Whitman Celebrates Himself

By Robert Pinsky on 4.28.09

I strongly recommend this brief video of lines from “Song of Myself” read by John Doherty, construction worker for Boston Gas.

Whitman was a devotee of opera, and in scale, tone and inclusiveness his work has operatic qualities. Also, melody, as of the consonants of lines like: “I effuse my flesh in eddies and drift it in lacy jags.”

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     The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me…he complains
          of my gab and my loitering.

     I too am not a bit tamed…I too am untranslatable,
     I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

     The last scud of day holds back for me,
     It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shad-
          owed wilds,
     It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

     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.

     I bequeth myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love
     If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

     You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
     But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
     And filter and fibre your blood.

     Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
     Missing me one place search another,
     I stop some where waiting for you.

He also loves contrasts, as of short words with long: gab and loitering; tamed and untranslatable; fetched and encouraged. Though the lines have a quality of “ease” in one way they also illustrate T. S. Eliot’s remark that no verse is free if you want to do a good job.

In a celebrated literary anecdote, Whitman sent his self-published Leaves of Grass to the great Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose letter in response said:

DEAR SIR—I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of “Leaves of Grass.” I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fats and mean. I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it. I find incomparable things said incomparably well, as they must be. I find the courage of treatment, which so delights us, and which large perception only can inspire. I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty. It has the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging.

I did not know until I, last night, saw the book advertised in a newspaper, that I could trust the name as real and available for a post-office. I wish to see my benefactor, and have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.

The enterprising, methodical Whitman (who also covertly wrote favorable reviews of his own work) printed these sentences as a blurb on his book—to Emerson’s dismay. Such gossip about great geniuses is interesting, even revealing, yet not diminishing of their work.

topics: Essential Pleasures