Sands at Seventy

I sometimes hesitate to pick up Whitman’s poetry because it’s difficult to get into it easily. For one thing, too many of his poems are long poems, and, if the truth be known, I dislike long poems with a few, but very few, notable exceptions.

Second, I have to force myself to wade through many of his poems. For one reason or another, they just don’t appeal to me. Too many of them seem to go on and on, perhaps reminding me of the Old Testament’s long lists that soon become meaningless.

There is another, very different reason I hesitate to pick him up, though. Once I do start reading him I find it difficult to put him down. Every time I pick him up, I find another poem I like very much, a poem I don’t even remember reading before. There is always something new to find in Whitman.

Some have criticized Whitman because he is overly optimistic. And, as pointed out by Emerson in his essay on transcendentalists, transcendentalists are “idealists.” Idealism by its very nature would probably be described as overly optimistic. Personally, though, I consider it nearly a blessed miracle that anyone coming from Whitman’s background could exhibit such enthusiasm for life.

R.W.B. Lewis points out that “Two of Whitman’s brothers were diseased, one of them eventually dying in an insane asylum and the other (who was also a drunkard) married to a woman who became a prostitute. Yet another brother was a congenital idiot; and one of Whitman’s sisters suffered from severe nervous melancholy.”

It may well be that Whitman himself showed signs of being a manic-depressive, but it sometimes occurs to me living in this modern age that that may well be the only rational approach to an age that offers so much and ends up delivering so little, an age that allows us to nearly instantaneously visit all the wonders of the world while it steadily destroys them, an age that encourages us to indulge every whim and in doing so ends up debasing our very souls.

So, the charge of being overly optimistic may be justified in Whitman’s most popular poems, but, in fact, some of Whitman’s greatest poems, like “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” focus on life’s sorrow, not on his vision of self enlightenment.

“I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” is one of the “new” poems I found while reading Whitman this time. I guess it has become relatively popular in some circles, though I doubt those circles include high school texts, because it is offered as proof of Whitman’s love for another man. That seems like old news to me, and largely irrelevant, but I like the poem because it reminds me of my own loneliness at times in life and of our need for others:

I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it stood there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend or lover near,
I know very well I could not.

The simple picture of a mighty oak standing alone in a field is one that most people can identify with and is a familiar symbol of strength, but it takes on added dimension when we think of it as a symbol of a man standing alone. It would, indeed, take a strong person to go on being joyous in life while living in isolation. Perhaps it is admirable to stand alone, but most of us long for companionship, unwilling to stand alone. The narrator’s loneliness seems clear in lines like “It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends, / (For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,) and in the final irony of the last lines “Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend or lover near, /I know very well I could not.” since Whitman probably had to deny such friendship in order to remain viable as a poet in the 19th Century.

And in some of Whitman’s last poems in the section entitled “Sands at Seventy” we find even more signs that even Whitman’s enthusiasm was subject to life’s trials and tribulations just as our life is:

AS I SIT WRITING HERE.

AS I sit writing here, sick and grown old,
Not my least burden is that dulness of the years, querilities,
Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering
ennui,
May filter in my daily songs.

Sounds to me a lot like an old man writing a blog and trying desperately to be interesting even when there’s little of interest happening. To expect not to have these feelings, though, would be the surest sign of delusion.

“To Those Who’ve Fail’d” reminds me a lot of Emily Dickinson’s more famous “Success is counted sweetest:"

TO THOSE WHO'VE FAIL'D.

TO those who've fail'd, in aspiration vast,
To unnam'd soldiers fallen in front on the lead,
To calm, devoted engineers- to over-ardent travelers- to pilots on
their ships,
To many a lofty song and picture without recognition- I'd rear
laurel-cover'd monument,
High, high above the rest- To all cut off before their time,
Possess'd by some strange spirit of fire,
Quench'd by an early death.

Perhaps “in aspiration vast” even refers to Whitman himself, for his life’s work Leaves of Grass never attained the acclaim he dreamed of, but at the very least it’s recognition of those who have failed though their dreams were high, recognition that failure is at least as real a possibility as success.

“Halcyon Days,” though, recognizes that despite unsuccessful love, despite a lack of wealth and honor, despite a lack of victories in politics or war, there are moments in old age when life is still blissful. These summer days in our winter of discontent probably seem happiest of all precisely because they follow days of “glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui.” Perhaps they are happy days due to the simple recognition that a life lived to the fullest provides its own reward.

HALCYON DAYS.

NOT from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor'd middle age, nor victories of politics or
war;
But as life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky,
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier
air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

Loren Webster

What do you think?