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The Poetry of Walt Whitman


By Robert Hass
February 8, 1998

Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass has been in the news again. Of course, if poetry is news that stays news, it should be. It is, after all, one of the great books in American literature, as wild, alive and surprising now as on the day it first appeared, and it's also a profound argument for the idea that the spirit of sympathy for other people and their problems is the root spirit of American democracy. But this time around, because it was given as a gift by a president to a White House intern, it was described by one print journalist, with a not very well-concealed leer, as "a favorite passed among lovers, specifically for one poem, 'Song of Myself.' " I hope it does get passed among lovers, and I hope presidents continue to give it to interns. It would cheer me up about American literacy. The reporter managed to imply that "Song of Myself" was a particularly lewd poem, and I've seen at least one television journalist ogle at the mention of the book's name. Walt Whitman might have been amused, if he had not had his own troubles with official Washington.

Here, to put the matter in perspective, is the most inflammatory passage I can think of in "Song of Myself." It's section five, the famous account of the ecstatic union of body and soul, and the way it returns us to the world, alive with attention:

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.

Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach'd till you felt my beard, and reach'd till you felt my feet.

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the arguments of the earth,
And I know the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all men born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff and drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein and poke-weed.

"Kelson" is a wonderful old term from 19th-century boatmaking. It means the bar of wood at the bottom of a boat that fastens the floor timbers to the keel: "The kelson of creation is love." "Worm fence" is another old American term. Here's a passage from an English traveler's book of 1796, describing the characteristic look of the American countryside: "They place split logs angular-wise on each other making what they call a 'worm-fence' and which is raised about five feet high."

Walt Whitman came to Washington in 1863 to volunteer, with a commission from the YMCA, as a nurse. There were 40 or 50 tent-hospitals in those days of the worst fighting of the Civil War, and rare breezes in the muggy summer were said to carry the moans of young men and the reek of gangrene across Capitol Hill. Whitman spent his days in the grim and overcrowded wards, ministering to young soldiers. It was at this time that he wrote these other well-known lines from Leaves of Grass:

Come sweet death! be persuaded
  O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.

He also visited Congress and listened to the proceedings: "Much gab, great fear of public opinion, plenty of low business talent, but no masterful man."

According to his biographer Justin Kaplan, Whitman began to look for work when his money ran out, his health nearly broken by the long hours in the hospital. But Washington, you will be surprised to learn, was full of literary critics and keepers of the public morality. A friend went to the secretary of the Treasury, Salmon Chase, to ask about getting Whitman a clerk's position at Treasury. He brought with him a letter from Ralph Waldo Emerson recommending Whitman as one of America's great writers. Chase turned down Whitman's application because he had written a "very bad book" and was "a decidedly disreputable person." However, the secretary, who collected autographs, kept Emerson's letter of recommendation: "I have nothing of Emerson's in his handwriting, and I shall be glad to keep this."

Eventually Whitman got a position as a clerk at the Department of the Interior at the Office of Indian Affairs. He had hardly settled in when a new secretary, Sen. James Harlan of Iowa, took over the department. Harlan was a militant Methodist. Also, according to Mark Twain, a "great Injun pacificator and land dealer." He fired Whitman immediately: "I will not have the author of that book in this department." And while he was at it, he fired everyone "whose conduct does not come within the rules of decorum and propriety prescribed by a Christian Civilization," including all the women in the department since he regarded their presence as "injurious to . . . the morals of the men."

"The meanest feature of it all," the old poet remembered years later, "was not his dismissal of me, but his rooting around in my desk in the dead of night looking for evidence against me."

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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