Borges on Emerson and Whitman

I think the following two poems say volumes about Borges’ aspirations as a writer. In this collection, at least, the second poem directly follows the first.

To me, the more shocking of the two is the first one, which begins rather traditionally, by providing a rather acute summary of Emerson, who was known primarily as an essayist and philosopher who had been strongly influenced by Montaigne.


Closing the heavy volume of Montaigne,
The tall New Englander goes out
Into an evening which exalts the fields.
It is a pleasure worth no less than reading.
He walks toward the final sloping of the sun,
Toward the landscape’s gilded edge;
He moves through darkening fields as he moves now
Through the memory of the one who writes this down.
He thinks: I have read the essential books
And written others which oblivion
Will not efface. I have been allowed
That which is given mortal man to know.
The whole continent knows my name.
I have not lived. I want to be someone else.

The next few lines seem to capture Emerson’s love of nature, and go on to summarize his fame. Of course, it’s the last line that is completely unexpected. I’m still not sure I understand what it means, much less whether I agree with it. Since I’ve never encountered anything like it in Emerson’s own writing, I’d have to assume that that is how Borges would have felt if he had been Emerson.

Why he would feel that way seems to be suggested in

CAMDEN, 1892

The smell of coffee and the newspapers.
Sunday and its lassitudes. The morning,
and on the adjoining page, that vanity-
the publication of allegorical verses
by a fortunate fellow poet. The old man
lies on a white bed in his sober room,
a poor man’s habitation. Languidly
he gazes at his face in the worn mirror.
He thinks, beyond astonishment now: that man
is me, and absentmindedly his hand
touches the unkempt beard and the worn-out mouth.
The end is close. He mutters to himself-
I am almost dead, but still my poems retain
life and its wonders. I was once Walt Whitman.

Unlike the first poem where Emerson is revealed in the title, it’s not entirely clear that this poem is about Walt Whitman until the last line. The first poem begins on a positive note, whereas this one begins on a negative note. The man is living in “a poor man’s habitation” and appears close to death, with an “unkempt beard and the worn-out mouth./The end is close.” But he is astonishingly happy because he “was once” Walt Whitman and wrote “allegorical verses.”

I wonder if Borges would prefer to be Whitman because he senses he is more like Emerson, which certainly seems the case to me? More and more, though, I’m beginning to suspect that he’s more like Hawthorne than either of those two. His is certainly a rather dark Romanticism rather than an optimistic Transcendentalism, which might simply say that it’s nearly impossible for a modern writer to be be Transcendentalist.

Borges on Don Quixote

Though I’m often fascinated with Borges’ ideas, too often I find his poetry too “intellectual” for my taste. In that sense, he reminds me more of Emerson, whose ideas I adored and whose poetry I tolerated, than he does of Whitman, whose poetry I adored but whose ideas seemed, at best, derivative.

Occasionally, though I run into poems like these that seem almost perfect:


Beginning to fear his own unworthiness
for campaigns like the last he fought, at sea,
this soldier, resigning himself to minor duty,
wandered unknown in Spain, his own harsh country.

To get rid of or to mitigate the cruel
weight of reality, he hid his head in dream.
The magic past of Roland and the cycles
of Ancient Britain warmed him, made him welcome.

Sprawled in the sun, he would gaze on the widening
plain, its coppery glow going on and on;
he felt himself at the end, poor and alone,

unaware of the music he was hiding;
plunging deep in a dream of his own,
he came on Sancho and Don Quixote, riding.

As a footnote explains, Cervantes was a soldier in Urbina’s army. How perfect that a sense of “unworthiness” should produce one of the greatest works of literature ever written, a work often described as the first novel. In retrospect, that sense of “unworthiness” probably was essential in creating Don Quixote, one of the most charming failures ever created. What a fine line there is between failure and success.

And a few pages later, I find:


Of that gentleman with the sallow, dry complexion
and knightly disposition, they conjecture
that, always on the edge of adventure,
he never actually left his library.
The precise chronicle of his campaigning
and all its tragicomical reversals
was dreamed by him and not by Cervantes
and is no more than a record of his dreaming.
Such is also my luck. I know there is something
essential and immortal that I have buried
somewhere in that library of the past
in which I read the story of that knight.
The slow leaves now recall a solemn child
who dreams vague things he does not understand.

This is one of my favorite poems dealing with Borges’ dream motif. He adds another dimension here when he has a “character” dreaming his own adventures, rather than the author dreaming them, and ties these dreams into his childhood dreams, dreams he never quite understood. In an early poem “Break of Day” he says “if things are void of substance/ and if this teeming Buenos Aires/ is no more than a dream/ made up by souls in a common act of magic. In “Ars Poetica,” he says, “To be aware that waking dreams it is not asleep/While it is another dream, and that the death/That our flesh goes in fear of is that death/Which comes every night and is called sleep.”

Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems

I finally managed to get around to reading Jorge Luis Borges: Selected Poems, edited by Alexander Coleman. I’m not sure how long it’s been sitting around, but it’s, relatively, a recent purchase, not a leftover from my college years. Still, I bought it long enough ago that I have no memory of why I bought it, other than some vague feeling of guilt that I’ve never read a single South American poet except for the occasional translation in the works of an American poet. Perhaps reading such poems inspired me to make this purchase. Whatever the reason, the experience so far has been surprisingly pleasant, so pleasant that I ordered a book of his short stories from Amazon a few minutes ago, and a book of poems by Neruda, inspired by this short essay on the The Ghost of Whitman in Neruda and Borges, an essay I found while looking online for a copy of the poem so I wouldn’t have to type it or scan it myself.

In one of his introductions Borge mentions Walt Whitman, and I suspect it’s the Whitmanesque lines in


Here once again the memorable lips, unique and like yours.
I kept getting close to happiness and have stood in the shadow of suffering.
I have crossed the sea.
I have known many lands; I have seen one woman and two or three men.
I have loved a girl who was fair and proud, with a Spanish quietness.
I have seen the city’s edge, an endless sprawl where the sun goes down
tirelessly, over and over.
I have relished many words.
I believe deeply that this is all and that I will neither see nor accomplish
new things.
I believe that my days and my nights in their poverty and their riches are
the equal of God’s and of all men’s.

that originally attracted me to it. Although the repetition of “I” here seems an obvious tribute to Whitman, the more important similarity lies in the last line, “I believe that my days and my nights in their poverty and their riches are the equal of God’s and of all men’s.” Although Borge’s heritage is anything but “common,” he seems to go out of the way in his poetry to try to be “everyman,” while, like Whitman, insisting on his individuality, recalling these lines from “Song of Myself”

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Many of my favorite Borges’ early poems emphasize this commonality and the individual finding himself in those common experiences.

But no matter how much Borge admired Whitman, he is definitely a “modern” poet, and much of the poetry in later books remind me more of Hermann Hesse than Whitman. That’s particularly true of the prose poems included from “The Maker.” I think I’ve mentioned that I’m not particularly fond of “prose poems,” which seem like a contradiction of terms to me. However, Borge’s prose poems remind me an awful lot of “The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse,” a book I reviewed a long time ago, January of 2002, to be exact, and I was quite fond of those “fairy tales.” Like, Hesse, Borge often seems to be trying to discover his role as artist, as in

THERE was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once -the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamberlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur’s admonition, and Juliet. who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.
For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within.. a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be ‘someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.
History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’

This search for identity seems to be a particularly modern theme. Perhaps that’s because modern life forces us to fit so many different roles, roles we ourselves begin to accept as self defining. Personally, I always found it a little odd that people invariably introduce themselves by announcing their occupation, especially since I never defined myself that way.

Which is not to say I haven’t spent considerable time trying to discover who I am, or, at least, discover what I believe, which seems to me a more accurate way of defining who I am, though perhaps not as accurate as “among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.”