Walt Whitman por Lucía Rodríguez. Desactivaré los comentarios el 10 de abril a las 10 am.
Taking into account what we have been discussing in class so far, I would like to comment on irony and on the notion of the individual and originality presented in “Song of Myself” and the Preface to the “Leaves of Grass.”
What I find interesting about texts like Whitman’s and Emerson’s is how they seem to be destined to not fulfill completely what they arguably intend to. For instance, both Whitman and Emerson praise and present a notion of originality and individuality which is mostly based on leaving behind former ideas and forms in order to create something new: whether this is the construction of the individual itself or the construction of new poetics and aesthetics. Nevertheless, both authors, to a certain extent, fail at their aspirations, since they cannot leave behind completely their influences.
For example, on the one hand, as we mentioned last class, Emerson backs up continually his arguments with quotes and the style of the European thinkers and writers that he read. On the other hand, Whitman’s unconventional syntax, punctuation and line construction echoes the style of European writers such as William Blake, who wrote from the late eighteenth century to half of the nineteenth and also claimed to detach from previous conventions and works such as Swedenborg’s.
By saying all of the above, I do not intend to assert that Whitman’s work or Emerson’s lack inventiveness or even originality, or that the European are the true and only possessors of tradition or talent. For instance, much later, in the twentieth century, William Blake himself would be accused of lacking originality by T.S. Eliot, who claimed that Blake could not resist the influence of The Bible or Milton. It is true that Whitman’s work stands as one of the most inventive of his epoch in North America, but what I really want to point out is how by the portrayal of these notions of originality and individuality, throughout time and from an outward perspective, ironically, we have been able to really have a grasp on them: as constructs that, after all, cannot live independently from the past and that escape the same individual.
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men,that is genius.” This line in Emerson’s Self-Reliance made me thought of Whitman’s work as a continuation of what Emerson implied in his own work: self-reliance leads a man to explore and exploit his own imagination and resources in order to become a distinguished poet. This distinguished poet is perceived in Whitman’s work as the implications of individuality in Whitman are a way of remarking the need of the United States to have a voice that expresses the virtues and vices of the country.
Taking into account “the sense of unity, communion, and brotherhood” in Whitman’s works as Lucía points out, I would like to make a brief comparison between the section 17 of the “Song of Myself” and another Whitman’s poem titled “To a Stranger” in order to emphasize the importance of the idea of unity throughtout Whitman’s poetical work. Although both poems were written in different periods of time -“Song of Myself” in 1855-1881, and “To a Stranger” in 1867-, it is importance to notice that Whitman followed the same path of ideas, in this case, of inclusiveness and communion, to manifest an integration of his poetical work. As Lucía explains quoting the critic Michael Moon “My poems when complete should be a unity, in the same sense that the earth is, or that the human body, (senses, soul, head, trunk, feet, blood, viscera, man-root, eyes, hair) or that a perfect musical composition is” (Whitman in Moon 783).
In this manner, in both poems the poetical voices declare the transcendence of human love and celebrate the life through showing the “limitless” barriers of time. In section 17 of the “Song of Myself” the transcendence of time is showed in the first line “These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands” (354). However, it is not only a temporal and spatial transcendence, but also a personal, inner superiority when the poetic voice suggests an inclusion of “all men in all ages” and the addressee himself/herself to be all of them part of a same community. “If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing” (358). On the other hand, in “To a Stranger” the transcendence of time frames the poem when the first and last lines imply the importance of past, present, and future. While the first lines may manifest the past and present: “Passing stranger! you do not know how longnigly I look upon you/You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking” (1-2); the last lines show the importance of future: “I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again,/I am to see to it that I do not lose you” (9-10). In this manner, the temporal frame of the poem suggests a transcendental cycle, in which all would happen “again” and everyone belongs to a unity that experiences each period of time.
Thus Whitman’s purpose of a poetical integration is presented in section 17 of the “Song of Myself” and “To a Stranger” through the temporal transcendence and celebration of both poetical voices who manifest the unity of the individuals who are capable of experiencing everything as a community.
In addition to what Lucía stated in her presentation, I would also like to add that through the whole poem, the poetic voice experiences a transformation. If we compare the first section, with the last one, we can notice a change in the poetic I and how he relates with community.
It is obvious since the title and the very first lines of the first section, the concern that the poetic voice has of his own self. But this concern has to do more with his physical being:
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
It is through his physical body that he connects with nature, but this connection is not all absolute for he also makes allusion to his ancestors. This lineage, as Lucía also observed, strengthens his relationship to the nation he belongs to, so that as an individual he is not alienated from his surroundings. Still, his relationship towards community is not at all present:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
He positions himself at the same level of the reader, but it is only mentioned in this line, without much emphasis. This attitude will change towards the end of the poem.
In section 52, the last one, the poetic voice’s body does not forms from nature, as in the first section, but turns into it: “I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,/ I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.” Moreover, in this section the reader has a more active role:
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to our nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
Now the poetic voice has turned into the link that will relate the reader to nature. It will seem that the poetic voice has acquired a higher level to that of the reader. However, the fact that the reader is able to achieve this same level forbids the poem to be alienated from community; quite the contrary, it offers a more relevant role than in the first section.
In this manner, the poet is able to find harmony between his individual self and his community.