Sam Krieg for September 15

     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. I’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 “American poet” armor.

     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: “for in this secluded spot I can respond / as I would not dare elsewhere” (268). He will “tell the secret of my nights and days, / To celebrate the need of comrades” (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: “You are often more bitter than I can bear, you burn and / sting me” (269). Indeed, death itself becomes analogous to love for Whitman: pain becomes one with pleasure.

     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 Plato’s dialogues in the process: “The skies of day and night, colors, densities, forms, may-be / these are (as doubtless they are) only apparitions” (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.

     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: “I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit / alone, or wake at night alone” (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 collection’s closing poem, Whitman writes to future readers about his message, “Fancying how happy you were if I could be with you and / become your comrade” (287). However, the poem, and thus the collection, ends with confusing language: “Be it as if I were with you. (Be not too certain but I am / now with you)” (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

Me, behold!

Already you see I have escaped from you. (271)

September 13 2009 09:25 pm | Uncategorized

3 Responses to “Sam Krieg for September 15”

  1. bcbottle Says:

    Your point about love and death being analogous in Whitman’s work brought me back to a line I’ve been stuck on since I read it. In “A Woman Waits for Me” Whitman says “I do not hurt you any more than is necessary for you.” This line bothered quite a lot because it seems somewhat uncaring and cruel, particularly for Whitman, why would he want there to be any pain at all? But when I think about it in terms of pain necessarily being part of pleasure it adds new meaning to the line.

  2. s-words Says:

    Sam (man, talk about the reader-writer relationship), I think that the contradictory elusiveness/intimacy that pervades Calamus actually gestures toward the uncommon candor with which Whitman shows us where we can find him inside his writing. Yes, he can commune with us in the “secluded spot” his poetry creates, but he tellingly disavows the idea that such a spot can exist without the force of his poetry to create it. Thus he tellingly taunts the reader, “Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?” (277). Just as revealingly, he reinforces his construction of Whitman, the artificial “heroic man,” in terms designed to promote the poetry and the man that seems to exist inside it: “I will tell you what to say of me, / Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover” (275-6). He offers us “tender” closeness with his poetic self in order to strengthen the seductiveness of his writing, but he acknowledges the deception of that offer by insisting that the Whitman in his printed leaves is not the Whitman with a body and a smell.

    Of course, by acknowledging that separation he indicates most persuasively the fact that the “real-life” Whitman must, then exist. So at least in this case, the apparent contradiction is instead a useful identification of difference.

  3. abcwhitman Says:

    Along the same vein of solitude and the rather unfortunate correlation between love and pain, it seems as though the speaker in many of Whitman’s poems, despite being passionate and lively, is incredibly lonely. “To A Stranger,” (which you mentioned), “This Moment Yearning and Thoughtful,” “Not Heat Flames up and Consumes,” “Sometimes with the One I Love,” “Trickle Drops,” and I’m just going to stop my listing there; but all of these poems stem from intense yearning and desire to be with another, specific or abstract. These poems are both beautiful and dark. With this, Whitman furthers his “universal” appeal, because don’t we all know that feeling?

    When you say, “solitude tends to be negative for Whitman,” the word “Whitman” could pretty easily be replaced by “everyone.”

    P.S. Don’t get me wrong, we all love a little alone time now and again. I think you catch my drift.

Leave a Reply

Skip to toolbar