Not surprisingly, the question posed to us this week feels very appropriate, following our trip yesterday. When we were able to sit in Fordâ€™s Theatre and look up to where Lincoln had sat, it really brought the events of that day home to us. However, they remain abstract to us in so many important ways, in ways that cannot be overcome by virtue of the fact that we were simply not there. As we looked at the wonderful artifacts laid out for us at the Library of Congress, Whitman became (I would think) much more real to us, but he still remains abstract or idealized in our minds because we simply never knew the man. I think that Whitmanâ€™s feelings for Abe Lincoln were, like the rest of him, a â€śkosmos,â€ť but that they can be understood a bit if we look through the lens of pastoral poetry.
When the question of Whitmanâ€™s feelings for Lincoln was posed, my mind immediately jumped to consider the â€śCalamusâ€ť love that weâ€™ve talked about so much. I really donâ€™t think that Lincoln would fall into that category for Uncle Walt though, and I think it can be explained both biographically and through literary analysis. Biographically speaking, Lincoln simply doesnâ€™t fit the profile of men that Whitman was interested in, at least as far as I know. Again and again, weâ€™ve read about Whitman seeking after younger men: Lincoln was about ten years older than Whitman. He would not have been the type that Whitman could nurture, which seems to have been a common thread in the poetâ€™s love life. Building on that, Lincoln was too established of a man to fit into the anonymous mold set by Whoever you Are, Holding me Now in Hand. Whitman knew exactly who Lincoln was and what he wanted from him. Lincoln could not be nurtured because he himself was already in the position of nurturer, both as a father and as president.
With those things in mind, I contend that it is a good thing that Whitman and Lincoln never met personally. From his distant viewpoint, Whitman was able to freely paint Lincoln with the colors that he wanted to. Not to say that Lincoln was not worthy of what Whitman said of him; after all, the man did incredible things. Personal meetings have a way of bursting bubbles though: what if Lincoln had offended Whitman or, worse, not approved of him? What would have happened to the symbol that Whitman had turned Lincoln into? That being said, I think Whitmanâ€™s feelings for Lincoln are best seen within the pastoral framework.
Obviously, Whitman and Lincoln would not fit cleanly into the traditional shepherd-shepherdess, Arcadia-occupying model. However, there are other aspects of the genre that ring true here. For one, Lincoln is a muse for Whitman: he inspires what is (for better or for worse) the manâ€™s most well-known verse. Whitman can stand on his street corner, stare at Lincoln as he rides by, and write about the emotional turmoil that the man inspires in him.
As with the traditional shepherdesses though, Lincoln is idealized to the point of having no voice of his own. He receives Whitmanâ€™s stares, but never answers back verbally. It can very easily be argued that Whitman is in love with the idea of Lincoln, the symbol that he makes Lincoln into, rather than the man himself. As with Dante, Petrarch, Garcilaso de la Vega, et al, and their female muses, readers are left wondering what the effect on the poetry would have been if Whitman had actually had relationships with the man whom he set up on such a pedestal. While we will never have an answer to this question, we are left with some amazing poetry, and that seems like a wonderful consolation prize to me!
October 25 2009 08:00 pm | Uncategorized