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:
I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy,
To touch my person to some one else’s is about as much as I can stand.
Is this then a touch? quivering me to a new identity,
Flames and ether making a rush for my veins,
Treacherous tip of me reaching and crowding to help them,
My flesh and blood playing out lightning to strike what is hardly different from myself….
I went myself first to the headland, my own hands carried me there.
You villain touch! what are you doing? my breath is tight in its throat,
Unclench your floodgates, you are too much for me.
Blind loving wrestling touch, sheath’d hooded sharp-tooth’d touch!
Did it make you ache so, leaving me?
Parting track’d by arriving, perpetual payment of perpetual loan,
Rich showering rain, and recom- pense richer afterward.
Sprouts take and accumulate, stand by the curb prolific and vital,
Landscapes projected masculine, full-sized and golden.
(“Song of Myself,” 617-622, 639-647)
I take it that this celebratory mode of masturbation, whether read metaphorically or literally, remains the genuine scandal of Whitman’s poetry. This may indeed be one of the kernel passages in Whitman, expanded and elaborated as it is from an early notebook passage that invented the remarkable trope of “I went myself first to the headland,” the headland being the psychic place of extravagance, of wandering beyond limits, where you cannot scramble back to the shore, place of the father, and where you may topple over into the sea, identical with night, death, and the fierce old mother. “My own hands carried me there,” as they fail to carry Whitman in “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”:
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
These can be only Whitman’s own hands, pragmatically cruel because they cannot hold him potently, disabled as he is by a return of repressed guilt. Lincoln’s death sets going memories of filial guilt, the guilt that the mortal sickness of Walter Whitman, Sr., should have liberated his son into the full flood of creativity that resulted in the 1855 first edition of Leaves of Grass (the father died a week after the book’s publication). What Whitman’s poetry does not express are any reservations about autoeroticism, which more than sadomasochism remains the last Western taboo. It is a peculiar paradox that Whitman, who proclaims his love for all men, women, and children, should have been profoundly solipsistic, narcissistic, and self-delighting, but that paradox returns us to the Whitmanian self or rather selves, the cosmological persona as opposed to the daemonic “real Me.”
The most vivid manifestation of the “real Me” in Whitman comes in the shattering “Sea-Drift” poem, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life”:
O baffled, balk’d, bent to the very earth,
Oppress’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath.
I perceive I have not really under- stood any thing, not a single object, and that no man ever can,
Nature here in sight of the sea taking advantage of me to dart upon me and sting me,
Because I have dared to open my mouth to sing at all.
It is Walt Whitman, kosmos, American, rough, who is mocked here by his real self, a self that knows itself to be a mystery, because it is neither mother, nor father, nor child; neither quite female nor quite male; neither voice nor voicelessness. Whitman’s “real Me” is what is best and oldest in him, and like the faculty Emerson called “Spontaneity” it is no part of the creation, meaning both nature’s creation and Whitman’s verbal cosmos. It is like a surviving fragment of the original Abyss preceding nature, not Adamic but pre-Adamic. This “real Me” is thus also presexual, and so plays no role either in the homoerotic “Calamus” poems or in the dubiously heterosexual “Children of Adam” group. Yet it seems to me pervasive in the six long or longer poems that indisputably are Whitman’s masterpieces: “The Sleepers,” “Song of Myself,” “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
Though only the last of these is overtly an elegy, all six are in covert ways elegies for the real Me, for that Me myself that Whitman could not hope to celebrate, as a poet, and could not hope to fulfill, as a sexual being. This “real Me” is not a spirit that denies, but rather one that always remains out of reach, an autistic spirit. In English Romantic poetry, and in later nineteenth-century prose romance, there is the parallel being that Shelley called “the Spirit of Solitude,” the daemon or shadow of the self-destructive young poet who is the hero of Shelley’s Alastor. But Whitman’s very American “real Me” is quite unlike the Shelleyan or Blakean Spectre. It does not quest or desire, and it does not want to be wanted.
Though Zweig hints that Whitman has been a bad influence on other writers, I suspect that a larger view of influence would reverse this implicit judgment. Whitman has been an inescapable influence not only for most significant American poets after him (Frost, indebted directly to Emerson, is the largest exception) but also for the most gifted writers of narrative fiction. This influence transcends matters of form, and has everything to do with the Whitmanian split between the persona of the rough Walt and the ontological truth of the real Me. Poets as diverse as Wallace Stevens and T.S. Eliot have in common perhaps only their hidden, partly unconscious reliance upon Whitman as their main precursor. Hemingway’s acknowledged debt to Huckleberry Finn is real enough, but the deeper legacy came from Whitman. The Hemingway protagonist, split between an empirical self of stoic courage and a real Me endlessly evasive of others while finding its freedom only in an inner perfection of loneliness, is directly descended from the dual Whitman of “Song of Myself.” American elegiac writing since Whitman (and how surprisingly much of it is covertly elegiac) generally revises Whitman’s elegies for the self. The Waste Land is “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” rewritten, and Stevens’s “The Rock” is not less Whitmanian than Hart Crane’s The Bridge.
Zweig’s book joins itself to the biographical criticism of Whitman: Bliss Perry, Gay Wilson Allen, Joseph Jay Rubin, Justin Kaplan, and others, a useful tradition that illuminates the Americanism of Whitman and yet cannot do enough with Whitman’s many paradoxes. Of these, I judge the most crucial to be expressed by this question: How did someone of Whitman’s extraordinarily idiosyncratic nature become so absolutely central to nearly all subsequent American literary high culture? This centrality evidently cannot ebb among us, as can be seen in the most recent poems of John Ashbery, in his forthcoming book, The Wave, or in the stories of Harold Brodkey, excerpted from his vast work-in-progress. Whitman’s powerful yet unstable identities were his own inheritance from the Orphic Emerson, who proclaimed the central man or poet to come as necessarily metamorphic, Bacchic, and yet original, and above all American and not British or European in his cultural vistas. This prescription was and is dangerous, because it asks for pragmatism, and yet affirms impossible hopes. The rough Whitman is democratic, the real Me an elitist, but both selves are equally Emersonian.
Politically, Whitman was a Free-Soil Democrat, who rebelled against the betrayal by the New York Democratic party of its Jacksonian tradition, but Zweig rightly emphasizes the survival of Emersonian “Prudence” in Whitman, which caused him to oppose labor unions. I suspect that Whitman’s politics paralleled his sexual morality: the rough Walt homoerotic and radical, the real Me autoerotic and individualistically elitist. The true importance of this split emerges neither in Whitman’s sexuality nor in his politics, but in the delicacy and beauty of his strongest poems. Under the cover of an apparent rebellion against traditional literary form, they extend the poetic tradition without violating it. Whitman’s elegies for the self have much in common with Tennyson’s, but are even subtler, more difficult triumphs of High Romanticism.
Here I dissent wholly from Zweig, who ends his book with a judgment I find both wrong and puzzling:
…Leaves of Grass was launched on a collision course with its age. Whitman’s work assaulted the institution of literature and language itself and, in so doing, laid the groundwork for the anti-cultural ambition of much modernist writing. He is the ancestor not only of Henry Miller and Allen Ginsberg but of Kafka, Beckett, André Breton, Borges—of all who have made of their writing an attack on the act of writing and on culture itself.
To associate the subtle artistry, delicate and evasive, of Whitman’s greatest poems with Miller and Ginsberg, rather than with Hemingway and Stevens and Eliot, is already an error. To say that Kafka, Beckett, Borges attack, by their writing, the act of writing and culture is to mistake their assault upon certain interpretative conventions for a war against literary culture. But the gravest misdirection here is to inform readers that Whitman truly attacked the institutions of language and literature. Whitman’s real Me has more to do with the composition of the great poems than the rough Walt ever did. “Lilacs,” which Zweig does not discuss, is as profoundly traditional an elegy as In Memoriam or Adonais. Indeed, “Lilacs” echoes Tennyson, while “As I Ebb’d” echoes Shelley and “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” invokes King Lear. Zweig is taken in by the prose Whitman, who insists he will not employ allusiveness, but the poet Whitman knew better, and is brilliantly allusive, as every strong poet is compelled to be, echoing his precursors and rivals but so stationing the echoes as to triumph with and in some sense even over them.
Zweig’s study is an honorable and useful account of Whitman’s poetic emergence, but it shares in some of the severe limitations of nearly all Whitman criticism so far published. More than most of the biographical critics, Zweig keeps alert to Whitman’s duality, and I am grateful to him for his eloquent representations of the poet’s war years. Yet Whitman’s subtle greatness as a poet seems to me not fully confronted, here or elsewhere. The poetry of the real Me, intricate and forlorn, is addressed to the real Me of the American reader. That it reached what was best and most deeply rooted in tradition in Eliot and Stevens is attested to by their finest poetry, in contradistinction to their prose remarks on Whitman.
Paradoxically, Whitman’s best critic remains, not an American, but D.H. Lawrence, who lamented: “The Americans are not worthy of their Whitman.” Lawrence believed that Whitman had gone further, in actual living expression, than any other poet. The belief was extravagant, certainly, but again the Whitmanian poems of Lawrence’s superb final phase show us what Lawrence meant. I give the last word here though, not to Lawrence, but to Emerson, who wrote the first words about Whitman in his celebrated 1855 letter to the poet, words that remain true nearly a hundred and thirty years further on in our literary culture:
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.
April 26, 1984