Â Â Â Â We have talked at great length in class about how Whitman worked to construct a public image of himself as the great American poet: When I Read the Book seems to be a reflection by the poet on the fact that his control over his image is really quite limited. Just as Whitman rails against the foreign (read: traditional) styles of literature in other poems, he mocks the traditional form of biography in the opening lines here:
When I read the book, the biography famous;
And is this, then, (said I,) what the author calls a
And so will some one, when I am dead and gone,
write my life? (268)
These lines remain the same in the later version of the poem, showing that Whitmanâ€™s conviction about biography (and biographers) does not change. However, there is more of Whitmanâ€™s trickery afoot here!
Â Â Â Â Through Leaves of Grass, and all its editions, Whitman is constructing a new sort of biography: it is both autobiography and biography of the Union (but I will just be looking at it as autobiography here). By creating a private conversation with the reader, through parenthetical revelations, Whitman seeks to draw the reader into accepting his new biographical form. Confusion arises in the following line though: â€ś(As if any man really knew aught of my lifeâ€¦â€ť (268). On the surface, it seems to be discounting what other men might write about him, but it forces the reader to wonder if Whitman himself, as autobiographer, really knows about his own life.
Â Â Â Â In the 1867 version, the poem ends with the line â€śAs if you, O cunning Soul, did not keep your secret well!)â€ť (268). This distances the reader, by turning the parenthetical information into a dialogue between Whitman and the soul. It also gives Whitman the appearance of knowing more about himself than other men possibly could: who else could know the secret of his soul? So, again, Whitman is tearing down barriers with one hand, while at the same time he builds them back up with the other hand. The changes made in the later edition of When I Read give a very different picture though:
Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of
my real life,
Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
I seek for my own use to trace out here.) (171)
Â Â Â Â Here, Whitman is almost on the same level as the reader: there is no dialogue between him and the source of secrets. This also comes close to putting him in the same boat as the traditional biographer that he blasts in the earlier part of the poem. Whitman still stands out though; while his knowledge may be incomplete, his chosen biographical form is not confined to mere retellings of historical facts. Poetry can see history call within its walls, but it extends far beyond textbooks. Poetry is open in a way that allows for â€śdiffused faint clews and indirectionsâ€ť (171). That openness can lead to frustration if one is searching for specific answers, but Whitman sure does love his mysteries. What is the use that he refers to in the last line? At the very least, it notes more separation between author and reader and tempts the reader to search for them in the rest of his writing.
September 20 2009 09:24 pm | Uncategorized