Take 5 - Walt Whitman
On this day in 1819, Walt Whitman was born in West Hills, New York. Whitman was an innovator, his poetry seeming as much a literary declaration of independence as the political one written by Thomas Jefferson some decades ago. Today, we take a break with five of his poems – possibly five that are not amongst his best known works.
1. ‘Old Ireland’
FAR hence amid an isle of wondrous beauty,
Crouching over a grave an ancient sorrowful mother,
Once a queen, now lean and tatter'd seated on the ground,
Her old white hair drooping dishevel'd round her shoulders,
At her feet fallen an unused royal harp,
Long silent, she too long silent, mourning her shrouded hope and
Of all the earth her heart most full of sorrow because most full of
Yet a word ancient mother,
You need crouch there no longer on the cold ground with fore-
head between your knees,
O you need not sit there veil'd in your old white hair so dishevel'd,
For know you the one you mourn is not in that grave,
It was an illusion, the son you love was not really dead,
The Lord is not dead, he is risen again young and strong in
Even while you wept there by your fallen harp by the grave,
What you wept for was translated, pass'd from the grave,
The winds favor'd and the sea sail'd it,
And now with rosy and new blood,
Moves to-day in a new country.
‘Old Ireland’ was written in 1861 and first published in 1865. It reflects Whitman’s ongoing interest in the issue of Irish home rule. Whitman’s sympathies were with the Irish, and he was a supporter of the recently formed republican organisation, the Fenian Brotherhood. In the poem, his respect for the nation is displayed in the opening lines. He writes of the beauty of Ireland before turning to how the ‘queen’ was now ‘lean and tatter’d seated on the ground’.
The event that has brought Ireland to this condition is the potato famine. Ireland was decimated by the famine, with a million deaths and another million emigrations because of the catastrophe. The population of Ireland fell by as much as a quarter. The devastation was horrific, and the effect on the Irish psyche for the next few generations was entirely profound.
Whitman, though, as much as he admires Ireland is a proud American, and he finds reason for hope in the migration of Irishmen across the Atlantic. With characteristic vigour, he writes that Irish culture is not dead but is transplanted to the New World. Ireland may have been denied democracy in their own land, but the blood of their youth can help to forge a new Republic.
2. ‘Election Day, November 1884’
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest
scene and show,
'Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor
your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-
loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing,
Nor Oregon's white cones—nor Huron's belt of mighty lakes—
nor Mississippi's stream:
—This seething hemisphere's humanity, as now, I'd name—the
still small voice vibrating—America's choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the
The stretch of North and South arous'd—sea-board and inland
—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and con-
The countless snow-flakes falling— (a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome's wars of old, or modern Napoleon's:)
the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the
heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell'd Washington's, Jefferson's, Lincoln's sails.
Whitman wrote this poem on a day in which Grover Cleveland became the first Democrat to hold the Presidency since James Buchanan, prior to the civil war. A group of Republican ‘Mugwumps’ saw Senator James Blaine as corrupt and abandoned his candidacy. This allowed Cleveland to win, even if he only took the popular vote by around 20,000.
In truth, Whitman was not feeling particularly enthusiastic about the 1884 election. In a diary, he wrote ‘there is no question at issue of any importance […] I cannot “enthuse” at all’. Nevertheless, the very idea of democracy and it’s execution by the people continued to be a source of excitement, and Whitman wrote this tribute to the American system. The vitality with which he usually wrote about the individual and of life is here applied to the mechanisms of electoral democracy. It provides energy to rival even the grandest of the continent’s natural wonders. Whitman may have been relatively unimpressed with the choice of Cleveland or Blaine (though he would later warm to Cleveland). Still, he concludes his paean to election day with the note that it is the force behind some of America’s most iconic figures.
3. ‘To a Locomotive in Winter’
THEE for my recitative,
Thee in the driving storm even as now, the snow, the winter-day
Thee in thy panoply, thy measur'd dual throbbing and thy beat
Thy black cylindric body, golden brass and silvery steel,
Thy ponderous side-bars, parallel and connecting rods, gyrating,
shuttling at thy sides,
Thy metrical, now swelling pant and roar, now tapering in the
Thy great protruding head-light fix'd in front,
Thy long, pale, floating vapor-pennants, tinged with delicate
The dense and murky clouds out-belching from thy smoke-stack,
Thy knitted frame, thy springs and valves, the tremulous twinkle
of thy wheels,
Thy train of cars behind, obedient, merrily following,
Through gale or calm, now swift, now slack, yet steadily careering;
Type of the modern—emblem of motion and power—pulse of
For once come serve the Muse and merge in verse, even as here
I see thee,
With storm and buffeting gusts of wind and falling snow,
By day thy warning ringing bell to sound its notes,
By night thy silent signal lamps to swing.
Roll through my chant with all thy lawless music, thy swinging
lamps at night,
Thy madly-whistled laughter, echoing, rumbling like an earth-
quake, rousing all,
Law of thyself complete, thine own track firmly holding,
(No sweetness debonair of tearful harp or glib piano thine,)
Thy trills of shrieks by rocks and hills return'd,
Launch'd o'er the prairies wide, across the lakes,
To the free skies unpent and glad and strong.
In the previous poem, America seems to be given life by the bustling energy of its citizens exercising their democratic rights. Here, an inanimate object gets the same treatment. The power of a locomotive seems to animate it. The ‘measur’d dual throbbing and thy beat convulsive’ seem to give the machine a heartbeat. This is not a monstrous transformation, however. Words like twinkle, beauty, and delicate all contribute to a tone that is, overall, much more admiring of the machine.
Whitman, though, interestingly recognises the importance of the machine to the democratic project that is America. It is the pulse of the continent and crosses prairies and lakes. Like America, it is an example of something profoundly modern in Whitman’s world, an ‘emblem of power and motion’. The poem responds not just to the power produced by the locomotive. Equally, it responds to what that power means for the transformation of the American continent and the political ambitions that go along with it.
4. ‘Old War-Dreams’
IN midnight sleep of many a face of anguish,
Of the look at first of the mortally wounded, (of that indescribable
Of the dead on their backs with arms extended wide,
I dream, I dream, I dream.
Of scenes of Nature, fields and mountains,
Of skies so beauteous after a storm, and at night the moon so
Shining sweetly, shining down, where we dig the trenches and
gather the heaps,
I dream, I dream, I dream.
Long have they pass'd, faces and trenches and fields,
Where through the carnage I moved with a callous composure,
or away from the fallen,
Onward I sped at the time—but now of their forms at night,
I dream, I dream, I dream.
Whitman volunteered as a nurse during the Civil War. During that time, he worked in both field hospitals and those around the District of Columbia. In this poem, we potentially see the effects of what we would now diagnose as post-traumatic stress disorder.
War writing is full of examples of soldiers and auxiliaries who cannot leave the war behind, who carry it with them in the marks on their psyche. In this poem, the faces of the fallen come back to the speaker. The idea that of an ‘indescribable look’, of that need to relate something that fundamentally cannot be related, comes through in the opening stanza. In the second, we get the striking contrast between the beauty of nature and the results of war. We move swiftly from fields, mountains, skies, and the moon, to trenches and heaps of bodies.
The years may have passed, but each stanza ends with that haunting refrain that suggests an ongoing experience: I dream, I dream, I dream.
5. ‘This Dust Was Once the Man’
THIS dust was once the man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute, under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.
We end today on a sombre note. Whitman wrote several poems after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the most famous of which is probably ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’. Today, instead of looking at that well-known poem, we’re going to give a moment’s attention to these few short lines.
It opens with the observation that what was a man is now reduced to pure inanimate material or dust. In this respect, it is in the tradition of poetry that ponders on what it means to be dead, for the spirit of a person to no longer exist, leaving only the body behind. Whitman concludes with the line that it was under Lincoln’s hand that saved the United States from ‘the foulest crime in history known in any land or age’. He does not go so far as to say that Lincoln saved the Union since that would obscure the contribution to the war effort of millions of others. We are perhaps left to wonder about the nature of this foulest crime. Is it in rebellion against a democratic state like the United States? Or does it represent Whitman’s own views on that peculiar institution of the South: slavery.
Peter Templeton is Honorary Fellow of the School of Social Sciences and Humanities at Loughborough University.