Monday, April 21, 2014

Walt Whitman: Poet of Freedom and Democracy

The following is an excerpt from a work-in-progress called A Brief History of American Literature.

These days, words like "freedom" and "democracy" have been corrupted by political misuse.  Today, in America, freedom is often associated with "free market" capitalism, which is synonymous with global exploitation.  Democracy is, in the wake of the Iraq war, something we impose on foreign nations as a means of control.  The meanings of words can be corrupted into things which often mean the opposite of what they originally meant.  This evening, I finished reading American poet Walt Whitman's epic poem "Song of Myself" and two words kept creeping into my mind as a read it--freedom and democracy, not as they are understood today, but as they truly are, in their purest and noblest sense.  For Whitman, freedom has nothing to do with capitalism, and democracy has nothing to do with globalization.  For Whitman, freedom has to do with ecstatic personal experience, with total uninhibited living of human life.  For Whitman, democracy means accepting, even loving, the profoundly diverse people who inhabit our communities, and valuing their voices and experiences as much as our own.  Reading Whitman, for me, had the effect of breathing new life into those tired and often misused words -- freedom and democracy.  Let me explain.

Whitman's poem "Live Oak, with Moss" is about freedom, particularly sexual freedom.  Walt Whitman, perhaps America's greatest literary treasure, was gay.  "Live Oak, with Moss" is about celebrating love between men.  To write explicitly about romantic love between men, in the 19th century, was incredibly badass, and a defiant expression of personal freedom.  He describes a tender scene of love and longing and companionship with his male lover:

"And when I thought how my friend, my lover, was coming, then I was
Each breath tasted sweeter--and all that day my food nourished me more--
And the beautiful day passed well,
And the next came with equal joy---And the next, at evening, came my
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually
up the shores
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering
to congratulate me, -- For the friend I love lay sleeping by my side,
In the stillness his face was inclined towards me, while the moon's clear 
beams shone,
And his arm lay lightly over my breast--And that night I was happy."

Later in the poem, Whitman has a dream in which the tender love between men (not necessarily sexual) becomes a beautiful vision of democracy:

"I dreamed a dream of a city where all the men were like brothers,
O I saw them tenderly love each other--I often saw them, 
walking hand in hand.
I dreamed that was the city of robust friends--Nothing was greater there
than manly love--it led the rest."

In his poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," Whitman extends this grand vision of democracy and brotherly love to all the diverse people of New York.  He speaks of solidarity and shared human experience, across distances and generations.  He speaks directly to the reader:

"I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many
generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt.
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refreshed by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I
was refreshed,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I
stood and was hurried,
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships and the thick-stemmed
pipes of steamboats, I looked."

For Whitman, an essential element of democracy is empathy and compassion, and this is perhaps nowhere better expressed than in his poem "The Wound Dresser."  During the Civil War, Whitman was not a soldier, he was a male nurse, dressing the wounds of the countless soldiers hurt or killed in battles.  In this poem, Whitman, who had previously written almost propagandist poems urging war, realizes that the real fruit of war is death.  Here, democracy is not about winning battles, but about the connection between human beings, and the shared experience of pain and grief.  He writes:

"Aroused and angry, I'd thought to beat the alarum and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers failed me, my face drooped and I resigned myself
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead...

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go...

One turns to me his appealing eyes--poor boy!  I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save

The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand."

Whitman's greatest poem, the poem which he worked on for most of his adult life, was Song of Myself, and this is his greatest expression of freedom and democracy.  For him, freedom means total personal freedom to live, and think, and love both himself and others.  He would take long walks around New York, and in the woods of New England, soaking in the life of nature and of other human beings.  Here are a few excerpts which express the kind of freedom Whitman had in mind:

"I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked…
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and
meeting the sun…
I am satisfied--I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night…
I believe in you my soul…
tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be shaken away…
I wear my hat as I please indoors or out…
I exist as I am, that is enough…
O unspeakable passionate love…
I believe in the flesh and the appetites,
Seeing, hearing, feeling, are miracles, and each part and tag of me is a 
A morning glory at my window satisfies me more than the metaphysics of
We found our own way O my soul in the calm and cool of the day-break…
Walt you contain enough, why don't you let it out then?
My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,
I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision…
Inland and sea-coast we go, and pass all boundary lines…
A call in the midst of the crowd,
My own voice, orotund sweeping and final…
Not words of routine this song of mine,
But abruptly to question, to leap beyond yet nearer bring…
I tramp a perpetual journey…
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods…
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy…
Shoulder your duds, dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth, 
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go…
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself…
You must inhabit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of
your life…
I do not say these things for a dollar…
There is that in me--I do not know what it is--but I know it is in me…
Do I contradict myself
Very well, then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes)…

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

To me, that is one of the best expressions of human freedom: I SOUND MY BARBARIC YAWP OVER THE ROOFS OF THE WORLD!  Total freedom of expression, feeling, and experience was what Whitman was all about.  And equally important for him was democracy, not as a political system per se, but as a real acceptance of everyone's voice, of the ever-diversifying population of these United States.  For Whitman, democracy had to do with relationships between human beings, relationships rooted in empathy, compassion, and a shared journey.  There are huge swaths of "Song of Myself" in which Whitman simply lists ordinary people doing ordinary activities, but the way he describes it, it is so ecstatic and poetic that you see the beauty in everyone.  That, I suppose, for Whitman, is democracy, to see and feel the beauty in everyone, and to walk beside them, and understand how it feels to inhabit their shoes.  I will end this little essay with some quotes from "Song of Myself" regarding Whitman's vision of democracy:

"I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man,
Stuff'd with the stuff that is coarse and stuff'd with the stuff that is fine,
One of the Nation of many nations, the smallest the same and the largest
the same,
A Southerner soon as a Northerner, a planter nonchalant and hospitable
down by the Oconee I live,
A Yankee bound my own way ready for trade, my joints the limberest joints
on earth and the sternest joints on earth,
A Kentuckian walking the vale of the Elkhorn in my deer-skin leggings, a
Louisianian or Georgian,
A boatman over lakes or bays or along coasts, a Hoosier, Badger, Buckeye;
At home on Canadian snow-shoes or up in the bush, or with fishermen off
At home in the fleet of ice-boats, sailing with the rest and tacking,
At home on the hills of Vermont or in the woods of Maine, or the Texan
Comrade of Californians, comrade of free North-Westerners, (loving their 
big proportions)
Comrade of raftsmen and coal men, comrade of all who shake hands and
welcome to drink and meat;
A learner with the simplest, a teacher of the thoughtfulest,
A novice beginning yet expedient of myriads of seasons,
Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailer, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest…
I will not have a single person slighted or let away…
In all people I see myself…

I give the sign of democracy."

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

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