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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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Tuesday, September 08th, 2009 | Author:

“To his work without flinching the accoucheur comes…” (“Song of Myself” 85)


An accoucheur is a french term used to describe a male midwife, or obstetrician.  It was first bestowed upon Juliann Clement by King Louis XIV in order to distinguish his work from the much more disregarded midwives. Following this, the study of birth became fairly popular. To ensure the modesty of the patient, a sheet would often be tied around her neck, as well as the neck of the mid-man. This meant that he virtually worked the delivery blind. Due to the obvious inconveniences of this practice, mid-wives more commonly attended to the birth, while the accoucheur worked as an assistant (http://www.fcgapultoscollection.com).

The use of this term works for Whitman on many levels. For one, this male term serves to emphasize the masculinity that Whitman so often proclaims within “Song of Myself”. It also, however, works as a blending of masculine and feminine spheres. This is a man working an effeminate practice, within a realm commonly considered to be a woman’s, and he does so without thought or care to its connotations. On this plane, man and woman have become equals. The subject of birth also connects with Whitman’s mention of a corpse (death) later in the stanza. Here, all aspects of life—from beginning to end—are to be appreciated, no matter how disgusting.

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Sunday, August 30th, 2009 | Author:

Whitman as a writer kind of leaves me breathless; I always need to take an hour or two to clear my head after I put him down, because his words often fill me with more ideas and thoughts than I can express (which is why I’m sure by the time this is posted, I will have edited it many, many times).

One of the first things that really struck me when I began reading Leaves of Grass was the way Whitman places himself (or rather, the speaker) among his readers. Throughout “Song of Myself” and the preface, Whitman describes himself in terms of each and every part of the country. Through this, he makes a point unifying the country, calling America “the grandest poem” (5), and rushing to connect each and every portion of the nation, from the “Yankee” to the “Comrade of Californians” (42). He even does this visually, becoming a champion of the polysyndeton, as if he even wants to connect the country visually in one sentence. Whitman stresses, over and over again, that he is “one of the citizens” (76). He is part of this unification just as much as every other American is. His thoughts are the thoughts of all Americans, and that the ideas that he brings up are the notions that every man carries in his breast—from the slave to the sea captain to the prostitute. He is united not merely in sympathy; he “becomes” (65) the individuals.

And yet this poet, in his universality, seems to set himself apart from the rest of us. In fact, the American Poet is so great and divine that he becomes a sort of messianic figure, especially in the preface. The poet has a “divine voice” (19), and has “higher notions of prudence” (20) in regards to food or sleep (something I interpreted as sort of an ascetic’s lifestyle).   On page 11, Whitman directs the reader with a sort of set of commandments, telling the reader “This is what you shall do.” This sets him up with a leadership position, someone who, as the prophetic American Poet, would know how to direct mankind. The poet is a champion of men; his job is to “cheer up slaves and horrify despots” (17). Put in this position, he can be ultimately joined with neither those above, nor below him. Throughout the entire piece, Whitman has set this poet up as one who knows more, who does more, and feels more.  The poet is a leader among men, set to lead us and show us the way. And with this imbued divinity and advantage over his peers, he can not “become” (65) or ever be any of us . He is too high above them.

This idea kept me conflicted as I was reading: is Whitman the great godlike poet? Or is he the every American that he claims to be? For now, all I can surmise is this: he is both. And we are both. The American people has within them every divine thought and empathy that Whitman claims to have; we just haven’t unlocked it yet. That is why we need the Great American Poet, already endowed with this knowledge. Perhaps this is why Whitman claims we no longer need priests. With the poet’s guidance, we are to become our own priests.

For whatever reason, Whitman: one of the roughs, one of the greats, has plenty to teach me yet, and I am quite willing to listen.

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