WALT WHITMAN, VICTORIAN

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) was the most Victorian of authors, the very opposite of a modernist or imagist.  His poem, “Darest Thou Now O Soul,” for instance:

Darest Thou Now O Soul

Darest thou now O soul,
Walk out with me toward the unknown region,
Where neither ground is for the feet nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not O soul,
Nor dost thou, all is blank before us,
All waits undream’d of in that region, that inaccessible land.

Till when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bounding us.

That we burst forth, we float,
In Time and Space O soul, prepared for them,
Equal, equipt at last, (O  joy, O  fruit of all) them to fulfill O soul.

In Whitman’s poem rhetoric is far more important than image, and the manner and the subject are utterly Victorian, and not in the least modern.  Whitman travels solo, an American vagabond, cut loose from all, and yet his yearning to connect within his profound disconnectedness is what gives him his signature attitude and emotion.

Let us look at another classic Victorian poem, this one by Charles Kingsley (1819-1875), born within weeks of Whitman, but in England, and so much more connected to life than Whitman:

When All the World… (from The Water Babies)

When all the world is young, lad,
And all the trees are green;
And every goose a swan, lad,
And every lass a queen;
Then hey for boot and horse, lad,
And round the world away;
Young blood must have its course, lad,
And every dog his day.

When all the world is old, lad,
And all the trees are brown;
And all the sport is stale, lad,
And all the wheels run down;
Creep home, and take your place there,
The spent and maimed among:
God grant you find one face there,
You loved when all was young.

Now both of these poems are highly expressive and highly emotional; but Whitman’s poem is free of the world and without image of the world; Whitman is completely taken with “O Soul,” but Kingsley is immersed in “the world” and images of “the world” and memories and lessons of “the world,” dragging in trees and swans and lasses; Kingsley is grasping the world with all his might, while Whitman has let go; Whitman is transparent, invisible except for a rhetorical gesture, a desire, a wish, an expression only, an urge. 

Whitman is a Victorian looking backwards at Shelley; Kingsley is a Victorian looking forward to Yeats and 20th century Symbolism and Imagism. 

Kingsley was an early supporter of Darwin’s ideas; no “O Soul” for Kingsley; that’s more for the more sentimental Victorian, Whitman.

Here again is Whitman, and again we see the Victorian morality, the sermon, the speech, the gesture, without any need to be in the world, as such; the world is insignificant, the world is gone, and for Whitman only a  moral and mystical intuition remains:

To A Common Prostitute

Be composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature,
Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you,
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you and the leaves to rustle for you, do my words refuse to glisten and rustle for you.
My girl I appoint with you an appointment, and I charge you that you make preparation to be worthy to meet me,
And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.

Till then I salute you with a significant look that you do not forget me.

One thinks, of course, of Christ’s forgiveness, the instant understanding that washes away sin, for we all are sinners, all “lusty as Nature,” as Whitman says he is, and therefore as the sun shines on all, so the sun shines on this “common prostitute” and then Whitman implies he is going to come to her after she makes ready and it is intentionally ambiguous what he is going to do: rape her as a Zeus-like figure disguised, or give her wise counsel; as usual with the Victorian Whitman what is clear is the emotional wallop; he is morally equal with her and placid, but at the same time he is morally superior and even morally inferior because he wishes her to remember him almost as if he were a common wooer of her; it is a miraculous attitude as Whitman manages to be Pagan god, Old Testament father, New Testament Christ, and humble lover towards his “girl” all at once—here is the truly protean Whitman able to be/say everything by dint of his complete loving detachment. 

A human being cannot do this, only poetry can.

For the modernists, poetry will become an irony as it reaches what is apparently its limit; the dream of Shelley has invaded all aspects of life, the past, the present, the future; a pagan statue bathed in the holy light of Christ now become the mind of the poet itself and the poem literally bursts with too much soul and what is left is the hard fragments of the imagists or the elusive ironies of the moderns.

The hard ground of common-sense, which Victorian poets like Charles Kingsley walked upon, was rejected by the new poets of the 20th century; but for some reason Whitman, who represented a Romantic/Victorian end, and we can clearly see the ‘traveled as far as one can go’ in Whitman’s prostitute poem—for some reason, Whitman, the culmination of the Romantic/Victorian line, was welcomed by the moderns as a beginning, and, after some initial reluctance, hailed as a true modern.

Why?  Because Whitman used dramatic speech, unencumbered by strict meters? 

Were the moderns simply unable to write good free verse themselves (free verse being one of the modern tenets) and so Whitman, though born in 1819, had to be borrowed, so to speak, for a 20th century job? 

This may be part of it; remember, the chief poet of Modernism, T.S. Eliot, achieved his best results sliding back into retro-meters, and Pound just couldn’t pull off free verse interest like Whitman could. 

OK, Walt, you’re hired. 

But this was a deal with the devil, because you can’t give a Victorian a job in the Modernist factory, and finally the work that had to be done did not get done; ghosts cannot run a modern firm.  Think, too, of another keen modernist theorist: John Crowe Ransom—another rhyming throw-back.  Or Cummings, a Victorian love-poet if there ever was one.  Auden?  A balladeer?  He wasn’t modern enough, either. 

20th century painting looked so different from 19th century painting.  But poetry, trying so hard to be modern, either jingled too much in a 19th century manner, or looked too much like haiku, a form that looked backwards, as well.

This is why Whitman was heavily recruited for awhile, and now we think of him, with Dickinson (b. 1830) as moderns, not Victorians—which is what they are.  This had a tumultuous affect on modernist literature.  No one was supposed to be rhyming, but poets did, so Eliot went for a collage effect, burying his meters in fragments—but this was a deal with the devil, too; you just don’t sacrifice artistic unity out of weakness, and this is what Pound and Eliot did. 

Pound was also unscrupulous in another way; he and his friend Williams wrote haiku—anything to avoid looking Victorian—and re-named their haiku-writing Imagism to pretend they were moderns, doing something new.  But no one was doing anything new: they were re-naming, smashing, and recruiting 19th century poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Baudelaire) and at the same time pretending they were “new”—so desperate were the would-be ‘moderns’ that previous eras were rejected whole cloth, and this made the problem even worse; sources of inspiration continued to dry up as the new writers self-consciously struck their ‘new’ poses, selectively trashing, breaking, rejecting, and recruiting. 

Luckily for the Modernists, most intellectuals just wanted to join the ‘new’ party, whatever it was, whether it was justified or not; looser morals alone was enough to get people onboard the ‘modernist train,’ and painting was doing a pretty good job of looking ‘modern,’ so if Pound wore a beret and the poets hung out with a few painters, all was fine. 

They just had to be careful not to use terms like “O soul.”

6 Comments

  1. Noochness said,

    February 22, 2011 at 5:04 pm

    The body/soul paradigm is pooh-pooh’d, I find,
    Amongst moderns who much prefer body slash mind.

  2. thomasbrady said,

    February 22, 2011 at 9:52 pm

    The moderns are hard-nosed, that’s the way they roll;
    Only Emily and Walt are allowed to say: “O Soul.”

  3. Noochness said,

    February 23, 2011 at 10:34 am

    http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kingsley/charles/k55w/

    The Water Babies, in html—
    Which for cutting and pasting is really swell.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    February 23, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    The poem from Whitman, “liberal and lusty”
    That I would truly love to see:
    Walt! Large, wild, hirsute,
    Writes, “To An Uncommon Prostitute.”

  5. Noochness said,

    February 25, 2011 at 10:26 am

    #176 from “Bad Poetry Slam”

    http://minx.cc/?post=124418

    “When Lilacs Last in My Back Door Bloomed”

    An ode on the death of JFK Jr.

    When lilacs last in my backdoor bloom’d,
    And your private plane droop’d in the western sky in the night,
    I mourn’d, to see you and your young bride
    Crash into the churning deep.

    O powerful fallen Irish star
    O to have been entombed with you
    O to have died beneath you like Carolyn B
    O cruel hands—hold me powerless!
    The strong sinews of your fingers on my tender, shaking shoulders

    In the swamp in secluded recesses,
    A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
    Solitary the gay thrush,
    Withdrawn to himself, is lord of the settlements,
    And sings by himself as prettily as Liberace.

    Alas, Kennedys, women, and water
    They ne’er do mix
    If only you, my love, had preferred whisky and the fair companionship of men.

    I cease from my warble for thee,
    O comrade lustrous with thick hair and excellent taste in clothes.
    It seems to me you lived your life
    Like a candle in the wind
    Never knowing who to cling to
    When the water came closing in.

    Like Norma Jean
    Before your uncle had her killed.

  6. Excerpt/Poem support said,

    March 27, 2011 at 11:32 am

    From The Stuffed Owl, compiled by D.B. Wyndham Lewis and
    Charles Lee:

    …The vivid romance of Eliza which follows is unique in that never before has an English (or any other) poet so clearly demonstrated the folly of taking the children to see a battle. Not only does the constant rushing about make them peevish, fretful and overheated, but a ball may easily sink into their mother’s neck and she may fall to the ground, hiding her babes within her blood-stained vest. The agony of the warrior after finishing the battle is graphically conveyed; yet he, too, has a blood-stained vest, in which he immediately wraps the children, thereby staving off the inevitable rash, whooping-cough, and croup….

    Eliza at the Battle

    Now stood Eliza on the wood-crown’d height,
    O’er Minden’s plains, spectatress of the fight;
    Sought with bold eye amid the bloody strife
    Her dearer self, the partner of her life;
    From hill to hill the rushing host pursued,
    And view’d his banner, or believed she view’d.
    Pleased with the distant roar, with quicker tread,
    Fast by his hand one lisping boy she led;
    And one fair girl, amid the loud alarm,
    Slept on her kerchief, cradled on her arm;
    While round her brows bright beams of honour dart,
    And love’s warm eddies circle round her heart.
    —Near and more near th’ intrepid beauty press’d,
    Saw through the driving smoke his dancing crest,
    Heard the exulting shout—“They run!—They run!”
    “He’s safe!” she cried, “he’s safe! the battle’s won!”
    —A ball now hisses through the airy tides
    (Some Fury wings it, and some Demon guides),
    Parts the fine locks her graceful head that deck,
    Wounds her fair ear, and sinks into her neck;
    The red stream issuing from her azure veins
    Dyes her white veil, her ivory bosom stains.
    —“Ah me!” she cried, and sinking on the ground,
    Kiss’d her dear babes, regardless of the wound:
    “Oh, cease not yet to beat, thou vital urn,
    Wait, gushing life, oh! wait my love’s return!”
    Hoarse barks the wolf, the vulture screams from far,
    The angel, Pity, shuns the walks of war;—
    “Oh, spare, ye war-hounds, spare their tender age!
    On me, on me,” she cried, “exhaust your rage!”
    Then with weak arms, her weeping babes caress’d,
    And sighing, hid them in her blood-stain’d vest.

    From tent to tent th’ impatient warrior flies,
    Fear in his heart, and frenzy in his eyes:
    Eliza’s name along the camp he calls,
    Eliza echoes through the canvas walls;
    Quick through the murmuring gloom his footsteps tread,
    O’er groaning heaps, the dying and the dead,
    Vault o’er the plain,—and in the tangled wood,—
    Lo! dead Eliza—weltering in her blood!
    Soon hears his listening son the welcome sounds,
    With open arms and sparkling eyes he bounds:
    “Speak low,” he cries, and gives his little hand,
    “Mamma’s asleep upon the dew-cold sand;
    Alas! we both with cold and hunger quake,—
    Why do you weep? Mamma will soon awake.”
    —“She’ll wake no more!” the hapless mourner cried,
    Upturned his eyes, and clasp’d his hands, and sigh’d;
    Stretch’d on the ground, awhile entranced he lay,
    And press’d warm kisses on the lifeless clay;
    And then upsprung with wild convulsive start,
    And all the father kindled in his heart.
    “Oh, Heaven!” he cried, “my first rash vow forgive!
    These bind to earth, for these I pray to live.”
    Round his chill babes he wrapp’d his crimson vest,
    Aud clasp’d them, sobbing, to his aching breast.

    Erasmus Darwin


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