Prophetic voice and sacramental insight in Walt Whitman's "Messenger Leaves" poems.
--Walt Whitman, "The Bible as Poetry"
OFTEN overlooked, the "Messenger Leaves" poems Walt Whitman assembled as part of the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass exhibit a telling tension between the prophetic and the sacramental that would become more significant as Whitman entered the decade of the Civil War. Writing more generally of the prophetic and the sacramental in literary studies, James Champion notes that the prophet engages with "the holy that is demanded" whereas the sacramental presence engages "with the holy that is given" (17). Using this rubric as a starting point, the fifteen poems in the "Messenger Leaves" cluster may be understood as comprising poems that provide warnings and admonitions (the prophetic) and poems that offer consolation and healing (the sacramental).
The "Messenger Leaves" poems were redistributed in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, but their integrity as a cluster in the third edition warrants further scrutiny; little, if any, critical attention has been given to these poems. Sculley Bradley and Harold Blodgett note in their "Introduction" to the Norton Critical Edition of Leaves of Grass that the "Messenger Leaves" cluster "does have a single theme to hold its fifteen poems together, in the sense that they are indeed all messages, beginning with the moving 'To You' of the second edition, but their sequence was not to be maintained--the poet assuming in later editions, perhaps, that the whole of Leaves of Grass is a message, properly considered" (xxxv). Rather than understanding the cluster as held together thematically by the concept of "message," however, it may be more helpful to examine the use of the word "messenger" in the title of the cluster. Religious in its connotations, the word "messenger" may refer to either a prophet or an angel; the prophet offers a critique of "present conditions in the name of future justice," whereas the angel (aligned with the sacramental) as messenger is associated with "the presence of the divine," as Champion notes (17). Both of these connotations of "messenger" are present in the poems of the "Messenger Leaves" cluster.
In his study of the editions of Leaves of Grass, Michael Moon notes that the "scriptural ambitions he [Whitman] had first articulated for his project in 1857 account for some of the most significant differences between the 1860 Leaves and its two predecessor-editions" (124). Moon is referring to June 1857 when Whitman described the yet-to-be completed third edition of Leaves of Grass in the following way: "The Great Construction of the new Bible. Not to be diverted from the principal object--the main life work--the three hundred and sixty-five. It ought to be ready in 1859" (Notebooks 353). Perhaps Whitman had this intention in mind when he was ordering the material for the 1860 edition; for the first time, he grouped poems into what he called "clusters" similar to the "Books" of the Bible, and he provided numbers for individual sentences (rather than for lines), much like the Chapter and verse notation system of the King James Bible. (1) Ed Folsom notes:
In his own working copy of the 1860 edition of Leaves, Whitman carefully noted the number of words in the Bible (895,752), the number of words in the New Testament (212,000), and the number of words in the "Boston ed. Leaves of Grass' (150,500). To this total, he added the words in his new book of Civil War poems, Drum-Taps (33,000), giving him a total of 183,500, an impressive amount of verbiage, but still quite a ways from overtaking his ancient rival, (see Figure One)
That Whitman would identify the number of words in the New Testament, in particular, and then tally up his word count for Leaves of Grass by adding the Drum-taps poems (183,500), suggests that Whitman was more concerned with how his book of poems matched the New Testament's word total (212,00) than the entire Bible. Thus, it would seem that Whitman had in mind a text that would serve as an accompaniment to the New Testament, in the same way, perhaps, that the New Testament served as an accompaniment to the Old Testament. Leaves of Grass, then, would be the third, uniquely American addition. As critics have noted, Whitman designed the physical appearance of the third edition so that it would complement the family Bible that many Americans possessed. (2) In contrast to the two earlier editions of Leaves of Grass, the third edition is decidedly thicker and similar in appearance to the Bible as a physical text.
Decades later, Whitman asserted:
No true bard will ever contravene the Bible. If the time ever comes when iconoclasm does its extremest in one direction against the Books of the Bible in its present form, the collection must still survive in another, and dominate just as much hitherto, or more than hitherto, through its divine and primal poetic structure. To me, that is the living and definite element-principle of the work, evolving everything else. (CPW382)
Whitman's assertion that Leaves of Grass would be one of the places where the "divine and primal poetic structure" of the Bible would be preserved is especially apparent in his earlier "Messenger Leaves" poems. David Kuebrich calls this version of Whitman's prophetic vocation "inspirationism" and traces its presence in antebellum cultural religious discourse, focusing first on Whitman's upbringing, then on his work as a journalist and editor, and finally on Ralph Waldo Emerson, perhaps the most significant influence on Whitman's poetic sensibility. Kuebrich writes:
In the period in which Whitman composed the Leaves, Emerson became his chief mentor, providing him with theological ideas and spiritual insights and, of greater importance, a poetic that contained a theory of progressive revelation and called for a poet-prophet to provide America with a needed new religion. (63-64)
To the role of poet-prophet, in the 1860 edition, Whitman added the role of the messenger angel as figured in his "Messenger Leaves" poems, the necessary presence that would provide the healing ministry that the current leadership of the country lacked.
THE "Messenger Leaves" cluster opens with "To You, Whoever You Are," a poem originally published in the 1856 edition with the title "Poem of You, Whoever You Are," but given new prominence as the first poem in the 1860 "Messenger Leaves" cluster (see Figure Two). Addressed simultaneously to an individual reader (a singular "You") and a plural readership (a plural "You"), the title conveys at once a sense of intimacy ("To You") and anonymity ("Whoever You Are"). (3) Harold Aspiz notes that Whitman's use of "you" in this poem is "deliberately ambiguous" (103)--but it is nevertheless an effective rhetorical device, both inclusive and exclusive. The poem begins with an expression of fear that the reader will remain mired in unreality, "walking the walks of dreams"; instead, the speaker redirects the reader to the corporeal nature of existence, placing his "hand upon you, that you be my poem." Whitman understood that, as Hans-Georg Gadamer notes, "Writing involves self-alienation. Its overcoming, the reading of the text, is thus the highest task of understanding.... The understanding of something written is not a reproduction of something that is past, but the sharing of a present meaning" (105). This "sharing of a present meaning" represents in much of Whitman's work an incarnational poetics of reading. By this I mean a turn toward the body, a deliberate and fleshly writing-of-the-body as the means of connection between the reader and the speaker of the poem. In the New Testament, Christ becomes flesh at the moment of incarnation; this moment is described most vividly in the Gospels of John and Luke. Luke, the Gospel best known for its inclusion of women and other marginalized groups, but also for its narrative power and the sheer beauty of the language, more than likely was the Gospel that appealed most to Whitman, although Whitman did not follow any particular Christian denomination. (4) It is only in Luke that Gabriel, the messenger of God, appears to Mary. (5) When Gabriel speaks God's invitation to her and she accepts, the "Holy Ghost" and the "power of the Highest" come upon her (Luke 1.35). Later, the resurrected Jesus, transfigured and risen from the tomb, walks among his disciples.
Throughout Leaves of Grass, Whitman incorporates a practice of reading that resembles this dynamic between messenger and message, word and incarnation, death and transfigured resurrection. Self-consciously and unapologetically, the speaker inserts himself into the present/presence implied in the act of reading. A deliberate connection between the body of the reader and the body of the speaker is created: "Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem, / I whisper with my lips close to your ear, / I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you" ("To You" lines 6-8). The rupture that separates the reader and the writer in the elapse of time is bridged by the image of the now deceased poet's lips whispering in the reader's ear, an act that suggests that there is a secret that must be shared--or a series of secrets, of concealed messages. The message in this instance is that the speaker has "loved many women and men, but I love none better than you"--a promise of fidelity even in the midst of an admission of infidelities, of plural commitments. The speaker confesses that he has been remiss in not approaching the reader sooner to disclose his message: "I should have made my way straight to you long ago, / I should have blabbed nothing but you. I should have chanted nothing but you" ("To You" lines 10-11). Terry Mulcaire notes that in this poem Whitman asks "his readers to complete ... a relation of erotic spiritualism, which miraculously elevates the absolute particularity of sensuous, physical experience to the level of a cosmic universal. He can only proffer the abstract universal; it remains up to each reader to animate it, so to speak, with his or her own particular, embodied experiences and desires" (735). The exchange that Whitman enacts in this poem, however, is not incomplete or one-sided, as Mulcaire affirms. Instead, the poet/speaker insistently affirms that he becomes incarnational in the moment of reading and attentiveness to the text, an insistent presence who will not allow the reader to forget that he who was once flesh and blood is now flesh and blood again through the "sharing of a present meaning." Christ insisted that his followers must leave everyone and everything behind. Instead, the speaker of "To You" promises to abandon all others in order to create a new discourse: "I will leave all, and come and make the hymns of you" (line 12). In many of these poems, Whitman deliberately incorporates biblical terms; his poems are "hymns" that will disrupt previous modes of perception. Misunderstanding will be transformed into understanding; injustice will be transformed into justice; imperfection will be transformed into perfection; subordination will become the equanimity of the self. Not even God will sit in judgment of the enlightened reader, the "you" of the poem. What is within the reader will emerge, triumphant.
From this emphasis on the simultaneous fleshly and fleshless coupling of the reader and the speaker of the poem, the focus of "To You" shifts, offering a critique of the tradition in painting of emphasizing the divinity of a single figure, Christ or saints, through the inclusion of a halo: "Painters have painted their swarming groups, and the centre figure of all, / From the head of the centre figure spreading a nimbus of gold-colored light" (lines 18-19). In contrast to the singular presence of the divine, the speaker promises to paint in words the sacredness of all human beings, inserting a metaphorical halo above each person's head: "But I paint myriads of heads, but paint no head without its nimbus of gold-colored light, / From my hand, from the brain of every man and woman it streams, effulgently flowing forever" (lines 20-21). The speaker's / poet's hand becomes the locus of creation, the womb from which creativity springs. Aspects of the divine are present already in the common man or common woman; the poet records these golden slants of light and sets in motion a never ending process that signifies the presence of divine grace in all, a widened sacramental vision that is inclusive rather than exclusive. Rejecting the containment and singularity of the "centre figure," the radiant effulgence of the divinity of the common man and the common woman is underscored. (6) No one person is especially marked as holy. All bodies become sacred.
The next section of "To You" calls up Christ's passion: the "mockeries" that Christ suffered at the hands of the guards and the crowds prior to crucifixion, and the "mockeries" that he suffered while on the cross, from the spectators. But instead of engaging in "mockeries" directed at another, Whitman uses "mockeries" to denote the literal and metaphorical blindness of readers mired in the past, "slumbering," whose "eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time" (line 24). The word "mockeries" is repeated in lines six and seven, to signal the self-deception of those whose imitative modes of perceiving prevent them from enlightened perception. In a movement familiar to readers of Leaves of Grass, the speaker uncovers disturbing revelations about what "you have done." Nevertheless, the speaker understands that these "mockeries are not you, / Underneath them, and within them, I see you lurk, / I pursue you where none else has pursued you" (line 27-29). Just as Christ's disciples were called out from their ordinary modes of existence, so too are the readers of Leaves of Grass challenged to transform their modes of perception; the speaker will not let the reader "lurk" in complacency. The "mockeries" do not deter the speaker from pursuing a relationship with "you."
In the last section of the poem, Whitman describes this new mode of perception in imagery evocative of slavery: "The hopples fall from your ankles" ("To You" line 45)--a metaphor for the unshackling of the mind and the spirit, as well as a reference to the emancipation of the slave, no longer bound and owned by another. "Hopples," a variant of "to hobble," means to tie "together the legs of (a horse or other beast) to prevent it from straying" and also, "to fetter (a human being)" (OED). In his verse, Whitman encourages straying, leaving boundaries, transgressing limitations. Liberty is finally attained; the work of the messenger is complete, and the reader/formerly enslaved human being, now free, "picks its way," suggesting a newfound sense of agency. The poem begins in fear but ends in certainty; now that the "hymns of you" have been made, the reader can stand forth, in "unfailing sufficiency" (line 45).
To You, Whoever You Are" is a companion poem to "Whoever You are Holding Me Now in Hand," also known as "Calamus 3" in the 1860 edition. Reading the poems in sequence underscores their similar themes and images. Both poems emphasize hidden knowledge and hidden identity. Betsy Erkkila notes that in "Calamus 3" "Whitman uses the you to address an apparently exclusive group of homosexual lovers," pointing specifically to the line, "Here to put your lips upon mine I permit you"; at the same time, Whitman incorporates a "more generalized readership," interchanging "the terms reader. Democracy, and America with the term personal lover" (183). The poem's imagined audience, inclusive of homosexual lovers, also refers to "new husbands," "comrades," sailors at sea, and, perhaps most importantly, the common reader. "Who is he that would become my follower," the speaker asks. "Who would sign himself a candidate for my affections?" ("Whoever You Are" lines 5-6). The speaker calls for readers and followers who possess fortitude, who will not be daunted by the first challenge. In this, the speaker is similar to the figure of Christ in the Gospels as he calls forth disciples. Like Christ, the speaker tells potential comrades that they will need to accept tenets that will upset their world view. The language is evocative of scripture, blending both the Old and the New Testament:
The way is suspicious--the result slow, uncertain, may-be destructive; You would have to give up all else--I alone would expect to be your God, sole and exclusive, Your novitiate would even then be long and exhausting. The whole past theory of your life, and all conformity to the lives around you, would have to be abandoned; Therefore release me now, before troubling yourself any further--Let go your hand from my shoulders, Put me down, and depart on your way. ("Whoever You Are" lines 7-12)
Just as God told Moses and the Israelites that he alone would be their one God, the speaker warns the reader that he or she must accept the message of Leaves of Grass, permitting its "long-dwelling kiss," placing the text close to their flesh, and cultivating an openness to exchange that cannot be obtained in "a house," "in company," or in "libraries." This blended exchange--both spiritual and sexual--becomes possible in places that are not confined: in "some wood," the "back of a rock," "on a high hill," "or some quiet island." The use of the word "novitiate" deliberately evokes the beginning phase of religious training. Like Christ's disciples, the readers and followers of Leaves of Grass must be willing to abandon all that they have known.
In many passages in Leaves of Grass, Whitman specifically refuses to accept his own death; he wants the reader to know that his writing is his form of immortality. In this. Whitman anticipates Gadamer's assertion that "all writing is, as we have said, a kind of alienated speech, and its signs need to be transformed back into speech and meaning. Because the'meaning has undergone a kind of self-alienation through being written down, this transformation back is the real hermeneutical task" (105). The "transformation back" can take place through the fleshly recreation of meaning with the reader, as in "To You Whoever You Are," or through the creation of a mirroring relationship with a specific figure, as in "To Him that was Crucified." The integrity of this poem as a reading experience is preserved through its placement on the page in the 1860 edition (see Figure Three); it is presented on a single page, suggesting a physical and spiritual unity with Christ's experience of rejection, the theme of the poem. Whitman addresses this poem to Christ ("Him"), although Christ's name is never directly mentioned in the poem. The poem revises a significant passage from the Gospel of Luke, although there has been no critical commentary on this scriptural connection. The scriptural passage describing the beginning of Christ's ministry is also present in the Gospel of Matthew (13.53-58) and in the Gospel of Mark (6.1-6), but only Luke records the episode in which the Nazareans, angered by Jesus's words, threaten to kill him. and he escapes. As the story begins, Christ is preaching in his home town of Nazareth, using passages from the Old Testament (specifically, from the Book of the prophet Isaiah) but he soon realizes that his words are falling upon deaf ears. "No prophet is accepted in his own country," Jesus tells the townspeople (Luke 4.24). As one commentator on Luke notes, "The OT incidents are used, not to support a rejection of the local people, but to show that prophets of Israel worked outside her borders, that they were often unsuccessful at home and that their lack of success denied neither their calling nor their continuing commitment to Israel" (Oxford Biblical Studies). In the same way, Whitman works outside the borders of conventional discourse, carving a place for the rejected and the marginalized. Jesus (perhaps deliberately so) upsets the Nazareans by pointing to two incidents from the Old Testament; at this, the townspeople become so enraged that they seek to murder him. "And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way" (Luke 4.28-30). More than likely. Whitman found this passage resonant with his own experience. For the most part, the first two editions of Leaves of Grass (1855 and 1856) had received excoriatingly hostile reviews. (7)
Christ's escape represents an extraordinary turn of events, but it is presented in such an understated fashion in Luke that it can be easily overlooked. Whitman, however, did not overlook this passage. Like Christ, the speaker of "To Him that was Crucified" sees himself as delivering a message that challenges the status quo, overturns expectations, and creates consternation and divisiveness in its listeners. The title of the poem is addressed to Christ who-has-already-been-crucified and whose transfigured spirit the speaker now latches onto, "journeying up and down" in order to "saturate time and eras" until others--like-minded readers--also become "brethren and lovers." By not capitalizing the word "was" in the title, Whitman addresses the poem to the risen Christ but points specifically to Christ's suffering and death by emphasizing instead the word "Crucified." The "spirit" of Christ is invoked as resembling that of the speaker: "My spirit to yours, dear brother, / Do not mind because many, sounding your name, do not understand you" ("To Him" lines 1-2). While others may sound Christ's name, the speaker of the poem possesses a deeper understanding of Christ's message, without the need to name Christ directly. Even though the poem is addressed to Christ, it also simultaneously draws in the reader, who becomes implicated in the repeated use of "We" in the poem. While "they" attempt to surround "us," "we" escape by walking through their midst, unmolested and untouched.
"To Him that was Crucified" is a message to the messenger, a short letter to Christ, but it is also a letter that opens up to other readers as well. The speaker merges his understanding of Christ's plight with his own situation, as well as his understanding of those readers in his audience who feel disconnected, surrounded, and estranged: "Do not mind because many, sounding your name, do not understand you, / 1 do not sound your name, but I understand you, (there are others also;)" ("To Him" lines 2-3). The short, parenthetically enclosed reference to "others also" resonates with meaning. As Kenneth Price points out, in Whitman's work:
parentheses are ordinarily used to indicate that the enclosed material is of marginal importance, something that could be excluded and is not fundamental to meaning or grammar, for Whitman the parenthetical remark often conveys the essence of what is at stake in a poem, a re-articulation of its issues in another register, tone, or voice. Rather than conveying the least important information, the parentheses often convey the most important meaning. (687)
Whitman may be referring to those readers who understand his slant references to homosexual desire, thus enclosing multiple messages to different kinds of readers. For readers familiar with scripture, the reference to Christ and to his escape early in his ministry from those who would destroy him would be apparent. For the general contemporary reader, the reference to an escape from destruction would be historically resonant in its applicability to the Union. For homosexual readers, the connection between the speaker and the "comrade" he calls forth and salutes would provide encouragement. In all of these instances, the speaker insists that the reader is not alone; he or she is part of a larger group of "brethren and lovers" across time who have managed to elude the "bawling and din."
Unlike the majority of Whitman's poems, touch in "To Him that was Crucified" is dangerous: physical contact connotes engulfment, capture, and death. Fleshlessness represents salvation because it allows for escape and safety from the clamoring horde: "They close peremptorily upon us, to surround us, my comrade, / Yet we walk unheld, free, the whole earth over, journeying up and down, till we make our ineffaceable mark upon time and the diverse eras" (lines 11-12). Nevertheless, the title of the poem signifies Christ's ultimate death--he will not escape crucifixion. The speaker collapses narrative time by simultaneously invoking the crucifixion that will occur and Jesus's earlier escape from punishment and death. In an entry made in his Notebooks prior to 1860, Whitman wrote: "A poem which more familiarly addresses those who will, in future ages understand me, (Because I write with reference to being far better understood then than I can possibly be now.)" (Notebooks 338). While the editors conjecture that this notebook entry refers to Whitman's poems "Poets to Come" and "Recorders Ages Hence," it is also possible that this entry refers "To Him that was Crucified" in its vivid rendering of the misunderstood prophet and poet.
As this recasting of a passage from the Gospel of Luke reveals, Whitman clearly was familiar with the New Testament. That he would choose this particular incident, when Jesus, just beginning his ministry, is nearly murdered in his hometown, is significant because it suggests that Whitman perceived in this small story a mirrored version of his own poetic ministry. Both present and absent, Whitman eludes those who would destroy him or undermine his project. The personal travails and disappointments that Whitman had suffered during the period of 1857-1859 combined with the negative reception of the two earlier editions of Leaves of Grass left Whitman feeling beleaguered, much like Christ. Nevertheless, Whitman draws strength from a select community (designated as the "We" in this poem) and gathers resolve to continue his poetic ministry.
THE following poem, "To One shortly To Die," is addressed to a person on the verge of death. The message is starkly honest and direct: "From all the rest I single out you, having a message for you: / You are to die--Let others tell you what they please, I cannot prevaricate, /I am exact and merciless, but I love you--There is no escape for you" (lines 1-3). The identity of the addressee is ambiguous; the speaker may be addressing a patient in one of the hospitals in New York that Whitman often visited in the late 1850s. Or, the speaker may be addressing the general reader, the opening lines serving as a reminder of shared mortality. Or, the speaker may be addressing the nation, teetering on the verge of destruction. Like the prophet who sees a future that others will not perceive, the speaker comprehends that the nation is heading for dissolution. In The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes that one of the roles of the prophet is to "speak metaphorically about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us, and to speak neither in rage nor with cheap grace, but with the candor born of anguish and passion" (45). Because he was familiar with the Old Testament, Whitman understood the role of the prophet; his utterances in the "Messenger Leaves" cluster bring clarity to the contemporary fractured political climate. The speaker's tone is direct and forthright: "You are to die--Let others tell you what they please, I cannot prevaricate." Being "exact and merciless," however, is one aspect of love and concern the speaker feels for "you." Shielding the dying person from the truth takes away that person's full humanity.
After the startling revelation of impending death, the speaker prepares "you" for death, "softly" and "quietly" offering presence and support by taking on the role of healer, in some ways prefiguring Whitman's work in the Civil War hospitals:
Softly I lay my right hand upon you--you just feel it, I do not argue--I bend my head close, and half-envelop it, I sit quietly by--I remain faithful, I am more than nurse, more than parent or neighbor, I absolve you from all except yourself, spiritual, bodily--that is eternal. (The corpse you will leave will be but excrementitious.) (lines 4-9)
The ritual of laying-on of hands that this passage evokes is religious and therapeutic, possessing theological and social dimensions. (8) In this poem, the laying on of the speaker's right hand is done "softly" so that it is barely felt by the one who is dying. One non-verbal action is accompanied by another non-verbal action, the bending of the speaker's head close to the hand that is upon the body of the dying person. Although the person who is dying is not identified, the relationship of the speaker to the dying person transcends the usual categories: "more than nurse, more than parent or neighbor." Aspiz notes that in this poem, the speaker is "seated like a priest at the bedside of an unidentified expiring individual" (131), but rather than a priest, the hovering speaker may be seen as a minister. Like Christ, the speaker "absolves" the dying person from sins, and what remains is not the decomposing body (described as an "excrementitious" corpse) but the combination of the "spiritual" and the "bodily" that is "eternal." Aspiz sees this remaining essence as "selfhood," an "indestructible" concept for Whitman. However, what Whitman describes in the last stanza is a thinly veiled reference to the resurrection: "The sun bursts through in unlooked-for directions! / Strong thoughts fill you, and confidence--you smile! / You forget you are sick, as i forget you are sick .... /I do not commiserate--I congratulate you." ("To You" 10-12, 15). In the New Testament, Christ stretches forth his hand in order to heal or to commission. Christ's act of commissioning serves to "verify entrance into the community of believers," Rudolph D. Gonzalez notes (5).
Bradley and Blodgett note one significant change to this poem, the addition of the clause "you yourself will surely escape" to line eight in 1871 (451). Whitman may have added this clause to underscore the message of his earlier poem: escape means deliverance into a new state of consciousness. Because of this, there is no need to "commiserate": thus, the speaker transforms the word "commiserate" into "congratulate," a word similar in sound and syllabic count, but dissimilar in meaning. Rather than mourning, the speaker co-celebrates with the dying person, whose sight now turns in "unlooked-for directions" and away from "medicines" and "weeping friends." (9) While the speaker alludes to resurrection, rather than the Christian understanding of this term his meaning is more closely tied to the notion of effusion triumphantly explored in the last lines of "Song of Myself," titled "Walt Whitman" in the 1860 edition: "I depart as air," shaking "my white locks at the runaway sun. /I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags" (section 369, lines 1-2). The image of the sun in both poems suggests the uncontrollable yet benevolent power of the forces that govern the universe, figured in "Song of Myself" as playful and beyond reach, and in "To One Shortly to Die" as the catalyst for unexpected change, a precursor to death.
Three poems in "Messenger Leaves" critique contemporary politics, serving as a modified form of jeremiad, or "political sermon," as Sacvan Bercovitch defines the term, combining both the "practical" and the "spiritual," and evoking "an underlying desperation" on the part of the speaker (xiv). "To the States, To Identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidentiad" asks a series of questions that turn on the deepening gloom that has enveloped the country, a gloom that emanates from the leadership "in the capitol." Much like Isaiah or Jeremiah, in these poems Whitman asks questions and deliberately leaves them unanswered. The speaker includes himself in the excoriating rhetoric that he employs to condemn the current political climate: "Why reclining, interrogating? Why myself and all drowsing?" (line 1). The speaker identifies the torpor that has gripped the country in a tone that varies from hushed disbelief to angry denunciation; all seems chaotic, thrown into flux and "gathering murk." If it is indeed the case that the country's leaders, whom the speaker refers to as "bats and night-dogs," are still in power, then the speaker will return to his former state of drowsiness and sleep, for sleep is preferable to the "Scum floating atop of the waters" that he sees in the capitol. At some point, "we will surely awake," but by then the storm (the "muttering thunder and lambent shoots") will have commenced. In "Walt Whitman's Caution," later retitled "To the States" and moved to the "Inscriptions" cluster, the speaker addresses the States directly:
To The States, or any one of them, or any city of The States, Resist much, obey little, Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved. Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty. (lines 1-3)
The most dramatic part of the poem is the use of italics, unusual in Leaves of Grass, but in this instance Whitman uses the italics not only to emphasize his point but also to insert a vividly dramatic exhortation directly into the poem: it is as if Whitman himself were speaking aloud to the reader. The exhortation is folded into an address that moves from the larger to the smaller political entity; Whitman's "caution" is directed not only to all the States, but to any one of the States or to any city. The cascading syllogism that follows ("once," "once," "once") outlines the trajectory of tyranny, from unthinking "obedience" to enslavement, to the loss of "liberty" on both a grand and an individual scale. The brevity of the poem, also unusual in Leaves of Grass, lends greater significance to its message.
Writing more generally about the phenomenon of the American jeremiad, Bercovitch notes that it was "nourished by an imagination at once defiant of history and profoundly attuned to the historical forces that were shaping the community" (62). This dynamic between historical defiance and attunement to contemporary events is present in "To a President," where Whitman directly accuses James Buchanan (18571861) of prevaricating, offering America only "dangled mirages." The "you" in this poem is Buchanan, whose blindness and ineptitude infuriates the speaker. The last two lines of the poem describe the process by which those who have learned "the politics of nature"--signified by "amplitude, rectitude, impartiality"--will remain, while those who have not will "lift off," or be removed. The term "amplitude" echoes a passage in "Song of Myself," where Whitman writes:
My foothold is tenon'd and mortis'd in granite, I laugh at what you call dissolution. And I know the amplitude of time. (section 108, lines 1-3)
Fixed in the foundation of the earth, the speaker can see both the past and the future, and dismiss contemporary notions of what is unwholesome. The President, on the other hand, can only offer illusions to America because he cannot discern the real from the false. Direct and strident in their critique of contemporary political leadership, in these poems Whitman takes on the role of prophet--a messenger chosen by God to give a warning to the people, a person who knows what the leaders of the people refuse to know or to acknowledge. This knowledge is at once a burden and heartache; the prophet who foresees also gives voice to a warning. Ed Folsom writes, "In the fateful year of 1860, the fate of the United States was unclear, and no one knew whether it would emerge from its internecine conflict stronger than before or utterly destroyed." With Buchanan as President, Whitman could only predict ongoing delusion resulting in overwhelming destruction.
WHITMAN'S approach to his subject matter in the third edition of Leaves of Grass was inflected by an impending sense of national dissolution: he used biblical models to fashion himself as both prophet and minister and to appeal to the religious sensibilities of the American people. The poems of the "Messenger Leaves" cluster offer warning and healing, admonishment and balm. "To You, Whoever You Are" charts a relationship with the reader that may be described as incarnational, when the word becomes flesh, and sacramental, when divine grace shines through and the "hopples" fall away. "To Him that was Crucified" echoes a telling incident in Luke's Gospel when Jesus eludes tormentors and continues his prophetic ministry. In a similar fashion, Whitman describes his own unimpeded movement through to a time when all become "brethren and lovers"--surely a reference to the Union. In "To One Shortly to Die," Whitman invokes the religious and therapeutic custom of the laying-on of hands to minister to "One" --a dying patient, or, perhaps, the nation, recasting death as a time of triumphant transformation. In other poems, taking on the role of prophet. Whitman directly challenges the deceptive murkiness of the current political administration, calling for an awakening, and seeing what others refused to see. Although "Messenger Leaves" as a cluster was disassembled in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass, its decidedly religious overtones underscore Whitman's envisioning of this edition as the "new Bible."
(1) For a discussion of this new format and its relation to scripture, see Flarris 184, n. 3.
(2) See Stacy's "Introduction" xviii. For an excellent overview of the differences between the first three editions as material texts, see Ed Folsom's "Whitman Making Books / Books Making Whitman."
(3) Leaves of Grass, 1860, the 150th Anniversary Facsimile Edition 391. Subsequent references to Leaves of Grass will be to this edition.
(4) Whitman's newspaper writing in the 1840s contains many references to Christ's compassion. For a helpful analysis of these passages, see Paul Christian Jones's essay.
(5) In the Gospel of Matthew, an "angel of the Lord" appears to Joseph (1.20). The Gospels of John and Mark begin with the story of John the Baptist.
(6) David Reynolds sees a consonance in this passage with the luminist movement in painting of the 1850s. He writes, "Whitman joined his contemporaries by picturing light and its prismatic refractions. The light that floods luminist painting, suggesting God's immanence and man's goodness, is akin to the light that plays through his poetry" (296). In the passage from "To You" noted above Reynolds finds "an implied message of much antebellum art: the potential divinity of mankind.... Here and elsewhere in his poetry, he paints the light he sees streaming forever from every man and woman" (297-98).
(7) One anonymous reviewer of the 1855 Leaves of Grass writes, "the man who wrote page 79 of the Leaves of Grass deserves nothing so richly as the public executioner's whip. Walt Whitman libels the highest type of humanity, and calls his free speech the true utterance of a man: we, who may have been misdirected by civilisation, call it the expression of a beast"; from The Critic 15 (1 April 1856): 170-71. Another anonymous reviewer wrote, "the author should be sent to a lunatic asylum ; from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper (20 December 1856): 42. For other contemporary reviews, see The Walt Whitman Archive, "Commentary," "Contemporary Reviews."
(8) Hand imposition is prevalent in all editions of Leaves of Grass; extended study of this ritual action and its social meanings in Whitman's work is needed.
(9) In this, Whitman echoes passages from the Gospel of Luke when death is turned into life: Jesus restores the widow's son at Nain to life (7.11-16) and he raises Jairus's daughter from death (8.40-56).
Aspiz, Harold. So Long! Walt Whitman's Poetry of Death. Tuscaloosa and London: U of Alabama P. 2004.
Bercovitch, Sacvan. American Jeremiad. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1980.
Bradley, Sculley and Harold W. Blodgett. Introduction. Leaves of Grass. New York & London: Norton, 1973. xxix-lv.
Brueggemann. Walter. The Prophetic Imagination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001.
Champion, James. "Sacramental and Prophetic Interpretation." Literature & Theology at Century's End. Ed. Gregory Salyer and Robert Detweiler. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholar's Press, 1995. 15-42.
"Commentary on Luke. 4.16-30. Rejection at Nazareth." Oxford Biblical Studies Online. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalstudies.com.lib.pepperdine.edu/article/commref/>
Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. Oxford: Oxford UP 1989.
Folsom, Ed. "Whitman Making Books / Books Making Whitman: A Catalog and Commentary," The Walt Whitman Archive, <http://www.whitmanarchive.org/ criticism/current/>
Gadamer, Hans-Georg. "Language as Determination of the Hermeneutic Object." Twentieth Century Literary Theory. Ed. K.M. Newton. London: Macmillan. 1988.
Gonzalez, Rudolph D. "Laying-on of Hands in Luke and Acts: Theology, Ritual, and Interpretation." Diss. Baylor U, 1999. DAI (2000).
Harris, W.C. "Whitman's Leaves of Grass and the Writing of a New American Bible." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 16.3 (Winter 1999): 172-90.
Jones, Paul Christian. '"That I could look ... on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning': Walt Whitman's Anti-Gallows Writing and the Appeal to Christian Sympathy." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 21A (Summer 2009): 1-27.
Kuebrich, David. Minor Prophecy: Walt Whitman's New American Religion. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989.
Moon, Michael. Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in Leaves of Grass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP 1991.
Mulcaire, Terry. "'To You [Whoever You are ...]' (1856)." Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia. Ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings. New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1998. 735.
The New Cambridge Paragraph Bible with the Apocrypha: King James Version. Ed. David Norton. Cambridge: Cambridge UP 2005.
Reynolds, David. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995.
Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 3. New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1914.
Whitman, Walt. "The Bible as Poetry." Complete Prose Works. Philadelphia: David McKay, 1892. 379-82.
--. Leaves of Grass, 1860, the 150th Anniversary Facsimile Edition. Ed. Jason Stacy. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2009.
--. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Vol. 1. Ed. Edward F. Grier. New York: New York UP 1984
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|Publication:||Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2016|
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