What the world thought of Whitman

Last night, I decided that enough of the semester had passed without me trying to tie Latin America in with Walt Whitman. So, going off some vague memory, I found an article written in praise of Whitman by Cuban writer José Martí (1853-1895).

MartĂ­ was integral in motivating Cuba to separate from Spanish rule and establish itself, so it is not surprising that he would identify with Whitman’s hopes for the United States. This article is very long, so I will do my best to translate the opening paragraph that reads like this in Spanish (so that Brady can correct me :-) ):

“«ParecĂ­a un dios anoche, sentado en un sillĂłn de terciopelo rojo, todo el cabello blanco, la barba sobre el pecho, las cejas como un bosque, la mano en un cayado.» Esto dice un diario de hoy del poeta Walt Whitman, anciano de setenta años a quien los crĂ­ticos profundos, que siempre son los menos, asignan puesto extraordinario en la literatura de su paĂ­s y de su Ă©poca. SĂłlo los libros sagrados de la antigĂŒedad ofrecen una doctrina comparable, por su profĂ©tico lenguaje y robusta poesĂ­a, a la [de]
 este poeta viejo, cuyo libro pasmoso estĂĄ prohibido.”

“‘He resembled a god last night, seated in a chair of red velvet, the complete white gentleman, his beard on his stomach, his eyebrows like a forest, his hand on a staff.’ This is what one of today’s newspapers says about the poet Walt Whitman, an old man of 70 years whom the most profound critics, who are always the fewest in number, give an exalted position in the literature of his country and his age. Only the sacred books of antiquity offer a comparable doctrine, through his prophetic language and robust poetry, to that of… this old poet whose astonishing book is banned.”

I also found a poem about Whitman by the Nicaraguan writer RubĂ©n DarĂ­o (1867-1916). DarĂ­o is regarded as the father of the Latin American “modernism” movement (which pre-dated the English-language movement and vastly differed in its ideas and focuses) and this poem was published in his collection Azul, which is seen as the archetypal “modernismo” work. The idealized way in which Whitman is described is characteristic of the modernismo style, which I think goes with what we’ve observed about early Whitman poetry. Not surprisingly, this poem is called Walt Whitman, and reads like this in the Spanish:

En su paĂ­s de hierro vive el gran viejo,
Bello como un patriarca, sereno y santo.
Tiene en la arruga olĂ­mpica de su entrecejo
Algo que impera y vence con noble encanto.

Su alma del infinito parece espejo;
Son sus cansados hombros dignos del manto;
Y con arpa labrada de un roble añejo,
Como un profeta nuevo canta su canto.

Sacerdote que alienta soplo divino,
Anuncia, en el futuro, tiempo mejor.
Dice al åguila: «¥Vuela!»; «¥Boga!», al marino,

Y «¥Trabaja!», al robusto trabajador.
ÂĄAsĂ­ va ese poeta por su camino,
Con su soberbio rostro de emperador!

And here is my attempt at translation:

In his iron country lives the great old man,

Beautiful like a patriarch, serene and holy.

In the Olympic crease between his eyebrows

He has something that prevails and defeats with noble charm.

His infinite soul is like a mirror;

His tired shoulders are worthy of a cloak;

And with a carved harp from an ancient oak,

He sings his song like a new prophet.

Priest that cheers on the divine gust,

He announces, in the future, a better time.

He says to the eagle: “Fly!”: “Row!” to the sailor, 

And “Work!” to the robust worker.

So that poet goes on his way,

With his magnificent emperor’s face!

Any thoughts or observations?

October 23 2009 04:52 pm | Uncategorized

2 Responses to “What the world thought of Whitman”

  1. Mara Scanlon Says:

    Sam, did you notice in our Epstein reading this week that he mentions Marti in attendance at that Lincoln lecture crammed with luminaries? I’d like to read more of that piece by Marti.

    I found these to be really very moving– maybe by this late-ish point in the semester I am responding emotionally to everyone who loves OMW [Our Man Whitman]. Thanks very much– I hope you’ll send a link to Dr. Locke.

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