Sunday, October 04th, 2009 | Author:

When we talk the periods of Whitman’s writing (or even every individual edition), Isometimes feel as if we’re talking about a different person, or at least something vaguely schizophrenic. Whitman goes through so much in the war; he goes from being the man who feels all and yet has done very little (in terms of the size of the nation, at least), to the man who focuses specifically on a group of men. He changes, and because poetry tends to reflect our inner thoughts, so does his poetry.

It would be fantastic if  those two selves would merge. While I don’t want him to change, necessarily, it would be great if we could get the best of both Whitmans.  The hopeful voice of the poet-prophet tends to get lost in the pain of the war, and the inexperience of the 1855 poet-prophet needs to be tempered by the experience of man. “Over the Carnage Rose a Prophetic Voice” captures such a sense of the two selves merging, at least in the later version. The initial version, published in the 1860 edition, is radically different (here, if you like).

Whitman’s ideas remain the same throughout both pieces. There’s a sense of unification here, for Whitman, for the nation, and for the people. 1855 Whitman lists his nations, and War Whitman connects each nation with its geographical counterpart. Missouri finds its mate in Massachusetts, and Michigan, Florida. The Calamus Whitman is also found in both versions of the text; Whitman challenges the reader:

(Were you looking to be held together by lawyers?

Or by an agreement on a paper? or by arms?

Nay, nor the world, nor any living thing, will so cohere.)

Our nation is not one to be unified by proclamations, laws, or by armistices; not even our president can hold us together. It’s not even Whitman, really. The preceding wars have taught everyone that no one person or institution can hold such a diverse nation. Instead, it is the people that 1855 Whitman has mentioned, the prostitute and the sailor and the slave. It is the “comrades,” “lovers,” and “manly affection” (449) that is so prevalent in Calamus.

1855 Whitman is so evident in the 1860 version. His ego-centrism spills off the page. It is he who will “make the continent indissoluble,” and “plant companionship.” Whitman, the divine poet-prophet, takes everything upon himself. He is the action that we will follow, and he can’t resist reminding us that it is his words that give the nation hope. Whitman is the devoted “femme” of democracy, and will do everything to help its progeny. It’s easy to find the man who empathizes with everyone but has experienced very little here.

When we get to 1867, Whitman has seen the work of man. He’s seen his beloved nation fracture, and the people themselves break apart and be destroyed much in the same way. His words haven’t led the nation in the sense of manly love—at least, not yet. In 1867, most evidence of Whitman’s actions is taken out. Whitman’s words are there; his voice rises, and he checks the reader, reminding them that neither laws nor papers will hold a people together. But that’s all the poet-prophet is, a prophet. The result is much quieter; 1860 has a flurry of exclamation points. Whitman can barely contain his exhilaration and hope on the page. In 1867, it’s up to the people themselves for the “manly affection” (449) that Whitman puts such hope in. His faith in it is more hopeful; he doesn’t proclamate (there are a ton of “there shall be…!”s in the other version), but he looks toward the future. It’s easier to trust this reflective speaker, rather than the agitated and overly excited 1860 one.

So, yes. I think that as a man changes, his poetry needs to change. Whitman saw himself in his poetry. It was a reflection of his inner-self, and as he changed and his ideas changed, so did Leaves. But maybe it doesn’t so much have to be a change as it is a tempering and merging, especially in Whitman’s case.

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  1. Meghan, I think you are touching on some things that are delightfully unique to Whitman and for me, part of what makes him so exciting. As we discuss his “multitudes,” we find that part of those multitudes lie within his (and his work’s) tendency to change throughout time. Part of what makes Leaves of Grass so interesting to me is this change. Like wine, we expect that Whitman will just better with age…and I agree that I think he does (as you essentially alluded to in contrasting the 1860 and 1867 versions). What really gets me about this text though is that we aren’t just looking at drafts of a work – we’re looking at works within a work, built of and in each other. You are right that as a poet changes, his or her poetry needs also to change and for Whitman, this book is merely an extension of himself and therefore takes the shape of whatever Whitman the man becomes. You suggest that it would be great if his selves merged, but isn’t that what makes people come back to Whitman time and time again; the man cannot be pinned down. And because of this, he is making us read him, having us study, consider, and occasionally lose sleep over his life’s work, even now.

  2. Avatar of Mara Scanlon Mara Scanlon says:

    Who’s losing sleep?

    Meghan, this is such a careful and excellent analysis of the shifting poem and shifting Whitman. Great work linking in to the other version. You know, until the last year I had always liked that 1855 Whitman better than all, and in some ways I still do when I step back to, say, the force of the lines, rhythms, and innovations of that early Leaves when he had just stepped off his spaceship. Sometimes the more formal Drum-Taps or those new poems of 1867 we looked at a few weeks ago fall a little flat to me or become too prosaic. And yet, as you well know from my continual blathering about it, this tender and more self-effacing Whitman has really captured my heart.

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