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.

2 responses to “Ben B for October 20th”

  1. Avatar of tallersam tallersam says:

    I like your final paragraph here, Ben. I think that the Civil War was where the unstoppable force of Whitman’s idealism ran into the immovable object of the horrific nature of war. It is one thing for someone to speculate about the universality of everyone and the beauty of death from their porch on a warm spring day. Such words ring hollow during a Christmas night spent freezing in a cold tent though. I like that Whitman does not completely move beyond his early work though. Instead of flowing seamlessly from one period in his literary career to another, Whitman keeps his early work close at hand so that it can be seen through new eyes over and over. Perhaps some of the later editions could best be seen as really well done covers albums. Even though they’re written by the same man, I would say they are distinctive enough to be considered covers instead of simpley re-recordings.

  2. Ben, I, too, was struck by Calder’s descriptions of Whitman, particularly in her retelling of Whitman’s loud conversations at the house that you mention. I had to smile to myself thinking about old Walt carrying on like he was involved in some kind of domestic dispute. I do think the war changed Whitman, as it would anyone, but I don’t know whether I buy that Whitman was completely self-absorbed beforehand. I just think that he realized how important the war was (much like he did when he wrote about Lincoln’s death) and therefore marginalized himself in order to illuminate this greater importance; he could undoubtedly get back to his task as prophet and savior later. This is something I have been thinking about all semester and will probably continue to think about as time progresses…

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