Apr 15: Conveniently numbered reactions to today's reading

1. Why have they been keeping Whitman from us until now? I've had to read Berkeley twice. And even today it has to have a Lincoln hook (You may remember that Lincoln decided to get out of the house and take in a play on this date in 1865.)

Is it because he's too fruity? Explain Wordsworth, then. But maybe all Englishmen were considered fruity. Admittedly, "O Captain, My Captain" is pretty fruity. It reads like something one would write for the newspapers ("Where on the deck my Captain lies/Fallen cold and dead."). (Digression: maybe what the newspapers need today is more folks writing poetry in them, like Don Marquis. I mean, if it's going to be increasingly fusty to read newspapers, why not go balls-out fusty?) But even so, Whitman so self-identifies as an American that you'd think the DRG compliers would just have thrown him in before now out of civic duty.

2. I greatly enjoyed "When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd" and wondered why it was even assigned to me in eighth grade or whenever it was. (Eleventh grade, maybe?) Why is any literature assigned to teenagers? We don't let them drink; how are they supposed to enjoy one without the other?

This actually seems like a dangerous poem to give to adolescents, for "Don't Fear The Reaper"-type reasons:

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

3. The advantage of this poem being assigned to adolescents, in our web age, is that you can find out what it's about quite easily, from Cliffs Notes online:
The poet’s realization of immortality through the emotional conflict of personal loss is the principal theme of this great poem, which is a symbolistic dramatization of the poet’s grief and his ultimate reconciliation with the truths of life and death.
That's a good principal them. If it is the principal theme, that is. SparkNotes begs to differ:
Unlike the pastoral elegies of old, which use a temporary rift with nature to comment on modernity, this one shows a profound and permanent disconnection between the human and natural worlds.
Simmer down, you two! Take it outside!

4. I am not critic enough myself (partly because I'm lazy, but only partly) to weigh in on the poem as a whole. The only thing I note is that, about halfway through, Whitman tells us that he hasn't even started yet:

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Then, in section 14 -- the homestretch -- he seems to outsource the song to the bird (that's the pro-death song I referred to earlier); and, even after that, he sees stuff, but he doesn't sing:

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the débris and débris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.

You might say that Whitman's mourning is so powerful that he can't bring himself to sing of it -- or to portray himself as singing of it, rather. He must recede into the background and let other singers and scenes do it for him.

5. The final thing is that Whitman has one of those styles that seems like a child could do it, and yet he pulls it off in a manner that's complete Cliff Notes-proof:

Passing the visions, passing the night,
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades’ hands,
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death’s outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song...

I can hear three effects right away -- 1) a rule of three in the opening lines. But 2) the third line is longer and, since it's a conjunction, it kind of makes you stop a second at "the tallying song of my soul," which is just slightly different from the incantation that goes before it (it has more stresses, maybe), to provide a break. And 3), the clause "yet varying ever-altering song," is hard to say (the hidden "v" in "ever"), which slows you down -- the song is altering before your eyes.

Well, I certainly went on longer than I thought. But seriously, publishers, consder my suggestion for the light verse in the papers. And more guys like Bill Gallo.

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