Â Â Â Â Two recurring themes jumped out at me as I was reading Calamus: obviously, the exaltation of a love that we receive different explanations of, and an uncertainty about that love that seems impossible to shake. Iâ€™m going to think about the latter in this post. Continually in Calamus, Whitman proclaims the saving power of love; however, insecurities show through the joints in his â€śAmerican poetâ€ť armor.
Â Â Â Â This frustration appears initially in the first poem of the collection, In Paths Untrodden, when the speaker says that he cannot express himself fully in the company of others: â€śfor in this secluded spot I can respond / as I would not dare elsewhereâ€ť (268). He will â€śtell the secret of my nights and days, / To celebrate the need of comradesâ€ť (268). However, in order to tell those secrets, he must separate himself from most people, including many that wish to be close to him. He must discern who is worthy and who is not, which requires that he expose his inmost self to those that might end up harming him. In Scented Herbage of My Breast, Whitman talks of the beauty that comes from putting himself out there, but he first complains of the pains that precede it: â€śYou are often more bitter than I can bear, you burn and / sting meâ€ť (269). Indeed, death itself becomes analogous to love for Whitman: pain becomes one with pleasure.
Â Â Â Â This pain often manifests itself as fear: he voices a fear that what he loves might elude him repeatedly throughout the Calamus collection. Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me? shows the narrator questioning whether he is one able to give the love that he is so sure of at other times. On the other hand, in Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances, the narrator is so unsure of the existence of anything outside himself that he has to talk to himself, sounding a bit like one of Platoâ€™s dialogues in the process: â€śThe skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be / these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitionsâ€ť (274). That poem ultimately ends when the narrator is satisfied with the company of another, but the feeling that is so satisfying then brings more death with it: the end of words.
Â Â Â Â Silence may suffice for the narrator when he is in the company of his beloved, but a lack of verbal communication breeds insecurities in other situations. Still, the sacrifice of words is required in To a Stranger: â€śI am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit / alone, or wake at night aloneâ€ť (280). With that poem being an exception, solitude tends to be negative for Whitman. Even at the end of the Calamus collection, there is an uncertainty about the existence of the redeeming companionship that Whitman has repeatedly espoused. In Full of Life Now, the collectionâ€™s closing poem, Whitman writes to future readers about his message, â€śFancying how happy you were if I could be with you and / become your comradeâ€ť (287). However, the poem, and thus the collection, ends with confusing language: â€śBe it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am / now with you)â€ť (287). Whitman leaves readers questioning whether it is they that he is addressing, and if his message even extends beyond the words on the pages in front of them. So it goes with our poet of contradiction and questions:
Even while you should think you had unquestionably caught
Already you see I have escaped from you. (271)
September 13 2009 09:25 pm | Uncategorized