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What the world thought of Whitman

Last night, I decided that enough of the semester had passed without me trying to tie Latin America in with Walt Whitman. So, going off some vague memory, I found an article written in praise of Whitman by Cuban writer José Martí (1853-1895).

Martí was integral in motivating Cuba to separate from Spanish rule and establish itself, so it is not surprising that he would identify with Whitman’s hopes for the United States. This article is very long, so I will do my best to translate the opening paragraph that reads like this in Spanish (so that Brady can correct me :-) ):

“«Parecía un dios anoche, sentado en un sillón de terciopelo rojo, todo el cabello blanco, la barba sobre el pecho, las cejas como un bosque, la mano en un cayado.» Esto dice un diario de hoy del poeta Walt Whitman, anciano de setenta años a quien los críticos profundos, que siempre son los menos, asignan puesto extraordinario en la literatura de su país y de su época. Sólo los libros sagrados de la antigüedad ofrecen una doctrina comparable, por su profético lenguaje y robusta poesía, a la [de]… este poeta viejo, cuyo libro pasmoso está prohibido.”

“‘He resembled a god last night, seated in a chair of red velvet, the complete white gentleman, his beard on his stomach, his eyebrows like a forest, his hand on a staff.’ This is what one of today’s newspapers says about the poet Walt Whitman, an old man of 70 years whom the most profound critics, who are always the fewest in number, give an exalted position in the literature of his country and his age. Only the sacred books of antiquity offer a comparable doctrine, through his prophetic language and robust poetry, to that of… this old poet whose astonishing book is banned.”

I also found a poem about Whitman by the Nicaraguan writer Rubén Darío (1867-1916). Darío is regarded as the father of the Latin American “modernism” movement (which pre-dated the English-language movement and vastly differed in its ideas and focuses) and this poem was published in his collection Azul, which is seen as the archetypal “modernismo” work. The idealized way in which Whitman is described is characteristic of the modernismo style, which I think goes with what we’ve observed about early Whitman poetry. Not surprisingly, this poem is called Walt Whitman, and reads like this in the Spanish:

En su país de hierro vive el gran viejo,
Bello como un patriarca, sereno y santo.
Tiene en la arruga olímpica de su entrecejo
Algo que impera y vence con noble encanto.

Su alma del infinito parece espejo;
Son sus cansados hombros dignos del manto;
Y con arpa labrada de un roble añejo,
Como un profeta nuevo canta su canto.

Sacerdote que alienta soplo divino,
Anuncia, en el futuro, tiempo mejor.
Dice al águila: «¡Vuela!»; «¡Boga!», al marino,

Y «¡Trabaja!», al robusto trabajador.
¡Así va ese poeta por su camino,
Con su soberbio rostro de emperador!

And here is my attempt at translation:

In his iron country lives the great old man,

Beautiful like a patriarch, serene and holy.

In the Olympic crease between his eyebrows

He has something that prevails and defeats with noble charm.

His infinite soul is like a mirror;

His tired shoulders are worthy of a cloak;

And with a carved harp from an ancient oak,

He sings his song like a new prophet.

Priest that cheers on the divine gust,

He announces, in the future, a better time.

He says to the eagle: “Fly!”: “Row!” to the sailor, 

And “Work!” to the robust worker.

So that poet goes on his way,

With his magnificent emperor’s face!

Any thoughts or observations?

Whitman in Maryland

I came across this story and video (do NOT skip the video, which features the poem “Beat! Beat! Drums!”, t-shirts with Whitman in slouch hat, a bad rendition of “I Kissed a Girl,” people spouting such hate it will give you shivers, and the weirdest dancing religious prostester I’ve seen in a long time) about a protest at Walt Whitman School in Bethesda last April and the counter-protest staged by students and teachers.  Here’s what one protester says to sum it up:

“Walt Whitman is a f*g who died years ago and obviously has been worshiped to the degree that he has a school named after him.”

My friends, this, too, is Whitman under our bootsoles.

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