Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Jessica for September 22

Filed under: Uncategorized — September 19, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

After comparing the two versions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass I find Walt Whitman more intriguing than ever. When noticing the differences in the poems, I thought to myself, “Why would Whitman do that?” “What is his purpose in changing just one little coma or word in the poem?” All of these questions heighten the mystery and intrigue around Whitman, and thus my curiosity to discover more about Whitman’s life and literary career continues.

The most noticeable difference I noticed was the constant change of punctuation between the 1867, 1855, and 1891 editions. Throughout the 1867 version, there was frequent use of the dash. For example in  “Spontaneous Me” written in 1867 ,  “The rich coverlid of the grass—animals and birds— the private untrimm’d bank—the primitive  apples—the pebble-stones”  (110)  demonstrate how the dash is used. However, in Spontaneous Me written in 1856 the dash is replaced with commas. Another example of punctuation change is found in Leaves of Grass part 3 compared toAboard a Ship’s Helm. In  the 1867 poem Whitman writes, “The bows turn,—the freighted ship, tacking, speeds  away under her gray sails, The beautiful and noble ship, with all her precious  wealth, speeds away gaily and safe”.(250). ). However in  the the 1891 “Aboard a Ship’s Helm”, a dash is removed and there are significantly less commas. Whitman describes the ship in the 1891 edition and writes, “the bows turn, the freighted ship tacking speeds away under her gray sails, The beautiful and noble ship with all her precious wealth speeds away gaily and safe” (398).The 1867 example with the dash and commas creates a choppy sentence whereas the 1891 version provides a clearer description of the ship rather than listing the characteristics. The subtle difference between punctuation marks can change the meaning of the poem. In the first instance the sentence is choppy which can symbolize the waves that the ship is sailing on. However, the 1891 version focuses on the description of the ship itself and when read aloud creates a smooth fluid reading.

Another difference that interested me was the change of titles in some of the poems. With a new title, I feel that Whitman wanted readers to focus on a different aspect of the poem. For example, the change of title from “A Word Out of the Sea to Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” creates a different visual image for readers to imagine. Another title change that I found fascinating was “Leaves of Grass part 4” changed to “To You”. The later title invokes the reader personally while the title Leaves of Grass part 4 is indifferent to the reader. The “You” in the title can refer to any individual reader who happens to pick up Leaves of Grass at the moment, thus the title “T o You” is inclusive. The thoughtful call out to the reader can also be found in Whitman’s title “Poets to Come”  as opposed to “Leaves of Grass, part 4 “. The change in title allows readers to take a more active approach when reading and analyzing the poem because it is more specific.

Yet, when specifly looking at changes that demonstrate Whitman’s Civil War experience, there are many instances where additional asides have been added and tenses are changed. In “Pensive on Her Dead Gazing, I heard the Mother of All”,  an aside within parentheses is added when Whitman writes, “As the last gun ceased, but the scent of the powder-smoke linger’d)”. Furthermore, there is a change of tense from  “fight” to “fought” in “Camps of Green” . These additional thoughts, changes in tenses, changes in parentheses, and changes in titles demonstrate Whitman’s  changing motives. I feel each change was deliberate. These changes could be due to his change of opinions brought about by the Civil War,  his thoughtful reflection on life and death, or a technique to expand and maintain his readership.

1 Comment »

  1. Mara Scanlon:

    You’re accounting for several interesting shifts with these observations. It pleases me to have two posts about punctuation this week! (As Whitman would say, all things please me, but this pleases me well.) I am overfond of the dash, so earlier versions appeal to me on this count alone. This kind of close reading reminds us how much LoG was a living text– not just changing shapes or bindings or order of poems, but changing things even on these micro levels, so that the deathbed really can’t be seen as a repackaged Complete Poems, Unabridged, but rather as a new(ish) document itself that records Whitman’s and the nation’s growth/decay in thousands of ways. When I think about the work of setting the type for books, this is all the more striking to me– to delete a dash or comma means resetting all, no possible shortcuts for Whitman in his reprintings.

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