October 27, 2009

Ben for 10-27

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 9:49 am

Throughout the course of the semester, anyone who has been following my blog at all may have noticed a trend, namely that I spend far to much of my time dealing with which Whitman is speaking, or what aspect of the Kosmos is the reader partial to at this point.  We have seen Whitman the prophet, Whitman the disciple, Whitman the witness, but the Lincoln poems give us an aspect of Whitman that we have not seen before.  This is Whitman the broken, the mourning, the sorrowful, this is Whitman stripped so bare by grief that the words and lines are pouring out of him straight.  The ego that I railed on so much during the 1867 version of Leaves is no where to be found in this reading.

We, as readers, know that Whitman spends much of his time during the Civil War in a close proximity to death, both in his life and his work.  We also know that he even kept in touch with some of the soldiers he treated, and as much as he would have liked us to believe otherwise, never actually met Lincoln, although they might have traded soulful glances from across the square.  Stylistically though, when put in contrast to the rest of his work, the reader sees exactly how demoralized Whitman is by Lincoln’s death.  In all the strife he’s seen, it is the one fatality that he cannot wrap his mind around.  Although we do see him try in this rapid fire section of four poems that are all trying to grapple with the same one subject.

Perhaps the most interesting of the lot is “Oh Captain, My Captain” which is considered Whitman’s most famous poem, and is also a horrible representation of his work as a whole.  I spent a long time after rereading this poem, in light of my new found understanding of Whitman, and the question that kept surfacing to grapple with was, why the form?  Whitman never uses traditional form, it seems to go against the freedom that pretty much every version of Leaves advocates so much.  I think in this case, it goes along the lines that Whitman is very much a control freak.  He rewrote everything, even his personal letters, until he was happy with them.  Leaves of Grass is a huge amorphous monster of a poem that was ever changing and ever evolving.  The workshop edition, released just after the war, and heavily revised around that period, dealt with an America so shattered that Whitman felt the need to put in verse numbers to give the poem structure.

The placement of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” right before “Oh Captain, My Captain” sheds light on both the poems function.  ‘Lilacs’ is more traditional Whitman, it has the lists, it has the call outs to ideals, it has some of the sprawling length, although it shows a humility that most of his poetry lacks.  “Oh Captain, My Captain” feels like the second attempt to capture what he couldn’t in ‘Lilacs’ in that the movement to form becomes an ultimate control to work within so that his sprawling emotions cannot run away from him, and so that he can attempt to put his feelings on the page.

October 20, 2009

Ben’s (Im)Material Culture Museum Entry: Ghosts of Virginia

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 4:38 pm

chatham  The tourist attraction sign for Chatham, where the ghost of a heartbroken woman is said to walk the grounds for one night every seven years.

048-0010_Lamb'sCreekChurch_VLR_4th_edition  Lamb’s Creek Church, where two Confederate soldiers apparently had a third companion but the flash of lightening

They say that there is a church about thirteen miles outside of Fredericksburg, where during the Civil War, two Confederate soldiers sought refuge against a terrible thunderstorm.  As the two men were holed up in church, there was a flash of lightening, such as there are during serious Virginia lightening storms.  The two soldiers saw a woman dressed in white, praying at one of the pews, then nothing, then another flash of lightening, in which the woman was there again, then nothing.  The third flash was enough to make both of these fine southern gentlemen and soldiers desire to take refuge elsewhere, or chance the storm. (Taylor)

They say that at Chatham, there is a woman in white who stalks the grounds once every seven years, June the 21st.  Her father brought her across the Atlantic to stop a romance that was playing out between her and another English man, but unbeknownst to the father, the suitor snuck his way to America.  The charade was found out at Chatham at one of William Fitzhugh’s parties, and the daughter was shipped back to England, where she lived until she died on June the 21st, 1790. (Taylor)

They say that if one travels to Winchester, about ninety miles to the northwest of Fredericksburg, there is a mansion of considerable psychic phenomena where one can spend the night.  There is a room in Waverly place where a man in grey is said to barge in and fit the occupants with an icy stare before vacating the room.  This soldier was apparently the ghost of a Confederate officer first seen not long after the end of the war. (Asfar)

Ghost stories have pervaded the country and indeed the world since practically the dawn of time.  The question of what comes next has walked hand in hand with the living and ghost stories pop up all the time either as unexplained phenomena or as old stories told around a camp fire late at night.  During the Civil War, Virginia saw more blood than any other state, Union or Confederate.  Indeed, Winchester is said to have changed hands as many as sixty or seventy times, depending on how one defines changing hands, so it is not unreasonable to have some legends floating around about Confederate dead.  I know that for the brief stint that I lived in West Virginia, along the road that Lee used to retreat from Gettysburg, there was a yarn weaved about a dying confederate that would fall on the hoods of cars that stopped in the area around the night.

When hearing about Chatham, though, and finding that they only have one haunting, I was honestly surprised, due to Whitman’s graphic descriptions of the place, especially in light of Fredericksburg’s reputation as a haunted city.  Taylor quotes a nameless historian saying “Fredericksburg and the country immediately about it was fought over, marched over, shelled, ravaged and desolated.  Under its street and in yards, hundreds of dead were buried to be, now and again, in after years, unearthed.  No other American city ever suffered as did this formerly prosperous town.” (Taylor, VI)

In a city as familiar with death as Fredericksburg was in the time that Whitman visited it, it is not surprising then, that ghost stories pop up.  Whether they stem from a real occurrence beyond the realm of mortal understanding is beyond me, but there is another working theory that explains these supernatural presences.  Namely that what is beyond the grave is a matter of which no one can ascertain any real amounts of knowledge.  They may run off of theory or off of faith, but not much is honestly known.  No if one takes a place such as Fredericksburg, a sight where three major battles occurred within the city, and numerous within the surrounding area, and one is standing in a place where death is seeped into the ground.  With so many deaths so long ago, it would seem easy for history to forget them, and that is where the ghost story comes into play.  As a narrative structure, it functions as a remembrance device, as in it is hard to forget something that still wanders the lonely halls of Chatham every seven years looking for her lost lover.


Asfar, Dan, Ghost Stories of Virginia, Auburn, WA, Lone Pine Publishing International, 2006

Taylor Jr., L B, The Ghosts of Fredericksburg – and Nearby Environs,  Progress Printing Co., Inc. 1991

October 19, 2009

Ben B for October 20th

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 10:55 am

What struck me most while reading the Calder essay this week was her physical descriptions of Whitman, especially within the contexts of much of the photos of him that we have seen from after the war.  The Whitman Calder describes is a young virile tree of a man, brash and cocky, the type of Whitman that would inflate his own crotch on the frontispiece and look at you with a confident glare in his eye the whole time.  Yet this is certainly not the more reflective looking wrinkled sad face that is so common in the after war pictures of the good gray poet.  We have already talked at length about the physical toll that war took on Whitman’s body, but I guess reading the firsthand accounts really made that hit home for me.

Where this becomes interesting though, is when his physical decline is tracked alongside trends in his work.  A few weeks ago, I blogged about exactly how much the inherent arrogance of the workshop edition of Leaves of Grass bothered me.  I was able to take Whitman’s cockiness up to a point, but the chapter verse style was a bit too heavy handed for me.  Now, this was the Whitman that Calder describes in her essay, the loud boisterous man that would have arguments so heated that police would come and check to make sure the conversation was not getting violently out of hand.  This is the Whitman as Apostle and Prophet, where his word is divine inspiration, and there is a poet coming that will save America, and it might just be Whitman.

In Drumtaps though, so much of this arrogance has been toned down significantly.  In much of the work one of the most prominent tonal shifts is an incredibly subtle one, namely that Whitman switches from wanting everyone to see the world through his all-seeing eyes and to know what he has been shown to wanting to see through other people’s or things eyes to see what he has seen.  In essence, he has scrapped all his previous trappings of God-like poet for just the omnipresence.  This is the fulfillment of the Whitman I was contrasting against in my first post.  It is in war that Walt Whitman finds his voice as a witness as opposed to a prophet.

My theory on this, upon comparing Drumtaps to the workshop addition of Leaves is that there is still an inherent naiveté to Leaves that allows Whitman to be the Prophet.  He has yet to see anything to tone down the sound of how awesome he is in his own head.  The Civil War though, was too big for him to be the loud speaking voice of the nation anymore.  He saw to many horrifying things for that voice to work anymore, and thus he had to find a new one.

October 5, 2009

Ben B. for October 6th

Filed under: Uncategorized — wordbreaker @ 9:15 am

The reading for this week marks the second time this weekend that I have read “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia’s Woods”, the first time at Chatham house, beard bedecked and standing on the mansion steps.  There is video of this somewhere, I believe on the flipcam that Sam P was using, and I am sure it will end up on the blog as soon as we all finish slogging through the far to much video we took.  Now, previously I was guilty of accusing Whitman of grubbing for authorial authority, trying to paint himself firmly enough into each of his poems that the reader can look and say ‘look there is Whitman, he is in the picture, we aren’t, we should listen to what he says.’  Visiting Chatham, however, has completely thrown off my devotion to this cynical reading of Whitman, at least in relation to Drum Taps.  “As Toilsome I Wander’d Virginia Woods” indeed has a far more contemplative tone then much of Whitman’s work that we’ve seen so far.

“As Toilsome” is not a poem of lists, not a poem of the whole country and not this rolling tirade of actions that Whitman sees or imagines himself seeing or honors.  Instead, this poem is anchored to one specific place, Virginia, and one specific event, the finding of the gravestone.  Also of note here is the far more reactionary Whitman we see talking.  In fact, he is not even talking to ‘us’ or ‘we’, he is just relaying the poem, an act which gives the words far more gravity then they would have had without that inherent separation.  What we see here is Whitman running into an image so overwhelming that for once, he can do nothing but stop and look at it, and repeat it’s inscription to the reader twice, “Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade.”

Now, good blog readers, you must be saying to yourself, “But you are Ben, you take poets to task and are more likely to let the virtues stand on their own whilst you attack the weak points or question the underlying themes.”  Normally, you would have judged my character well, but having sat at Chatham and having read this poem within a few yards of the tree Whitman saw covered in body parts, I find my ability to question Whitman’s authority mongering minimal at best.  This poem lands purely in the realm of ‘Whitman as witness’.  He is merely a bystander to the horrid situations that are going on around him.  Standing at Chatham, this all gets put into amazingly clear focus.  The tour guide at Chatham said that sometimes people of a more sensitive nature tell them that the house still feels of death, and I do not find this all that far of a stretch to believe.  See, ghosts are fickle things and don’t always show up wearing white sheets and rattling chains, sometimes the haunt in the knowledge that one is standing in the same place that multitudes of soldiers died bloody, sometimes the haunt show up in a recurring line of a poem.

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