I Witness and Wait

Those of us who are parents or those of us who believe it takes a village to raise a child will find much to consider in Whitman’s “There was a Child went Forth:”

THERE was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him.
The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him;
Winter-grain sprouts, and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden,
And the apple-trees cover’d with blossoms, and the fruit afterward, and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road;
And the old drunkard staggering home from the out-house of the tavern, whence he had lately risen,
And the school-mistress that pass’d on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass’d—and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls—and the barefoot negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.

His own parents,
He that had father’d him, and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb, and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that;
They gave him afterward every day—they became part of him.

The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table;
The mother with mild words—clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by;
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust;
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture—the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay’d—the sense of what is real—the thought if, after all, it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time—the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets—if they are not flashes and specks, what are they?
The streets themselves, and the façades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves—the huge crossing at the ferries,
The village on the highland, seen from afar at sunset—the river between,
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown, three miles off,
The schooner near by, sleepily dropping down the tide—the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away solitary by itself—the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

It’s not too difficult to believe that the first object a child looks at becomes part of him. I’m still influenced by the first thing I encounter in the morning. Reading a particularly disturbing story about the conservatives in the morning paper can ruin my whole day, while seeing Mt. Hood shining in the distance can make my morning commute a joy. Little wonder, then, that a child’s memory of a beautiful spring and a first harvest can influence his view of the world. Needless to say, a child’s parents will have a much greater influence on the child. God bless the child whose parents love him completely; God save the child whose parents neglect or abuse him. What do we think happens to a boy when he becomes a man if his father was “strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust?”

Trying to live without love would make anyone question “what is real” and wonder what it would be like “if, after all, it should prove unreal.” I constantly wonder “whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?” Reality has a way of changing as our perspective changes. Considering what has happened to my stock portfolio in the last year or so, much of what seemed certain a few years ago seems like mere “flashes” in the pan today.

Luckily, though, we can still turn to Nature to seek comfort and truth. Nothing shows life’s consant flux better than “the hurrying tumbling waves,” and “the long bar of maroon-tint, away solitary by itself” suspended in "the spread of purity" gives a sense of beauty and calm that can help to counter even the worst childhood.

In one sense, at least, we are the child “who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.”

Perhaps, though, we may also be like the “Me” that Whitman describes in section 4 of “Song of Myself:”

Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and
city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss
or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news,
the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with
linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.

The first half of the poem seems quite similar to “There was a Child went Forth.” Psychologists do argue that the formative years are the most important years in determining a person’s personality. Everyone knows that Generation X’ers have been shaped by the very computers they use, right?. And, is there really any doubt that we can judge a man by the size of his banking account, or at least by the amount of the credit line on his VISA card? What kind of man can’t make a decent living? These are precisely the kinds of things most people judge others on, aren’t they? Sadly enough, they may even be the standards we use to judge ourselves.

If so, you are underestimating yourself, for I believe that the “Me myself” Whitman refers to here, the “amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary” self is the true self. It is what some would call man’s soul. It is, at least, a higher self that we may occasionally glimpse in passing, though, unfortunately, we can seldom stay in touch with it.

Occasionally when I’ve hiked too far and I’m wondering how the hell I’m going to get back before dark, “Me myself” looks down at Loren, says, “You’re in deep shit now, aren’t you” and laughs a huge belly laugh, knowing that only Loren has a problem.

Occasionally I sense this self when I’m reading or writing, though I am more apt to sense it when I am doing my yoga or have been hiking high in the mountains for most of the day.

So, which I am I ? Unfortunately, I suspect I spend much of my life as the child who goes forth each day becoming what he sees, a victim of my times, a slave to convention and conformity. Hopefully, though, I am both, both the everyday man who lives his life in his time and the Me myself who is “Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it,” aware that “nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so” and that my life, and everyone else’s, is sacred, whether we live that way or not.

Loren Webster

A Man to Awaken Wonder

With a sixth grade education New York poet, Walt Whitman, whipped the literati of the world down a new path of fresh poetic imagery and thought.

Today the list of those artists and the arts he has influenced is long and revered. His stature was slow to build during his lifetime, but Whitman himself would not be astounded at his far reaching influence even today. His Ego and the belief in the “ME” would simply recognize his durability as the continuation of the Soul.

At the age of 36, after working as a printer, journalist, and school teacher, Whitman self published a small volume of poems within a book he entitled Leaves of Grass, the first poem of which he eventually titled “Song of Myself.”

Certainly not praised as the “intoxicated poet” Emerson was calling for, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, according to his harshest critics was full of “noxious weeds,” “offensive,,,impious, obscene, hectoring, and ludicrous.” He was called a “gesticulating satyr… who “roots like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts,” his work “rank witch-grass, fit for the furnace.”

Not a very propitious beginning…

The most objective contemporary critic, appearing in the New York Daily Times, November 1856 feared

“…that the time is not yet come for the nakedness of purity. We are not yet virtuous enough to be able to read your poetry aloud to our children and our wives. What might be pastoral simplicity five hundred years hence, would perhaps be stigmatized as the coarsest indecency now, and–we regret to think that you have spoken too soon.”

“With all this muck of abomination soiling the pages, there is a wondrous, unaccountable fascination about the Leaves of Grass…No country save this could have given birth to the man. His mind is Western–brawny, rough, and original…the egotism of intellectual solitude.”

“This man has brave stuff in him. He is truly astonishing. The originality of his philosophy is of little account, for if it is truth, it must be ever the same, whether uttered by his lips or Plato’s….Mr. Whitman is novelty itself….Its manly vigor, its brawny health, seem to incite and satisfy….We are much mistaken if, after all, he does not yet contribute something to American literature which shall awaken wonder.”

Thus Walt Whitman began his career as a poet, causing wide circles in the pond of American literature.

For his critics, the first line of his first poem in Leaves of Grass was an indication of his irritating style.

“I celebrate myself”–this unknown would also go on to celebrate his Ego, laud the common worker, disparage education, create very sensuous if not downright sexy images.

How dare he?

Several themes run through “Song of Myself.” Perhaps the most important is the concept of the soul and the oneness of all elements of life to which we belong. Emerson rightly commented that Whitman’s poetry was a wonderful mixture of the Bhagvat Gita and the New York Herald.

The second line of the poem reflects the universality so prominent in Eastern religion.

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

And off we go…

The first stanza ends with

I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The “it” here is the atmosphere of the cosmos, that which the speaker finds “for my mouth forever–I am in love with it .”

Me, the Ego, the eternal and universal. The self, the soul, the “Kosmos,” as Whitman called himself, becomes the speaker in the poem, representing the poet as well as the reader, the time and space in which we find ourselves. The Boston Oracle wrote about his theme, “Man embraces and comprehends the whole. He is everything, and everything is him.”

The smoke of my own breath;…
the beating of my heart, the passing of blood…
The sniff of green leaves…
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice,…
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;…
the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun…
have you reckon’d the earth much?…
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?…
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;…
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

In the beginning we are given notice that the speaker will not offer answers to life’s perplexing problems. Rather, he will identify the cosmos in which we float; within that ether we must find our own way. And if we are really listening, we can accept and even gain comfort from our present lives.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now…

Clear and sweet is my Soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my Soul…
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent,…
Not an inch, nor a particle of an inch, is vile,…
I am satisfied–I see, dance, laugh, sing:

The fourth stanza offers another explanation of the Self. Whitman writes that his life, his relationships, the news of the day are not him.

People I meet–the effect upon me of my early life, or the ward and city I live in or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, author old and new
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliment, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,…
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary;…
I believe in you, my Soul…

In addition to being criticized for his philosophy of the Self, Whitman also drew scowls for his sensuous imagery. Stanza five no doubt was not selected to be read to the family. Remember this was 1856:

I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning;
How you settled your head athwart my hips, and gently turn’d 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 held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth;

This may be the space to discuss Whitman’s sexuality. A college professor of mine once introduced his lecture with “Yes, Whitman was homosexual.” The partner in stanza 5 could be male or female. Whitman did form very close relationships with several men over the course of his life, but he never stated his sexual preference, creating a lasting interest in part of his life that is really not our business. Heterosexual or homosexual labels are deflections and as such are irrelevant.

Stanza six is an insight into the kind of teacher Whitman may have been. He begins by remembering a child’s question, “What is the grass?” He answers

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven…
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves…
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers…
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;…
All goes onward and outward–nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Whitman continues on the subject of death.

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform his or her, it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots;
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and very one good;
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth, nor an adjunct of an earth;
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself;
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)

Another theme, Whitman’s affection for the common laborer, the men who worked outdoors, the women who raised babies is obvious and another source of dismay for his class conscious critics. He praises

The little one…
The youngster and the red-faced girl
The suicide
The blab of the pave, the tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders…
the driver…
the fury of rous’d mobs;…
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside…
The meeting of enemies…
The excited crowd
the over-fed or half-starv’d
of women taken suddenly, who hurry home and give birth to babes…
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here–what howls restrain’d by decorum…
I mind them or the show or resonance of them–I come, and I depart.

Men’s daily labors are described in sensuous detail, and on a spiritual level, Whitman participates in their lives. First the farmer…

The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready;
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon…
I am there–I help–I came stretch’d atop of the load;
I felt its soft jolts–one leg reclined on the other;
I jump from the crossbeams, and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.

Alone, far in the wilds and mountains, I hunt,
Wandering, amazed at my own lightness and glee;

The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud…

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl…
On a bank lounged the trapper–he was drest mostly in skins–his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck–he held his bride by the hand;
She had long eyelashes–her head was bare–her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach’d to her feet.

Whitman also included a particularly poignant encounter he had with a runaway slave.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside;
I heard his motions crackling…
I saw him limpsy and weak…
and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet…
gave him some coarse clean clothes…
remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness…
remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles…
(I had him sit next me at table–my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.)

Prepared he was to defend his guest.

The effrontery of a self published poet who saw himself in everyone and everyone in him continues throughout “Song of Myself,” and I will continue my impressions of the poem tomorrow.

Diane McCormick