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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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Sunday, September 20th, 2009 | Author:

“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is perhaps one of my newest favorite Whitman poems. The theme of death is rampant in it, and at times, the imagery of the lost mates made me ache. But, despite all the loss, there is hope within the text; to quote a great movie and even greater king, we have this thing called the circle of life. Whitman and Mufasa seem pretty on par with this theme: with loss, there is always a new beginning. Like so many of the poems that we read before, this “Out of the Cradle” seems made for the Civil War. The country had a death; it lost half itself and its “mate.” But with that, there is the chance for regrowth and renewal. This poem originally appeared in 1860, and by then, the destruction of the nation was already upon us.

The 1860 text is here, if you wish to compare it to the 1867 and 1881 editions that we read. I sat up all night going back and forth between the three. Stanzas like this were particularly interesting:

Two together!

Winds blow south, or winds blow north,

Day come white, or night come black,

Home, or rivers, and mountains from home,

Singing all time, minding no time,

while we two keep together.

This stanza is taken from the 1860 and 1881 versions. In the 1867 version, however, the last line goes like this: “If we two keep together.” The certainty that “while” possesses is taken from the text. “While” implies that the singing and playing is already going on. However, the instance of “if” makes the stanza a plea instead of a  statement. Whitman, having worked in the hospitals, has seen the chaos and pain of a fractured America, and the dream of his joined country shattered. It’s as if he presenting his earlier promise again, showing the grandeur that America could be. He speaks of uniting both the  black and the white, the north and the south. It’s interesting that he speaks in these strictly binary terms here as well. I’m normally used to his meandering lists, naming North and South and Southeast and Midwest, not just the opposition. Here, Whitman displays our lost mates, mirroring the binary oppositions in the war.

There is also a section in the 1860 and 1867 editions of this poem (Whitman 8:32) that is completely taken out of the 1872 edition. This stanza also shows me a Whitman touched by a fractured nation. There are lines such as “O what is my destination! (I fear it is chaos..” Whitman can’t see whether fortune “smiles” or “frowns” on America. I wonder if he was watching with a sort of baited breath. The prophet doesn’t seem so clairvoyant anymore. By 1881, Whitman is triumphant; he jumps straight to the line about conquering death. This is more like my 1855 Whitman, devil may care and ready to take on America’s metaphysical salvation. There is no doubt about the nation anymore. America has healed, has been reborn, and has begun greatness again.

Finally, there’s a line I can’t really account for. In the 1881 edition, Whitman compares the whisper of the sea to “some old crone rocking the cradle” (394). The other two simply…end.  Perhaps Whitman felt that the others were incomplete, or perhaps it better accounts for some sort of God, rocking the cradle of life. But I’m not really so sure Whitman needed that explanation. I’ll keep thinking about it, and let you know later, perhaps. Until next week, Whitmaniacs.

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