The third poet I’ve explored this year rests comfortably between the traditional formalism of Dickinson and the experimentation of Cummings. Whitman is, for many, the great American poet, the bard of our national character. His free verse, recalling both epic poetry and the psalms of the Bible, takes stock of both the society and the geography that make America unique. He seems to love all of it — an egalitarian heart overflowing with appreciation for both the sensual and the spiritual, nature and human invention, grand opera and military marches. His relatively overt treatment of human sexuality was frowned upon at the time, but it endures with remarkable vitality. Almost as notable are the sobering Civil War poems, which recognize courage and honor while they mourn the loss of life. I’ve selected five shorter poems from his monumental lifelong opus, Leaves of Grass, that are among my favorites.
One poem from “Sea-Drift” (1855)
On the Beach at Night
- On the beach at night,
- Stands a child with her father,
- Watching the east, the autumn sky.
- Up through the darkness,
- While ravening clouds, the burial clouds, in black masses spreading,
- Lower sullen and fast athwart and down the sky,
- Amid a transparent clear belt of ether yet left in the east,
- Ascends large and calm the lord-star Jupiter,
- And nigh at hand, only a very little above,
- Swim the delicate sisters the Pleiades.
- From the beach the child holding the hand of her father,
- Those burial-clouds that lower victorious soon to devour all,
- Watching, silently weeps.
- Weep not, child,
- Weep not, my darling,
- With these kisses let me remove your tears,
- The ravening clouds shall not long be victorious,
- They shall not long possess the sky, they devour the stars only in apparition,
- Jupiter shall emerge, be patient, watch again another night, the Pleiades shall emerge,
- They are immortal, all those stars both silvery and golden shall shine out again,
- The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure,
- The vast immortal suns and the long-enduring pensive moons shall again shine.
- Then dearest child mournest thou only for Jupiter?
- Considerest thou alone the burial of the stars?
- Something there is,
- (With my lips soothing thee, adding I whisper,
- I give thee the first suggestion, the problem and indirection,)
- Something there is more immortal even than the stars,
- (Many the burials, many the days and nights, passing away,)
- Something that shall endure longer even than lustrous Jupiter,
- Longer than sun or any revolving satellite,
- Or the radiant sisters the Pleiades.
One poem from Drum-Taps (1865)
To a Certain Civilian
- Did you ask dulcet rhymes from me?
- Did you seek the civilian’s peaceful and languishing rhymes?
- Did you find what I sang erewhile so hard to follow?
- Why I was not singing erewhile for you to follow, to understand — nor am I now;
- (I have been born of the same as the war was born,
- The drum-corps’ rattle is ever to me sweet music, I love well the martial dirge,
- With slow wail and convulsive throb leading the officer’s funeral;)
- What to such as you anyhow such a poet as I? therefore leave my works,
- And go lull yourself with what you can understand, and with piano-tunes,
- For I lull nobody, and you will never understand me.
Three poems from “Autumn Rivulets” (1881)
Out from Behind This Mask
(To Confront a Portrait.)
- Out from behind this bending rough-cut mask,
- These lights and shades, this drama of the whole,
- This common curtain of the face contain’d in me for me, in you for you, in each for each,
- (Tragedies, sorrows, laughter, tears — O heaven!
- The passionate teeming plays this curtain hid!)
- This glaze of God’s serenest purest sky,
- This film of Satan’s seething pit,
- This heart’s geography’s map, this limitless small continent, this soundless sea;
- Out from the convolutions of this globe,
- This subtler astronomic orb than sun or moon, than Jupiter, Venus, Mars,
- This condensation of the universe, (nay here the only universe,
- Here the idea, all in this mystic handful wrapt;)
- These burin’d eyes, flashing to you to pass to future time,
- To launch and spin through space revolving sideling, from these to emanate,
- To you whoe’er you are — a look.
- A traveler of thoughts and years, of peace and war,
- Of youth long sped and middle age declining,
- (As the first volume of a tale perused and laid away, and this the second,
- Songs, ventures, speculations, presently to close,)
- Lingering a moment here and now, to you I opposite turn,
- As on the road or at some crevice door by chance, or open’d window,
- Pausing, inclining, baring my head, you specially I greet,
- To draw and clinch your soul for once inseparably with mine,
- Then travel travel on.
Sparkles from the Wheel
- Where the city’s ceaseless crowd moves on the livelong day,
- Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause aside with them.
- By the curb toward the edge of the flagging,
- A knife-grinder works at his wheel sharpening a great knife,
- Bending over he carefully holds it to the stone, by foot and knee,
- With measur’d tread he turns rapidly, as he presses with light but firm hand,
- Forth issue then in copious golden jets,
- Sparkles from the wheel.
- The scene and all its belongings, how they seize and affect me,
- The sad sharp-chinn’d old man with worn clothes and broad shoulder-band of leather,
- Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here absorb’d and arrested,
- The group, (an unminded point set in a vast surrounding,)
- The attentive, quiet children, the loud, proud, restive base of the streets,
- The low hoarse purr of the whirling stone, the light-pressed blade,
- Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold,
- Sparkles from the wheel.
Italian Music in Dakota
(“The Seventeenth — the finest Regimental Band I ever heard.”)
- Through the soft evening air enwinding all,
- Rocks, woods, fort, cannon, pacing sentries, endless wilds,
- In dulcet streams, in flutes’ and cornets’ notes,
- Electric, pensive, turbulent, artificial,
- (Yet strangely fitting even here, meanings unknown before,
- Subtler than ever, more harmony, as if born here, related here,
- Not to the city’s fresco’d rooms, not to the audience of the opera house,
- Sounds, echoes, wandering strains, as really here at home,
- Sonnambula’s innocent love, trios with Norma’s anguish,
- And thy ecstatic chorus Poliuto;)
- Ray’d in the limpid yellow slanting sundown,
- Music, Italian music in Dakota.
- While Nature, sovereign of this gnarl’d realm,
- Lurking in hidden barbaric grim recesses,
- Acknowledging rapport however far remov’d,
- (As some old root or soil of earth its last-born flower or fruit,)
- Listens well pleas’d.