curious what will come next,

Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders,

I have no mockings or arguments…I witness and wait.

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Chelsea for September 1

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            So far, I am torn between overwhelming agreement with Walt Whitman and confusion over his occasional self-contradiction.  Though he seems at times to have some semblance of a self-righteous Christ complex, his ideas about the world and most particularly about poets and poetry are quite inspiring.  His passion and insistence that the United States will yield and revere the greatest poets are sentiments which are unfortunately no longer shared by the greater part of society (just ask to see Dr. Scanlon’s newspaper write-in from a reader who wrote to complain over the government paying poet laureates).  However, it is refreshing to view and understand a poet as being of the highest regard in a community, though it seems Whitman would take this esteem to the highest elevation.  This is where the aforementioned Christ complex kicks into gear.

            The didactic language of the introduction to Leaves of Grass as well as in this version of “Song of Myself” help to make the poet and therefore Whitman himself into an omnipotent Christ figure.  Throughout the introduction, Whitman manipulates biblical language and allusion so that the poet may be better imagined this way.  In addition to how greatly the poet is praised, there are specific instances where he is placed in the exact position of the biblical Messiah.  For example, Whitman writes, “The greatest poet forms the consistence of what is to be from what has been and is.  He drags the dead out of their coffins and stands them again on their feet….he says to the past, Rise and walk before me that I may realize you” (13).  This allusion to the story of the resurrection of Lazarus as told in the book of John (11:38-44) allows the poet to take the place of Christ.  Later in the introduction, Whitman uses similar biblical language that seems reminiscent of the ever popular 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 which begins “Love is patient and kind” when he says, “Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement” (17).  Whitman also sets up his own version of the commandments (though there are more than ten) when he writes, “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and the sun and the animals…” (11).  Another scriptural allusion, though perhaps a bit more under the radar is, “A new order shall arise and they shall be the priests of man, and every man shall be his own priest” (25).  This is strikingly similar to 1 Peter 2: 9a which says, “But you are not like that, for you are a chosen people.  You are a kingdom of priests, God’s holy nation, his very own possession.”  The list of biblical allusion goes on and on.

            At this point, Whitman’s stance on religion has me both puzzled and intrigued.  Clearly he is educated in the Bible as his work is full of both traditional biblical allusion and less obvious biblical language, though he seems often to rebuke and/or manipulate its teachings to fit his own ideas about religion.  I have been tempted to argue that Whitman abandons faith for the idea that man or nature is supreme (or rather that he places his faith in those things), though I can’t quite get around the fact that he does not completely reject the idea that God exists (as he brings Him up many times throughout the introduction to Leaves of Grass and “Song of Myself”).  Perhaps Whitman would today consider himself a universalist?  It seems that these doubts and questions are some I will grapple with over the course of the semester.  Even Whitman himself admits to his self-contradiction when he writes, “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then….I contradict myself; / I am large….I contain multitudes” (87).  Well Walt, I guess it’s me versus your multitudes…

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