December 13, 2007
Excerpt: ‘Proust Was a Neuroscientist’
(Page 3 - Previous Page)
I am the poet of the body
And I am the poet of the soul
I go with the slaves of the earth equally with the masters
And I will stand between the masters and the slaves,
Entering into both so that both shall understand me alike.
In 1855, after years of "idle versifying," Whitman finally published his poetry. He collected his "leaves"-printing lingo for pages-of "grass"-what printers called compositions of little value-in a slim, cloth-bound volume, only ninety-five pages long. Whitman sent Emerson the first edition of his book. Emerson responded with a letter that some said Whitman carried around Brooklyn in his pocket for the rest of the summer. At the time, Whitman was an anonymous poet and Emerson a famous philosopher. His letter to Whitman is one of the most generous pieces of praise in the history of American literature. "Dear Sir," Emerson began:
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of "Leaves of Grass." I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit & wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile & stingy nature, as if too much handiwork or too much lymph in the temperament were making our western wits fat & mean. I give you joy of your free & brave thought.o.o.o. I greet you at the beginning of a great career.
Whitman, never one to hide a good review from "the Master," sent Emerson's private letter to the Tribune, where it was published and later included in the second edition of Leaves of Grass. But by 1860, Emerson had probably come to regret his literary endorsement. Whitman had added to Leaves of Grass the erotic sequence "Enfans d'Adam" ("Children of Adam"), a collection that included the poems "From Pent-up Aching Rivers," "I Am He that Aches with Love," and "O Hymen! O Hymenee!" Emerson wanted Whitman to remove the erotic poems from the new edition of his poetry. (Apparently, some parts of Nature still had to be censored.) Emerson made this clear while the two were taking a long walk across Boston Common, expressing his fear that Whitman was "in danger of being tangled up with the unfortunate heresy" of free love.
Whitman, though still an obscure poet, was adamant: "Enfans d'Adam" must remain. Such an excision, he said, would be like castration and "What does a man come to with his virility gone?" For Whitman, sex revealed the unity of our form, how the urges of the flesh became the feelings of the soul. He would remember in the last preface to Leaves of Grass, "A Backwards Glance over Traveled Roads," that his conversation with Emerson had crystallized his poetic themes. Although he admitted that his poetry was "avowedly the song of sex and Amativeness and ever animality," he believed that his art "lifted [these bodily allusions] into a different light and atmosphere." Science and religion might see the body in terms of its shameful parts, but the poet, lover of the whole, knows that "the human body and soul must remain an entirety." "That," insisted Whitman, "is what I felt in my inmost brain and heart, when I only answer'd Emerson's vehement arguments with silence, under the old elms of Boston Common."
Despite his erotic epiphany, Whitman was upset by his walk with Emerson. Had no one understood his earlier poetry? Had no one seen its philosophy? The body is the soul. How many times had he written that? In how many different ways? And if the body is the soul, then how can the body be censored? As he wrote in "I Sing the Body Electric," the central poem of "Enfans d'Adam":
O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men
and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes
of the soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my
Poems, and that they are my poems.
And so, against Emerson's wishes, Whitman published "Enfans d'Adam." As Emerson predicted, the poems were greeted with cries of indignation. One reviewer said "that quotations from the 'Enfans d'Adam' poems would be an offence against decency too gross to be tolerated." But Whitman didn't care. As usual, he wrote his own anonymous reviews. He knew that if his poetry were to last, it must leave nothing out. It must be candid, and it must be true.
The Ghostly Limb
In the winter of 1862, during the bloody apogee of the Civil War, Whitman traveled to Virginia in search of his brother, who had been injured at the Battle of Fredericksburg. This was Whitman's first visit to the war's front. The fighting had ended just a few days before, and Whitman saw "where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground." The acrid smell of gun smoke still hung in the air. Eventually, Whitman found the Union Army hospital, its shelter tents bordered by freshly dug graves, the names of the dead scrawled on "pieces of barrel-staves or broken boards, stuck in the dirt." Writing to his mother, Whitman described "the heap of feet, arms, legs &c. under a tree in front of a hospital." The limbs, freshly amputated, were beginning to rot.
After seeing the dead and dying of Fredericksburg, Whitman devoted himself to helping the soldiers. For the next three years, he volunteered as a wound dresser in Union hospitals, seeing "some 80,000 to 100,000 of the wounded and sick, as sustainer of spirit and body in some degree." He would nurse both Union and Confederate men. "I cannot leave them," he wrote. "Once in a while some youngster holds on to me convulsively and I do what I can for him." Whitman held the soldiers' hands; he made them lemonade; he bought them ice cream and underwear and cigarettes; sometimes, he even read them poetry. While the doctors treated their wounds, Whitman nursed their souls.