Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Week 02, Whitman and Dickinson

Walt Whitman’s Preface and text of Leaves of Grass (17-79); “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” (116-22).

General Notes on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, “When Lilacs…” (17-79, 116-22).

Transcendentalism: Emerson and Thoreau in particular, along with Whitman later on, have always reminded me of Thomas Carlyle’s doctrine of “natural supernaturalism,” with its emphasis on the need to reinterpret the ordinary as miraculous, the “natural fact” as the sign of “spiritual fact.” American Transcendentalism is a belated version of romanticism, self-consciously constructed as such, but it wouldn’t be fair to say it’s less worthwhile on that account. Just and the British had to confront their own long history and literary tradition, so do the Americans have to confront the British and find a way to strike out on new paths. The transcendentalist authors disperse into various subregions of interest: myth, classics, nature, American history from Puritan times onwards, and so forth.

Preface to Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s description of the European literary tradition as a “corpse” is respectful enough, yet it also involves a “will to forget” the past, to clear away old customs and traditions. Whitman, like his America, is forward-looking and intent upon life in the present. What characterizes Americans, according to Whitman? See page 21, paragraph 2: they are democratic-spirited, egalitarian, and can hardly comprehend the concept that ordinary people should defer to a class of “betters.” Americans, implies Whitman in language similar to that used by Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America, have a certain healthy ignorance of the old ways and forms. What can a poet do, then? A poet can capture some of this egalitarian spirit, generosity, and healthy individualism from the people, and can reenforce a sense of that spirit by suggesting its correspondence with the American environment’s vastness and generosity. Whitman doesn’t judge people or try to rank the facts of internal or external experience. There’s little sense of hierarchy in his poetry, almost no sense that rigid analytic methods are being applied to whatever the poet mentions. Instead, we get celebratory catalogs – long lists of things, places, people, animals, feelings, situations, occupations, and so forth. We even find these catalogs in the Preface, as on page 22.

What constitutes Whitman’s distinctness as an American author? One thing is how he relates to and represents the natural world. It’s easy to find in his poetry a characteristically romantic celebration of nature – nature frees us up for intuition, expression, connection-making, and the experience of love as the wellspring of life. But in Whitman, such benefits don’t seem to come at the expense of society. He welcomes industry, construction, science, etc. as coequal and equally generous processes, as companions alongside natural process. As an example, see page 52 of Leaves of Grass.

One other point of distinction is Whitman’s definition of the poet’s relationship with his or her audience – the British romantics tended to characterize themselves as isolated prophets who had been forced into a corner by an uncaring citizenry deaf to the “language of the heart” and intent only on making progress, accumulating material wealth, and so forth. The British poet-nightingales also make much of bearing the burden of linguistic expression – their poetry often foregrounds the question of “commensurateness” between words and inner life (feelings, spiritual truth, intuition). Do our words assist us in making inner life communicable, or do they instead betray us far more than they help, and lead us to indulge in comforting illusions about ourselves and the world in which we live? In a sense, the romantics are haunted by medieval Christian theologians’ concerns about the problem of signification in its relation to spirit. Whitman, however, is almost entirely upbeat about expressive language’s benefits: on page 27, he says that we go to poets on equal terms; his bard is “commensurate” with the common people, and need not be considered remote, exalted, or incomprehensible. While Whitman pays his respects to the Brits’ elegiac treatment of nature and to their concerns about the limitations of language, the only difficulty he seems to discover is how to convey enough of America’s hugeness and diversity. His optimism doesn’t seem to be a rhetorical symptom of near-desperation. It isn’t forced but instead seems genuine – some would even say naïve – as if the poet were a second Adam.

Leaves of Grass, 1855. The poem is certainly expressive and romanticist, but the “self” expressed is also romantic in the best sense: it is transpersonal. See page 40: the speaker’s first answer to the child’s question is that grass is an emblem of his own personal optimism. But look how he expands and broadens this definition. The second definition is that the grass is the “handkerchief” of God. It’s one of those Emersonian “natural facts” that is in turn the sign of a “spiritual fact.” The third meaning is that the grass is earth’s offspring – an example of organic process. Fourth, the grass is a “uniform hieroglyphic” that treats all people the same. And fifth, it is “grave-hair” – the power of hope overcoming despair in the face of death. Whitman will return to this sense at page 79, middle. So all of these meanings of grass encompass the identity of the speaker. Whitman doesn’t really exalt himself in a narrow way. Instead, he emphasizes common feelings, natural functions like sexual expression, work, activity, and in general the life process.

While Whitman is not the sort of poet who enjoys antagonizing opponents, he still sets himself agains a steadily advancing bourgeois or middle-class conception of the individual as a pleasure-seeking atom bouncing around in isolation from others, accumulating possessions, gratifying itself, and embracing false notions about security – all while promoting the most puritanical moral strictures on other people’s conduct. This notion of the selfish indivual is Whitman’s target just as it was the target of his romantic predecessors in Great Britain.

Whitman’s “Song” is filled with religious references – he sometimes appears to invite comparisons between his speaker and Jesis, the sufferer for the sins of others, redeemer of lost causes. On page 69, Whitman’s speaker calls religion a timebound myth – something useful in its time, but now in need of a makeover. Still, see page 52 bottom, and page 53 lines 520 and following, page 67 line 955, and pages 70 and 73. These passages seem designed to invoke a harsher and more challenging side of Christ – the admonisher of Pharisees and other “easy readers” seeking only reaffirmation and comfort. Given all the Christian allusions, it is perhaps too facile to reduce Whitman’s attitude in Leaves to nationalistic jingoism, individual selfishness, and cheerleading for capitalist accumulation. Whitman seems to be “pro-everything,” but he also shows a strong awareness that an emergent market society like America can appropriate and neutralize nearly any statement short of absolute devastation. There’s something of the “free radical” in Whitman in that he doesn’t welcome cheap appropriation of his message – that’s a quality subsequent poets will recognize right on down to Ginsberg in Howl. It’s also fair to point out that because America hasn’t always lived up to its high ideals and promise, many subsequent authors (literary and otherwise) have found it necessary to confront the darker side of our history – not everything can be subsumed under the Whitmanesque category of “vista.” In any case, on page 55, Whitman’s speaker seems to have it in for critics and chatterers – see lines 579-85. The speaker asks that his poems be taken as words that open out onto the world of experience – as he says on page 75, you’re the only one who can travel your road. Nobody else – including uninhibited, free-verse-slinging poets – can travel it for you.

Whitman makes similar claims to the ones made by the English romantics: he emphasizes nature’s value, the power of the individual, and the need for imaginative sympathy. But he writes a distinctly American poetry. There is no sense of isolation, no sense that the poet is haunted by the inability of his language to bear the burden of spirit and imagination. Whitman writes as if America is a new Paradise. We don’t see angst, but rather exuberance. Thoreau is similarly bold in his forms and themes.

Whitman celebrates common things—the body, grass, and so forth. An important function of poetry for him is to declare things outright without worrying about consequences or rigid logic. He tries to convey a sense of “nature without check with original energy.” He writes as if his wanderings as a naturalist and journalist justify this stance—it isn’t a matter of arriving at a perspective through Carlyle’s agonizing spiritual struggle, as in Sartor Resartus.

Each line of poetry is a blade of grass. We should mention Blake’s way of dealing with childhood—Whitman is a very different kind of prophet. Both authors are exuberant, but Whitman simply says, “I don’t know anything more than a child.” Guesses are fine with him. But he comes round to a striking statement about how lucky it is to die. One must compare this with, say, Shelley’s angst about the destructive and creative power of nature—Shelley is an apocalyptic poet; there is as much darkness in him as light. Not so with Whitman—he seems able to celebrate even the darkness without wishing it away.

When it comes to writing about sexuality, this American Victorian obviously has no shame. In this poem, the woman’s gaze caresses the men. Notice the sexual overtones of the poem’s conclusion—”spray” would be considered outrageous for the times.

Whitman’s boldness and catalog style show here—notice the phrase “Cosmos of Manhattan.” Whitman cares nothing about privacy; he is not a poet very much concerned with the romantic burden of moving from inwardness to outward expression. Perhaps he does write self-expressive poetry, but the real project is not so much to make external what is inside of him but rather the project is to get everything down on paper in the limited amount of space in a particular poem. His poetry is celebratory somewhat like a rushed dispatch from the front, written by a journalist. Whitman’s poetry merges with the project, with the vastness, of America itself.

Sometimes, Whitman is almost messianic. At lines 503- 504, he nearly equates himself to Christ, in suggesting, as Christ does, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me” (Matthew 25)

What exactly is the speaker? He is autochthonous, which means he seems to grow from the ground. Whitman is capable of being nationalistic as well as an internationalist. For him, poetry is another declaration of independence, but it is also written without rancor. His tones are often biblical, and go from high to low and back again.

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

This poem tells a story about the effect of Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession on the poet and the nation. The poem shows itself being constructed, tells us how it was written—that is in part its subject: how does speech issue from anguished silence, hope from despair?

The task of the poet at first is to figure out how he will prepare himself, how he will perfume the grave and so forth. Yet, it all sounds like the preparation for a wedding, as if Whitman does not separate such institutional moments. The poem includes references to ancient mourning rituals and creates a sense of the mourner as lover, not unlike the erotic sensibility of the biblical “Song of Solomon.”

Lincoln’s coffin presides over the remaining task of unifying the country—notice the changes in perspective. The setting brings the poet together with a national panorama of people mourning and celebrating Lincoln. The poem itself becomes an offering to death, and towards the end, the three main symbols – heaven (star), earth-flower (lilac), and bird (thrush)—come together. The bird is the mediator between heaven and earth by means of its song, which song becomes a central statement in the poem around line 135 and following (page 120).

The last stanza of Section 15 (page 121ff) may be a reminder of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which the President speaks about the need to take care of widows and orphans, thereby helping to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” healing insofar as possible the torn bodies and spirits left behind by the Civil War of 1861-65. The entire stanza broadens to a panoramic vision of the Civl War dead, so Lincoln’s own death becomes a symbolic and sacrificial lesson for the country.

Finally the poet, by the way he describes his hopes in the presence of spring, takes away some of the shock and sting of Lincoln’s death. Look at the time frame—in the beginning of the poem, it seems fair to suggest the speaker has been before where he now stands. He has felt similar grief here. And the bird, a thrush, must in any event sing. This event—Lincoln’s death—that has dumbfounded the nation, is not singular; it can be accepted and life will go on. The power of ritual is that it can enfold and render intelligible even terrible events.

Notes on Emily Dickinson

254. (“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—”) Dickinson’s way of bringing nature into contact with humanity is worth our attention. In this poem, hope is described as a bird that must make its way through harsh terrain, with no comfort in sight. Hope is articulate in its way—music without words. The bird is left alone, Dickinson respects its struggle. [It might be worth bringing Emily Dickinson into ecocriticism. Words can do nothing to nature, yet words can lead to just about every kind of violation of nature: this includes both the language of self-consciousness and the language of utility.]

1. The speaker metaphorizes “hope” as a bird that “sings the tune without the words.” A metaphor likens the unfamiliar to the familiar so we can better understand the unfamiliar. So what does the bird metaphor bring into focus about hope? Do you find the poem comforting, or not? Explain your response.

258. (“There’s a certain Slant of light”) This is a fine romantic expressive poem—the natural scene correlates with the internal state of the speaker. The gloom of “winter light,” as in Ingmar Bergman’s film, hurts us, and the invisible wound is here characterized as internal difference, the intimation that the meanings we give our lives do not add up to a coherent, overarching purpose. Despair comes and goes, and seems related to the presentiment of death.

2. What is the “certain Slant of light”? And what do you understand by the phrase “internal difference” in line 7? How does the winter setting correspond to what must be the speaker’s internal state?

280. (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”) This poem is semi-allegorical. Is this just another poem about death, or is it about the value of reason? There seem to be severe limits to our ability to know anything in this poem. The bottom drops out. The poem could be read as being about each person’s deep isolation—but then, the internal goings-on are surprisingly social, institutional, and public.

435. (“Much Madness is divinest Sense”) Emily Dickinson would surely agree with Oscar Wilde about the value of public opinion. The mediocre majority are “sane,” while anyone who disagrees is labeled crazy. The point is that people cannot live without illusions. They will always trade truth for false intelligibility. As for those who will not, what is the ultimate value of such a refusal? As I always say about the study of literary theory, there is value in not getting duped, or at least in not getting duped quite the same way others are.

4. This poem belongs in a whole tradition of thoughts about the way we determine who is “sane” and “insane.” (Oscar Wilde, for instance, said—to paraphrase—”genius is next to insanity, but all sane people are idiots.”) What is Dickinson’s speaker suggesting about the validity of this powerful opposition?

465. (“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died—”) See my comments on 712. Here, however, the central object is a buzzing fly, not a grim and formal Victorian coachman. The poem is a meditation on silence. I have felt the palpable silence Dickinson seems to be referring to—when someone whose presence filled your life passes away, you sense the presence of their absence. You can interpret the silence if you like, but interpretation is not the point. The point is simply the experience of presence and absence. Here, the speaker gives us a sense of time’s stoppage, and the poem is about the part of her that is not assignable or connected to the living world. As life is extinguished, her focus narrows. This is clinically accurate—in very old people who die of congestive heart failure, for example, the body slowly shuts down. The senses are withdrawn one at a time, until, as here, even a buzzing fly can interpose between us and death. The border between life and death is that thin.

5. It seems that Dickinson is trying to convey what it’s like to pass away slowly but inexorably – why do you think she has chosen a buzzing fly to convey the instant of death? How might this poem be a meditation on the thinness of the line between life and death, and on the significance that the living give to death?

505. (“I would not paint – a picture—”) This poem is about painting, music, and poetry. Does it say “hail to the critic”? I don’t think so. Dickinson is probably saying it is better to be on the side of appreciation rather than creation. Creation seems like a burden—is that because creators keep trying to compare their inward feelings or impulses with the finished product? Viewers and listeners don’t need to do that. Or is it rather that artistic creation, something to which a person may be driven, is essentially a sterile experience with one’s medium? For example, Oscar Wilde says that creation is repetitive, while criticism is not.

6. What is the speaker claiming about artistic creation? Why does she apparently prefer watching and listening (being a spectator, reader, etc.) to creating works of art? In what sense might we say that creation, though perhaps a joy, is also a burden?

712. (“Because I could not stop for Death—”) The speaker has been dead for centuries, yet the slowness of that first liminal day still weighs upon her spirit. It is hard to know the significance of death. Death is not so much an answer for Dickinson as the center of gravity. You cannot experience death because the term “experience” implies that you would be around afterwards to interpret the event, and make it understandable to yourself and others. Yet, there is a grim civility here about death. The speaker seems to grin just as wryly as the Grim Reaper himself, who is here depicted as a gentlemanly coachman. The poet has only her own incommensurate medium to play with, so she opts for a fanciful scene to capture the strangeness of death. Labor and leisure, and children’s playing, give way before a stately and solitary procession. The speaker sees everyday things, and yet they are not the same. Is this a way of capturing the impossibility of capturing the absolute otherness of death? The poem ends with a surmise, a presentiment, about the direction of eternity.

Focus on the way Dickinson chooses to represent Death in such odd ways. She seems determined not to slip into easy ways (religious or otherwise) of shutting down the mind on such a difficult topic--so we are treated to Victorian gentlemen, buzzing flies, and the like. These are “defamiliarization” techniques applied strikingly to something we really don’t understand in the first place. I mean, does anybody understand death? It’s already unfamiliar in the deepest possible sense, and yet we insist on making it familiar because we wan’t bear to think of it....Dickinson refuses that easy way out--I suppose her means of representing death comes close to the uncanny. Somehow, and eerily, that courteous coachman is both absolutely familiar and absolutely strange, incredible.

7. What gives way, in this poem, as the Coach and its grimly civil Coachman (Death) proceed? Why does the speaker still feel surprised by the first day of her passing even though it’s centuries past? And what seems to be the point of treating death in such a strangely civil, slow-paced manner?

754. (“My Life had stood—a Loaded gun—”) You could read this poem as proto-existentialism. Men are seen as authentic or essential, while women are understood to be inessential and inauthentic. Or perhaps you could read it as a poem about purpose itself. The speaker takes on the perspective of a loaded gun, which is understood as pure potential—it can be used to kill, but it cannot die. It is odd that humans are granted the power to die. I might want to mention Martin Heidegger’s idea that we are constituted as “being towards death.” To live is to be able to die. But here, the living instrumentalize this capacity to spew out death.

8. The speaker takes on the perspective of a “loaded gun.” It has sometimes been said that the poem deals with an indefinite feeling of rage on the part of a female speaker. Do you read it that way, or some other way? Give your own brief interpretation of this enigmatic poem.

1129. (“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—”) So many dashes, so little time! This poem has a cloistered, lonely, reflective mood, but it is not sentimental. Dickinson is a poet of silence and death, not a poet who competes for inspiration with the wind or skylarks. In this poem, the speaker tells the riddle of her poetry: it is “slant,” hard to interpret, yet it wants to be read as pure language. Dickinson makes us read as formalists, yet she denies or withholds final meaning. The “explanation kind” that eases children’s fears when lightning flashes isn’t really an explanation. I don’t think Dickinson is convinced that words can lend finality or surety in matters of truth or the heart. So what is her interpretive bedrock? I would say it is death, as in poem 712.

9. This poem could surely be read as a gloss on Emily Dickinson’s poetic style and philosophy. How so? That is, how does she “tell it slant” rather than “straight up”? What might she be implying about the subjects upon which her poetry dwells?

Edition: Baym, Nina et al. (eds.) The Norton Anthology of American Literature, Vols. C, D, E. 6th ed. New York: Norton, 2002. ISBN 0393977943.


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