Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet
As poet and as person, Walt Whitman remains large and evasive. We cannot know, even now, much that he desired us not to know, despite the best efforts of many devoted and scholarly biographers. The relation between the life and the poetry is far more uncertain than most of his readers believe it to be. Yet Whitman is so important to us, so crucial to an American mythology, so absolutely central to our literary culture, that we need to go on trying to bring his life and his work together. Our need might have delighted Whitman, and might have troubled him also. Like his master, Emerson, Whitman prophesied an American religion that is post-Christian, but while Emerson dared to suggest that the Crucifixion was a defeat and that Americans demand victory, Whitman dared further, and suggested that he himself had satisfied the demand. Here is Emerson:
The history of Christ is the best document of the power of character which we have. A youth who owed nothing to fortune and who was “hanged at Tyburn”—by the pure quality of his nature has shed this epic splendor around the facts of his death which has transfigured every particular into a grand universal symbol for the eyes of all mankind ever since.
He did well. This great Defeat is hitherto the highest fact we have. But he that shall come shall do better. The mind requires a far higher exhibition of character, one which shall make itself good to the senses as well as to the soul; a success to the senses as well as to the soul. This was a great Defeat; we demand Victory….
Journal, April 1842
This grand journal entry concludes, magnificently: “I am Defeated all the time; yet to Victory I am born.” And here is Whitman, “he that shall come,” doing better:
That I could forget the mockers and insults!
That I could forget the trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and hammers!
That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning.
I remember now,
I resume the overstaid fraction,
The grave of rock multiplies what has been confided to it, or to any graves,
Corpses rise, gashes heal, fastenings roll from me.
I troop forth replenish’d with supreme power….
(“Song of Myself,” 963-970)
This is Walt Whitman “singing and chanting the things that are part of him, / The worlds that were and will be, death and day,” in the words of his involuntary heir, Wallace Stevens. But which Walt Whitman is it? His central poem is what he finally entitled “Song of Myself,” rather than, say, “Song of My Soul.” But which self? There are two in the poem, besides his soul, and the true difficulties of reading Whitman begin (or ought to begin) with his unnervingly original psychic cartography, which resists assimilation to the Freudian maps of the mind. Freud’s later system divides us into the “I” or ego, the “above-I” or superego, and the “it” or id. Whitman divided himself (or recognized himself as divided) into my self, my soul, and the “real Me” or “Me myself,” where the self is a kind of ego, the soul not quite a superego, and the real Me not at all an id. Or to use a vocabulary known to Whitman, and still known to us, the self is personality, the soul is character, and again the real Me is a mystery. Lest these difficulties seem merely my own, and not truly Whitman’s, I turn to the text of “Song of Myself.” Here is Walt Whitman, my self, the persona or mask, the personality of the poet:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
(“Song of Myself,” 497-500)
That is Walt Whitman, one of the roughs, an American, but hardly Walter Whitman, Jr., whose true personality, real Me or Me myself, is presented in the passage I love best in the poem:
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, com- passionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.
(“Song of Myself,” 73-79)
This “Me myself” is not exactly “hankering, gross, mystical, nude,” nor is it quite “turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.” Graceful and apart, cunningly balanced, charming beyond measure, this curious real Me is boylike and girl-like, very American yet not one of the roughs, provocative, at one with itself. Whatever the Whitmanian soul may be, this Me myself evidently can have no equal relation with it. When the Whitmanian “I” addresses the soul, we hear a warning:
I believe in you my soul, the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.
(“Song of Myself,” 82-83)
The “I” here is the “Myself” of “Song of Myself,” poetic personality, robust and rough. “The other I am” is the Me myself, in and out of the game, and clearly not suited for embraces with the soul. Whitman’s wariness, his fear of abasement, whether of his soul or of his true, inner personality, one to the other, remains the enigma of his poetry, as of his life, and largely accounts for his intricate evasions both as poet and as a person.
Whitman’s critics thus commence with a formidable disadvantage as they attempt to receive and comprehend his work. The largest puzzle about the continuing reception of Whitman’s poetry is the still prevalent notion that we ought to take him at his word, whether about his self (or selves) or about his art. No other poet insists so vehemently and so continuously that he will tell us all, and tell us all without artifice, and yet tells us so little, and so cunningly. Except for Dickinson (the only American poet comparable to him in magnitude), there is no other nineteenth-century poet as difficult and hermetic as Whitman; not Blake, not Browning, not Mallarmé. Only an elite can read Whitman, despite the poet’s insistence that he wrote for the people, for “powerful uneducated persons” as his “By Blue Ontario’s Shore” proclaims. His more accurate “Poets to Come” is closer to his readers’ experience of him:
I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face….
Whitman was surely too sly to deceive himself, or at least both of his selves, on this matter of his actual poetic evasiveness and esotericism. Humanly, he had much to evade, in order to keep going, in order to start writing and then to keep writing. His biographers cannot give us a clear image of his childhood, which certainly was rather miserable. His numerous siblings had mostly melancholy life histories: madness, retardation, marriage to a prostitute, depressiveness, hypochondria figure among their fates. The extraordinary obsessiveness with health and cleanliness that oddly marks Whitman’s poetry had a poignant origin in his early circumstances. Of his uneasy relationship to his father we know a little, but not much. But we know nothing really of his mother, and how he was toward her. Perhaps the central fact about Whitman’s psyche we know well enough: he needed, quite early, to become the true father of all his siblings, and perhaps of his mother, also. Certainly he fathered and mothered as many of his siblings as he could, even as he so beautifully became a surrogate father and mother for thousands of wounded and sick soldiers, Union and Confederate, white and black, in the hospitals of Washington, DC, throughout the Civil War.
The extraordinary and truthful image of Whitman that haunts our country, the vision of the compassionate, unpaid, volunteer wound-dresser, comforting young men in pain, soothing the dying, is the climax of Paul Zweig’s new book on how the man Walter Whitman, Jr., became the poet Walt Whitman. This vision informs the finest pages of Zweig’s uneven but moving study; I cannot recall any previous Whitman biographer or critic so vividly and humanely portraying Whitman’s hospital service. Searching for the authentic Whitman, as Zweig shows, is a hopeless quest; our greatest poet will always be our most evasive, and perhaps our most self-contradictory. Whitman, at his strongest, has overwhelming pathos as a poet, equal I think to any in the language. The Drum-Taps poem called “The Wound-Dresser” is far from Whitman at his astonishing best, and yet its concluding lines carry the persuasive force of his poetic and human images unified for once:
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips).
Zweig is admirably sensitive in exploring the ambiguities in the intensities of Whitman’s hospital experience, and more admirable still in his restraint at not voicing how much all of us are touched by Whitman’s pragmatic saintliness during those years of service. I cannot think of a Western writer of anything like Whitman’s achievement who ever gave himself or herself up so directly to meeting the agonized needs of the most desperate. There are a handful of American poets comparable to Whitman in stature: Emily Dickinson certainly, Wallace Stevens and Robert Frost perhaps, and perhaps even one or two others. Our image of them, or of our greatest novelists, or even of Whitman’s master, Emerson, can move us sometimes, but not as the image of the wound-dresser Whitman must move us. Like the Lincoln whom he celebrated and lamented, Whitman is American legend, a figure who has a kind of religious aura even for secular intellectuals. If Emerson founded the American literary religion, Whitman alone permanently holds the place most emblematic of the life of the spirit in America.
These religious terms are not Zweig’s, yet his book’s enterprise usefully traces the winding paths that led Whitman on to his apotheosis as healer and comforter. Whitman’s psychosexuality, labyrinthine in its perplexities, may be the central drive that bewildered the poet into those ways, but it was not the solitary, over-whelming determinant that many readers judge it to be. Zweig refreshingly is not one of these overdetermined readers. He surmises that Whitman might have experienced little actual homosexual intercourse. I suspect none, though Whitman evidently was intensely in love with some unnamed man in 1859, and rather more gently in love again with Peter Doyle about five years later. Zweig accurately observes: “Few poets have written as erotically as Whitman, while having so little to say about sex. For the most part, his erotic poetry is intransitive, self-delighting.” Indeed, it is precisely autoerotic, rather more than it is homoerotic; Whitman overtly celebrates masturbation, and his most authentic sexual passion is always for himself. One would hardly know this from reading many of Whitman’s critics, but one certainly knows it by closely reading Whitman’s major poems. Here is part of a crucial crisis-passage from “Song of Myself,” resolved through successful masturbation: