Sam Krieg for November 10

     I am going to do my best to answer this week’s question of “how should we read Leaves of Grass” through the poem that I decided to read for this week: Passage to India. Passage to India hits on what is both one of the strengths of LoG and one of its potential weaknesses: the myth.

     The mythic aspect of Leaves of Grass is a great strength of the work, because of the durability of the myth. The reason that we are still quoting Greek myths thousands of years after their inception is because they still resonate with our human condition, despite our societal differences. At the same time though, do those myths inspire us to action? It can be very easy for us to put those myths, and their lessons, into a case and admire them for their artistic beauty and nothing else: “O you temples fairer than lilies pour’d over by the rising sun! / O you fables spurning the known, eluding the hold of the known, mounting to heaven!” (531).

     The same could very easily apply to Leaves of Grass. The poet-speaker Whitman creates is mythically larger than life, and intends to become ensconced in the collective cultural consciousness. However, the stance that he takes to inspire can distance him so much that he loses his connection to reality. Without that bridge, Leaves of Grass becomes compartmentalized as “Towers of fables immortal fashion’d from mortal dreams” (531).

     Another way in which Leaves of Grass might unwittingly send itself off into the realm of irrelevance is its naiveté concerning the relationships between people-groups. Within the confines of Passage to India, it is simple to see the United States as “[t]he road between Europe and Asia” that will ultimately bring about the “[y]ear of the marriage of continents, climates and oceans!” (533, 535). The end result is already in sight, but the path between here and there is outlined only in the most general of terms. The speaker of Passage to India essentially ignores both the petty differences that separate people and the important disputes that drive people apart. It is just assumed that the poet, the central power in the poem, will ensure that “[a]ll these hearts as of fretted children shall be sooth’d, / All affection shall be fully responded to, the secret shall be told” (534).

     Fortunately, Passage to India ends on a note that reaches above and beyond, but not at the expense of leaving the world behind. Whitman shows himself to be aware of the line he is walking when he writes the incredible penultimate stanza of Passage:

 Passage, immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins!

Away O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!

Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!

Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?

Have we not grovel’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?

Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough? (539)

 The poem is aware that it can become lost in itself; because of that awareness, Whitman is able to pull the reader back into reality. In order to accomplish the unity written about in Passage to India, action is required, and action is the final imperative of the poem. I believe that it is that final awareness, the poet leaving his room and working in the hospitals, which preserves the potential for the unity that Leaves of Grass ultimately calls for.

November 07 2009 04:00 pm | Uncategorized

One Response to “Sam Krieg for November 10”

  1. Mara Scanlon Says:

    Very poetic ending yourself, Sam. You know, the tension you trace here in some ways marks my own relationship to Whitman over time. Some –what? disgust, irritation, frustration– with him as someone whose transcendence did not elevate me, but only himself, is one I have given in to at various points in my long relationship with WW. And yet he is so desperate to be grounded, literally, politically, temporally, geographically, sexually, etc. The many remembrances of W I have read that describe him as someone intimately engaged with whomever he spoke to, of there in the moment, were the first thing that made me go really looking for that face-to-face, “real” Whitman.

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