THE WHITMANS: HELEN V. WALT

f evans

Before Leaves: Walt Whitman was the author of the racist Temperance novel, ‘Franklin Evans.’

“People do not want their daughters trained to become authoresses and poets. We want a race of women…”  —Walt Whitman, Brooklyn Daily Times, 1857

Helen Whitman, prolific essayist, poet, fluent in French, German, & Italian, feminist, abolitionist, nonconformist, ardent defender of Poe’s memory.

Helen Whitman (1803-1878) versus Walt Whitman (1819-1892):

Who was the better poet?

Without further ado:

Remembered Music

Oh, lonely heart! why do thy pulses beat
To the hushed music of a voice so dear,
That all sweet, mournful cadences repeat
Its low, bewildering accents to thine ear.
Why dost thou question the pale stars to know
If that rich music floats upon the air,
In those far realms where, else, their fires would glow
Forever beautiful to thy despair?
Trust thou in God; for, far within the veil,
Where glad hosannas through the empyrean roll,
And chorul anthems of the angel’s hail
With hallelujah’s sweet the enfranchised soul,—
The voice that sang earth’s sorrow through earth’s night,
Shall with glad seraphs sing, in God’s great light.

—Helen Whitman

A Noiseless, Patient Spider

A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you, O my soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my soul.

—Walt Whitman

Both poems are abstracts of hope. Helen Whitman’s conceit seems grandiose next to Walter Whitman’s comparison of soul to spider.  Does hers have too much religious lumber?  At first glance it might seem so, but each poem expresses its truth indirectly; we don’t really believe the soul is a spider, but we must, to enjoy Walt’s poem—especially since the whole poem turns on spider as soul in the declarative urgency of the “O my soul” business.  “Remembered Music” requires even more suspension of disbelief, but like Walt’s, hers succeeds as a poem. 

All poems, because they are poems, whether they are modern or not, have to overcome the challenge of working in reality as an artificial device, of being ideally ideal in terms the real understands.

Between the first (spider) and second (soul) stanzas of “Noiseless Patient Spider” is the empty space where ‘suspension of disbelief’ resides, the space over which the two sides of the poem’s metaphor (literally) seek each other out in the reader’s mind: ‘noiseless spider’ and ‘O my soul.’  Form mimics content.  We throw filaments across the abyss to connect the two sides of the metaphor: spider: soul.

So with Helen Whitman’s: the “hushed music of a voice” is the palpable symbol of the poem, the ‘voice’ both in the poem, and of the poem, pulsing through it, hushed at the beginning, singing at the end.

Let’s call this one a draw; Walt’s lyric has the more singular image, and contains more subtle music; Helen’s sonnet is richer, grander and more melodious.

But given that Helen Whitman is almost unknown, the moral victory goes—to her.

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4 Comments

  1. Al Cordle said,

    November 19, 2011 at 2:45 am

    I am looking forward to the next entry in this new series: The Dickmans: Michael vs. Matthew.

    • thomasbrady said,

      November 19, 2011 at 2:35 pm

      LOL ah, the swordplay of the Dickmans! That should be good!

  2. David said,

    December 17, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    We’ll probably agree that Whitman’s simile comparing spider to soul works better than Transtromer’s metaphor conflating spider and piano.

    Walt was always tossing out that gossamer thread — “every atom of me as good belongs to you”. Helen’s hope is more grounded.

  3. thomasbrady said,

    December 17, 2011 at 5:55 pm

    Two roads diverged in a wood, Helen and Walt…


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