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Walt Whitman

Dead and Divine, and Brother of All

On Tuesday, December 16, the New York Herald printed a list of soldiers killed or wounded at Fredericksburg, including an entry for “First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore, Company D,” of the 51st New York Infantry. It was mid-morning when poet Walt Whitman saw the item and surmised that it referred to his brother George.

Whitman’s Compost

Walt Whitman, Charles Feinberg Collection, Library of Congress The day Abraham Lincoln was first elected president, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) arrived in Washington, DC, to find, in the words of a British reporter, a “strange ci [...]

The Self in the Poem

Through you I shall be born again; myself again and again; myself without others; myself with a tomb; myself beyond death. I imagine you taking my name; I imagine you saying “myself myself” again and again. And suddenly there will be no blue sky [...]

Whitman in Baghdad

“I was going to hold forth on arms, and the violence of warfare, in a meter suited to the manner,” wrote the Roman poet Ovid at the outset of his Amores, “but Cupid, laughing,” he continued, “stole one foot from the second line,” shifting [...]

Elegy and Eros: Configuring Grief

I want to consider the configuration of the elegy, particularly the lyric elegy of the American 19th century, for I think it is a creature unto itself. At hand is the problem of Walt Whitman's great poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.” I want first to remind us of the complex narrative structure of Whitman’s poem for his beloved deceased, and to unpack the poem’s dense sets of images, stories, locations, and most important, its figures. As I intend the term, a figure is not just a body, a human figure; and not just a trope or metaphor, a figure of speech; but also a number, a mathematical figure. Next, I will relate this poem to another central 19th-century American elegy, Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for Death.” Finally I will propose a paradigm shift in our thinking, and reading, about the American elegy.

Inventing Walt Whitman

But more than that, we see the earliest example of that most American trick: self-invention. Walter Whitman had been born into a humble family of Quakers on Long Island, and his social standing had allowed him to rise no further than fleeting stints as editor of various small-time newspapers. For the better part of the 1840s, Walter had fashioned himself a dandy, complete with cane and boutonniere, in a vain attempt to boost his status. But for the frontispiece of the first edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman changed all that. His broad hat tipped back, his beard thick and mottled, he stood defiantly, one hand crooked at his hip, the other thrust in his pocket. Most importantly, he was dressed in the clothes of the common man. No waistcoat or tie, he posed with his collar open, revealing a workingman’s undershirt. And this new persona required a new name; Walter became Walt.

Walt Whitman and Negative Capability

Walt Whitman had Keatsian “negative capability”—a certain shapelessness of personality, a peculiar power to obliterate himself and flow into some other being and speak it from within—and speak himself in the process. “I am the man—,” he wrote, “I suffered—I was there.” A transaction seems to occur: Whitman gives whatever he flows into a presence in human consciousness, and in return, this other thing or creature gives Whitman a situation and vocabulary which enable him to see and articulate his own being in a new way.

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