I have been presenting Walt Whitman in many different formats and locations since 1977, when I first recited a few memorized poems to some startled comrades and suggested we talk about them. Since then, I’ve called out his name in libraries and churches many times, wherever I could find people who would listen. I felt that he would die if I didn’t resuscitate people to his existence. Whitman needs to live through his readers. I find that, as the years have gone by, the more I become, the better I can paint him. So, in a way, this is as much about my life as his.
I found him, or rather he found me through a mutual acquaintance, a retired English teacher in Los Angeles who recommended the two of us get together. The formal introductions were made at Woodland Hills Library, just outside of Los Angeles in 1973. I was half my age today.
Well, with the first words out of his pen I knew I’d found a friend for life.
Come, said my soul,
Such verses for my body let us write,
No man or woman before or since has moved me as much as Walt did that first summer when I read his songs. That he once lived is a miracle. That he still lives is a certainty. So, sit back and we’ll let him walk among us.
First of all, know that Walt Whitman cast himself into a heroic role—not the slayer of dragons kind, but the healer and soother of frayed spirits kind. He started out producing this larger-than-life image. His poetry speaks of a boisterous but still soft force of nature, inviting all who hurt, all who wander through their existence without purpose, to certain safety under Walt’s wing.
As I recollect Walt’s life, I know that from the first, he set himself apart. His picture on the front leaf of his first edition of Leaves of Grass showed not the dainty, cerebral poet that was usual, but a real man in workman’s clothes and boots and gruff beard, staring confidently back at the reader. Someone said that the impression of his book was that of a mixture between the Bhagavad Gita and the New York Herald. And why not? Walt spoke of soul and muscle in the same breath. He brought the two together in an American communion.
One’s Self I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.
Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse.,
Say the Form complete is worthier far,
The female equally with the Male I sing.
Of Life, immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form’d under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.
With that first poem he burst on to the American scene. That was the introduction to America’s Poet that Waldo Emerson had said was coming. Walt became the prediction and waded into his future with full stride.
Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose;
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune—I myself am good fortune;
Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,
Strong and content, I travel the open road.
But of course, the production of Walt Whitman was a long time coming. Until he started constructing his powerful poems, Walt, who preferred the name Walter because it sounded more official, stumbled around, looking for who he might become. He was a stubborn political radical with an awful temper and an opinionated hater of the Irish. He wrote bad fiction and worse poetry. He was unhappy.
And then; and then, out of nowhere, he became Walt Whitman, the man who became a legend, and who wrote with unimaginable power.
Walt Whitman am I, a Kosmos, of mighty Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy and sensual, eating, drinking and breeding;
No sentimentalist—not stander above men and women, or apart from them;
No more modest than immodest.
I speak the pass-word primeval—I give the sign of democracy;
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
Whoa! What happened here? He was like a plant that in the profound darkness develops out of sight, then springs to life fully developed. He was so different in almost every aspect of his being that it was as if a metal curtain came down, completely closing out that mere mortal and introducing himself as a celebration of lusty enthusiasm and relish for life.
With some great men and women, you could almost watch them grow through various stages. Whitman was not like that. He leaped upon the stage in full battle dress. What he did behind the curtains to prepare is the question at hand. The answer lies in many places, but mainly Walt made ready using two splendid props: Waldo Emerson and the opera.
Emerson is hard to understand for most people who expect writing to flow along well-creased patterns. He was known as a poet, but as a poet he wasn’t very good or original. It was as an essayist that he shined. He took his ability with words that he earned from his efforts at poetry and unleashed their power in the service of a kind and natural God. I have never personally read writing like his. It charms and delights as it crisscrosses from subject to subject within the same paragraph. It is maddening to many English professors who demand a writer stick to one subject. Emerson knew no such rule and roamed the field of life using emotional combinations of words that had many a reader gasping.
Certainly, Waldo had Walt gasping. Here is an example of his writing: “Insist on yourself; never imitate. Your own gift you can present every moment with the cumulative force of a whole life’s cultivation; … Where is that master who could have taught Shakespeare? Who cold have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is unique … Shakespeare we never be made by the study of Shakespeare. Do what is assigned to you, and you cannot hope too much or dare too much.”
Whitman called Emerson his master and was usually seen with a copy of the Essays under his arm. Whitman said one time late in life that he had been “smoldering, smoldering, and then Emerson set me ablaze.” They were both nature lovers, but not from being out in it like a naturalist or a gardener. They admired it from afar—from the kitchen window, an easy stroll in the park, or the flower mart. They were city boys. Emerson started out as a preacher, Whitman as a carpenter and printer.
It was Emerson’s notion of God that really fired up Walt. The idea of God freed from within stuffy church walls and released out into the air that you and I breathe were holy words to Walt. And when Emerson called for an authentic American voice to bring the truth to the common man, Whitman answered that call and set about to create himself in the image of a prophet in overalls.
They became friends—sort of. They came from different backgrounds and represented two classes. Emerson was Harvard educated from an old-line family of ministers. There was nothing he’d rather do than sit with a few friends and talk philosophy.
Walt was working class. He labored as a young man as a carpenter and printer. His compatriots were laborers too: bricklayers, street sweepers, and coach drivers. They called him a bohemian. Many idle hours were spent in a tavern with a mug of beer. Whitman never talked philosophy or spirituality with anyone. He kept all that to himself. Once Waldo asked Walt why he hung around with such people. Walt wondered back why Waldo hung around ministers and professors.
Whitman often made pilgrimages to Boston to see Emerson, where they would observe nature from a park bench and discuss poetry and such. Even though Emerson had great effect on Whitman, he still had no luck in changing Whitman’s mode of writing in an openly sensual way. Emerson said that it disturbed some people. Whitman replied that some people needed to be stirred up—how else were they going to find God.
The opera was almost an obsession to Walt. He was a reporter for a Brooklyn newspaper and he got into the various opera houses without charge. He said plainly in some of his journals and conversations that without the opera there could not have been a Leaves of Grass. Many of his early poems were conceived or written while sitting in the opera box bursting with emotion.
He lived during the golden age of opera—Rossini, Bellini, Verde—and he used their structure and phrasing instead of rhyming lines of typical poetry. In this way, he created a grand opera about himself. Walt called his poems songs. They were his individual arias. One of his greatest arias was called “Song of Myself.”
I celebrate myself
And what I assume you shall assume
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you,
I loafe and invite my Soul
I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.
A child said, What is the grass?
Fetching it to me with full hands
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is, any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
Green stuff woven. Or I guess it the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer, designedly dropt.
Sometimes he walks right out to the front of the stage and talks, or sings, directly to the audience about what he offers.
Listen, I will be honest with you;
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes;
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches.
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d—you
Hardly settle yourself to satisfaction, before you are call’d
By and irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those
Who remain behind you;
What beckonings of love you receive, you shall only answer with
Passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d
Hands toward you.
That he was a mystic there is no doubt. He wrote of having many experiences of shattering intensity that opened his soul to boundless optimism and confidence. He began to perceive the meaning of life.
As part of his discipline, he developed a simple mantra that he repeated many times whenever he was alone. The mantra was his name, Walt Whitman. He wrote once in the afterglow of an illumination,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I AWAKE.
Beginning my studies the first step pleas’d me so much,
The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion
The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
The first step I say awed me and pleased me so much
I have hardly gone and hardly wished to go any further,
But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.
Walt was a preacher of religion, but not a religion that could be put into rites and ceremonies. It couldn’t be used as a pitchfork to shovel the unfaithful into hell. His was entirely internal. His only passions were the passionate attachment to people and nature. This was Whitman’s fundamental notion of the true songs.
If you approach Walt’s poems not as literature so much as the other side of a conversation with a great caring man, you will come closer to hitting the mark. Hear what he has to say, and then listen to yourself respond. Yours will be poetry also. He makes poets of us all. People who do not know the secret and recite his poetry without understanding sound like cardboard characters. Whitman demands intimacy before he lets himself be known.
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner—table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know.
Walt retired from the cacophony of bickering humans and sought refuge in musings of the good nature of men and women. It was hard to tell if he ever had opinions about politics or religions. He kept those things to himself. He did think that most of our concerns are bogus and we make our own problems from pride and self-pity. He looked to the animal kingdom and saw champions he could emulate.
I think I could turn and live with animals … they are so
Placid and self-contained.
I stand and look at them long and long
They do not sweat and whine about their condition
They do not lay awake and weep for their sins
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God
Not on is dissatisfied … not one is demented with the mania of
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
When the Civil War broke out Walt was living in Washington D.C. He wrote;
Aroused and angry
I thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d, and I resign’d
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.
Walt said “I had my temptations, but they were not strong enough to tempt. I could never think of myself as firing a gun or drawing a sword on another man.”
A friend later said, “Could there ever be anything more shocking and incongruous that Whitman killing people? One would as soon expect Jesus Christ to got to war.”
Walt’s brother, who had been drafted at the start of the war, was wounded in a battlefield near Washington. Walt went out to find him and see if he could help. The experience of walking among the dead and dying on the battlefield changed him forever. At last, he had discovered his calling—his mighty task. Walt Whitman became a healer of spirit to the desperately wounded of the war. In his own words he sums up his years of efforts:
During those three years in hospital, camp, or field, I made over six hundred visits or tours, and went, as I estimate, counting all, among from eighty thousand to a hundred thousand of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree, in time of need. These visits varied from an hour or two, to all day or night; for with dear or critical cases I generally watched all night. Sometimes I took up my quarters in the hospital, and slept or watched there several nights in succession. Those three years I consider the greatest privilege and satisfaction and, of course, the most profound lesson of my life. It aroused and brought out undreamed of depths of emotion.
His poetry and prose plowed a deep furrow into my heart as he described such things. This indeed was a man! Listen:
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,
He was a daily visitor to the wounded around Washington. He called himself “The Soldier’s Missionary,” and the aching men loved him. With his sack of gifts of tobacco, candy, and fruit, his big shaggy white beard, and his wide grin and hardy laugh, Walt was Santa Claus as pure as any child’s myth. Someone said he looked like a great wild buffalo. There were 35 hospitals around Washington during the war and Walt visited most of them. Besides the thousands of soldiers, they were crowded with many seedy preachers, sightseers, salesmen, do-nothings, idlers, time-killers, and general fops, who wandered through the beds just nosing around. Walt was one of the few who brought any cheer to the suffering men.
In 1855 he self-published Leaves of Grass. He set the type and paid for the printing on 795 copies. Of these, 10 were sold and the rest given away. During the next 37 years he revised it eight times. Leaves of Grass was never a big seller; however Walt did have a loyal following, mostly men and women like himself who could read beyond the obvious and into life’s mysteries. One such person wrote him a warm personal letter telling him of her love.
Walt Whitman: I don’t feel that I should apologize for writing to you. I have wanted to do so for years. I have loved you for years with my whole heart and soul. No man ever lived whom I have so desired to take by the hand as you. I read Leaves of Grass, and got new conceptions of the dignity and beauty of my own body and of the bodies of other people; and life became more valuable in consequence.
I have read with deepest interest every word about you in the papers and magazines, as well as everything you have written. Sometimes I have been furious at what immodest people, idiots, have dared say of you and have longed to write my own pure and true convictions of you. But I cannot—I am too impetuous; I feel my subject too deeply. And yet I am a writer and make a living by my pen.
I have the hope that I may sometime see your dearly beloved face, touch with my hand your beautiful gray hair, and possibly feel your arm about my waist. Because I love you so, I have written these lines. It is nothing to me who sees them. I am proud of my feeling for you.
Of course, I have no hope of receiving an answer to this. But I thought it no harm to let you know that my love went with you, and perhaps in some unknown way was a blessing to you all these years.
Good-bye dear Walt Whitman—my beloved, and may every influence in life contribute to your happiness.
Most lovingly your friend
One of Walt’s biographers commented about the letter.
Walt waited till I had read this letter. Then he exclaimed: “Well, how does that strike you? Don’t you think that’s a bright letter for a dark day? I like these letters from people I don’t know, from people who don’t know me, these confessions of love, these little ‘how do you dos’ that appear every now and then out of mysterious obscure places. I know some people will damn me and some will save me—the big guns who noise about the world: I don’t know as it affects me either way. But such a letter as this has a verity, a sureness, a solid reason for itself, which gives it special value. I confess it pushed clean into my vitals.”
Once he put some doughnuts on a plate and asked a friend to take them as a gift to his next-door neighbor. “Tell her,” he said, “that these are not doughnuts—they are love.”
People used to come to Walt for advice, but he usually refused with few exceptions: Once he told a questioner, “I don’t seem to have any advice to give, except this: Be natural, be natural, be natural! Be a damned fool. Be wise if you must and can’t help it, be anything—only be natural.”
In a poem late in his life he steps up and talks directly to us again with some more seasoned counsel.
Have you learn’d lessons only of those who admired you, and
Were tender with you, and stood aside for you?
Have you not learned great lessons from those who reject you, and
brace themselves against you? Or who treat you with
contempt, or dispute the passage with you?
Walt Whitman was a man of such depth that the tiniest human things could move him. Once, after the war, he was having a conversation with some friends about a fine painting of a cathedral. They were raving about it, but Walt was more cautious and started talking about the war and something he had seen.
I remember another scene—a regiment, once made up of a thousand or twelve hundred men, returned from the war—from the battles, sieges, skirmishes, halts, marches, goings on—coming into Washington, perhaps on an errand only, for provisioning—God knows what; Only there on duty for a day or more: now reduced from its proud twelve hundred to its humble one or two hundred men, trailing in, as it may be said, what remained of them, with their colors in rags and their faces emaciate, worn, but with their hearts true. Don’t that beat a cathedral picture? I think it does—God! It does, it does! It makes your heart bleed. Then you worship—get down on your real knees.
After a brief pause Whitman went on:
I have seen the preparations for the great dinners of state at Washington—then the sumptuous fare: the swell military grandees, the political fol-de-rol, the brilliant lights—social form and superficial manners: it is all very staggering in a hollow sort of way. But I have seen something more convincing than that—a simple group of half a dozen veterans gathered about a plain board table, with plenty and good to eat, in a house that was perfectly plain, telling their stories—stories of things done and missed being done, stories of heroism and cowardice, stories of meanness and generosity—stories, yes of death, of suffering, of sacrifice: all told so quietly, too, with no feathers, no tufts, no one wanting to call special attention to himself—everything being kept on a level lower than false ostentation, higher than false humility. Don’t you think that, too, beats the cathedral picture? I do—I do.
I don’t object to the refinements—to finger-bowls, to napkins, to fresh linen, to glassware, to costly china, to laces; I don’t object to them: I only ask them some questions. I ask them why they think they are of equal importance with human affection?
Another time he wrote;
Of persons arrived at high positions, ceremonies, wealth,
Scholarships, and the like;
So often to me they appear gaunt and naked,
And often to me those men and women pass unwittingly the true
Realities of life, and go toward false realities.
Abe Lincoln was assassinated at the end of the war. It is interesting to note that the Civil War started the day after Lincoln was elected President when South Carolina withdrew from the Union, and it ended a couple of days before Lincoln was killed when Lee surrendered. His life was all about carrying us across this turbulent time.
Walt, like the rest of the nation, was in shock and mourning for a long time afterward. He was in such shock that he wrote a regular poem, and a poem that he lived to regret. “O Captain, My Captain” is Walt’s best known and best loved work, but he quickly grew tired of it when that is all anybody wanted to hear when he appeared on the lecture tour or would just be walking down the street. I admit that it was the first poem I ever memorized on my own, not having been prodded by a stern nun.
It was so popular because it caught the mood of the people at that time. His other major poem at the time, “When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d,” finer by most standards, moved the populace not at all, and so it is barely known now. It started:
When lilacs last in the door yard bloom’d
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
There is a distinct difference in the emotion from “O Captain,” which is unrestrained in its appeal.
O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! Heart! Heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! My Captain! Rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you’re the flag is hung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! Dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Walt once said that his poetry was launched from great fires within. That splendid work was certainly one of them. Lincoln was a living monument to all that is good with America. Whitman made a decent living giving lectures about this man. Many people clamored to hear Walt’s tributes. He probably entered into the popular consciousness of the world through Lincoln’s passing. It is ironic, but I bet Lincoln could not have wanted more.
For all of his bravado and bigger-than-life image, Walt Whitman suffered much during his life. From the moment his book came out, he was the object of ridicule and scorn. Of course, that is the fate of any explorer, but with Walt, because he crossed so many borders, the criticism was especially virulent . Then after the war, he had a series of strokes that left him partially paralyzed. For the last 20 years of his life, Walt lived unable to walk and in considerable pain and discomfort from tuberculoses. Regardless of his difficulties, he always remained cheerful.
Toward the end of his life, Richard Bucke, a biographer, wrote about him:
Walt Whitman, in my talks with him at that time, always disclaimed any lofty intention in himself or his poems. If you accepted his explanations they were simple and commonplace. But when you came to think about these explanations, and to enter into the spirit of them, you found that the simple and commonplace with him included the ideal and the spiritual. With Walt Whitman, his body, his outward life, his inward spiritual existence and his poetry were all one; in every respect each tallied the other, and any one of them could always be inferred from any other. He said to me one day, ‘I have imagined a life which should be that of the average man in average circumstances, and still grand, heroic.’
He was an outwardly broken man. Life wore him out, but he maintained a special fire for the love of God. In his old age he wrote to God and said,
A batter’d, wreck’d old man,
Thrown on this savage shore, far, far from home,
I take my way along the island’s edge,
Venting a heavy heart.
I cannot rest O God…till I put forth myself, my prayer once
More to thee.
For that O God, be it my latest word, here on my knees,
Old, poor, and paralyzed, I thank thee.
This makes me think, if an average man can become Walt Whitman, are we not all capable of such things? Does he not open the door wide? Here is a whole book of instructions. He says: “I launch all men and women forward with me into the Unknown. Each has his or her place in the procession.”
At Walt’s funeral in 1891, Robert Ingersoll gave the oration. Among the things he said were:
His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth.
He was built on a broad and splendid plan—ample, without appearing to have limitations—passing easily for a brother of mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but giving himself freely…to the winds and tides.
The poem that he picked as his last in Leaves of Grass is fitting. It is a final salute from his soul to his body, which had taken him to so many fine places for 72 years. He calls his body My Fancy.
Good bye my fancy!
Farewell dear mate, dear love!
I’m going away, I know not where,
Or to what fortune, or whether I may ever see you again,
So Good-by my Fancy.
Now for my last—let me look back a moment;
The slower fainter ticking of the clock is in me,
Exit, nightfall, and soon the heart-thud stopping.
Long have we lived, joy’d, caress’d together;
Delightful!—now separation—Good-bye my Fancy.
Yet let me not be too hasty,
Long indeed have we lived, slept, filter’d, become really
Blended into one;
Then if we die together, (yes, we’ll remain one)
If we go anywhere we’ll go together to meet what happens,
May-be it is yourself now really ushering me to the true songs,
May-be it is you the mortal knob really undoing, turning—so
Good-bye—and hail! My Fancy.
His body—his Fancy—last passed this way over 100 years ago. Funny, it doesn’t seem that long ago. Oh, I know why, he is still here don’t you know. He said so himself.
Camerado, this is no book
Who touches this touches a man.
So he didn’t die; he is here in the pages of these songs and in every mind that ever read them. He will always be where folks like us need a friendly hand to hold. He was a mystic and a psychic who could see into the present and predict miracles for anyone who cared to pick up a blade of grass or grain of sand. He was and IS Walt Whitman—America’s Poet and Soul.