Whitman’s optimism can be felt as either of two extremes. He can seem (wrongly) the self-annointed prophet who insists on the glory beneath it all; he can also seem (also wrongly) the self-appointed friend (or more) who insists on your better qualities. For anyone inclined to irritation and disgust at world and self, the urge is to leave, to find a poet whose voice offers the desired outrage, anger, and criticism.
Were Whitman a comic poet, as Byron often is when he is most sentimental and most scathing alike, the challenge for the reader would be different; but Whitman occupies a tragic world; it is a world that is more susceptible to tears (of which he presents many) than laughter (he presents far less of this). The irritation one feels it that he recognizes the atrocities, the violence, the suffering, and he more often than not does something other than cry out against it in vituperative attack.
What does he think his words are doing?
Opened to at random, “I Sit and Look Out” is placed in the “By the Roadside” section of the deathbed edition of Leaves of Grass. Maybe the ending ought to be taken as more than disingenuous posturing:
I sit and look out upon all the sorrows of the world, and upon all oppression and shame,
I hear secret convulsive sobs from young me at anguish with themselves, remorseful after deeds done,
I see in low life the mother misused by her husband, I see the treacherous seducer of young women,
I mark the ranklings of jealousy and unrequited love attempted to be hid, I see these sights on the earth,
I see the workings of battle, pestilence, tyranny, I see martyrs and prisoners,
I observe a famine at sea, I observe the sailors casting lots who shall be kill’d to preserve the lives of the rest,
I observe the slights and degradations cast by arrogant persons upon laborers, the poor, and upon negroes, and the like;
All these–all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon,
See, hear, and am silent.
If Whitman thinks he is silent, then what of the words on the page? I discount both the thought that the words on the page are printed and therefore do not speak aloud and that “poetry makes nothing happen.” The second because it is not understood even in context, and does not apply beyond that context, and the first because it does not face up to the full implications of the line. (I also reject some argument about the instability or incoherence about Whitman’s “self” since it can be used too conveniently to, once again, dodge the words).
What is more shocking about the final line is that second-person address, imperative, and exhortation are dominant modes of his poetry.
Without going as far as Auden, Whitman is recognizing a sustaining force of his poetry: that his words can record and register (“see” and “hear”) while remaining silent to speak directly to the “meanness and agony” (there are sleepers, in the poem of that name, that he does not approach; he does not want to). Instead, his words appeal to whatever other qualities remain despite them. So he is not blind or even self-blinded: is he wrong to deny himself (and us) anger?
He would obviously say no; that his poetry is founded on an essentially human love; and, what is more, he would likely defend himself as offering a new rhetoric of poetry, and one that does its duty, and looks directly at the awful suffering in his world (see “The Wound-Dresser” in Drum-Taps). Nor does he evade what he calls, in the first poem of the Calamus series, the “clank” of the world; his poems sound with the chains of the world rather than fleeing on idealist wings into a realm of fancy.
But the poems, for all of their investment in the life of the individual, do not console; the consolation, finally, is couched in terms with with the mass and the long-duration. Take “Long, Too Long America,” from Drum-Taps:
Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only,
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing, grappling with direst fate and recoiling not
And now to conceive and how to the world what your children en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse really are?)
Enormous pressure is sustained by the word “now,” insisting on the particular moment, and that pressure is in turn set against “en-masse,” where the buffering distance from the English language registers the distance of the conception from the personal imagination of the reader; as familiar as Whitman presumes to be with the individuals in his poem, and with the readers of his poem, he upsets and denies familiarity when he writes about the long-term prospects of a nation or a mass of people as a whole; here are two elements with which he cannot be familiar. “And who except” for Whitman…he confesses, not without pride, to the imaginative aloofness in his parenthesis, itself setting the voice apart from the lines.
The prospect of consolation without consoling; the world of suffering without hatred; his poetry is challenging because it offers a rhetoric of love that presumes intimate familiarity and recollects intimate caresses without really coddling the reader.
One of (to me) Whitman’s most powerful pieces of writing is not in verse at all, not a song of himself; it is instead from Specimen Days: “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up.”
THE DEAD in this war—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the south—Virginia, the Peninsula—Malvern hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chickahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War department is 25,000 national soldiers kill’d in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown’d—15,000 inhumed by strangers, or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities—2,000 graves cover’d by sand and mud by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)—Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh—the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere—the crop reap’d by the mighty reapers, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations—and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c., (not Dante’s pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell’d those prisons)—the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)—or East or West—Atlantic coast or Mississippi valley—somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet)—our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend—the clusters of camp graves, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in Tennessee—the single graves left in the woods or by the road-side, (hundreds, thousands, obliterated)—the corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged, (dozens, scores, floated down the upper Potomac, after the cavalry engagements, the pursuit of Lee, following Gettysburgh)—some lie at the bottom of the sea—the general million, and the special cemeteries in almost all the States—the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw)—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil—thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.
Here Whitman includes perhaps the only “clank” of the world that is absent from the poetry: statistical accounting, used to measure the dead during the Civil War. The numbers are staggering, but Whitman includes them in order to leave them behind—he wants for us to hear how they are inept: their implicit claim to record a mass of people. For Whitman, they do not do justice to such a purpose: and so he moves on from them to “the general million…the infinite dead.”
Statistics are cold, but their coldness touches an audience; Whitman mistrusts the assurance they hold of providing an audience with a grasp on matters of unity and change, time (and hope) and mass (and its gains and losses) that ought to remain imaginatively difficult. The vagueness of Whitman’s rhetoric is discomfortingly vague not out of an urge to pander and appease; his poetry requires that “general million…infinite dead” fall so far out of reach of the ears and experience of readers as to seem flat, without accessible perspective–and this because the grounds for understanding the trajectory of time and people cannot be made to seem any nearer to what people know, and with what they are familiar. Such familiarity might breed contempt.