Thursday, March 29, 2012

Project Direction

I would like to look more deeply into reviews of Whitman's work in order to gain a more complete understanding of the literary time period in which he was writing. I am interested primarily in his negative reviews- I would like to examine (and then compare and contrast) the work of Whitman's "traditional" contemporaries, as well as the canonical authors mentioned by the reviewers, with Song of Myself in an attempt to understand what aspects of Whitman's work proved so offensive to his negative reviewers. I intend to explore common themes the reviewers focused on (rough language, "inappropriate" subject matter, etc) and what they tell us about literature before and after Whitman's writing. My question is essentially: What aspects of Whitman's work proved most offensive to his negative reviewers, how do those aspects differ poetically from what had come before, how does the existence of these particular objections characterize the literary society in which Whitman was writing, and ultimately how does Whitman change this characterization with his poems?

Peter Doyle

Peter Doyle was, essentially, Walt Whitman's boyfriend. He was born in Ireland, and came to American around age 8. He and the surviving members of his family lived in Virginia, where Doyle eventually became a blacksmith. He was a member of the Fayette Artillery and eventually joined the Confederate Army (though he was ultimately injured and discharged). He later worked for the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company as a horsecar conductor. This is how he met Whitman. Doyle and Whitman were opposites in terms of education and physical attributes, but he represents the working man that Whitman spends much of his poems writing about. Doyle was present at Ford's Theater for Abraham Lincoln's assassination, and it is clear that his eyewitness account influenced Whitman's poetry.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

My Passion For Ferries

Appropriately titled, this entry is about the poetry Whitman experiences when riding ferries. He even identifies his experiences living in New York with the ferries. He says, "What oceanic currents, eddies, underneath -- the great tides of humanity also, with ever-shifting movements. Indeed, I have always had a passion for ferries; to me they afford inimitable, streaming, never-failing, living poems." This entry would work as a short forward to his poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry", (although he is writing about the Fulton Ferry in this particular entry) as there are many similarities in theme and his general delight in what some people view simply as transit. Whitman delights in the flow of humanity (even if it is just to get from point A to point B) and seems to compare crossing the river on a ferry to the flow of humanity through time. To Whitman, the intersection of manmade and natural is extremely beautiful; he marvels at the picturesque nature of the steamboats in front of the bay. This entry, unlike many of the Civil War entries, has a lightness and an innocence to it. It is Whitman describing a passion he has, and the beauty he sees in the world as a result of it, and he does it well.

Martin F. Tupper

Not an easy guy to find a lot of information about, which in itself is interesting because according to Wikipedia, "His most famous work, Proverbial Philosophy (1838), sold much more heavily than the works of any of his more important contemporaries, including Tennyson, at least in the middle decades of the century... and its significance now is almost wholly as an index of the intellectual and literary tendencies of Tupper's class and time." Poor guy just kind of fizzled out. I think that, in relation to Whitman, Tupper is relevant because he represents the everyday "philosophies" of the victorian middle class, while Whitman represents a break from those traditions in a purely American fashion. Even as early as the 1870s, Tupper exists as a kind of punch-line for other poets like Longfellow and Tennyson. If Tupper represents the Victorian, and his work is being mocked only 30 short years after publication, perhaps the world was more ready for a Whitmanian break from poetic tradition than some critics let on.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Whitman as Caliban

Upon reading reviews of Whitman, I found that some of his critics just didn't pick up what Whitman was putting down- particularly, an anonymous reviewer for the Critic 15. In the way of most literary criticism, this writer attempts to discern Whitman's place in the long line of writers and poets before him. However, what this attempt fails to recognize Whitman's overarching purpose- that is, to write a poem to redefine poetry for his readers. Whitman's attempts to be the everyman are lost on this critic as he first fixates on the poet's portrait, saying that it "expresses all the features of the hard democrat, and none of the flexile delicacy of the civilised poet." The reviewer circles around the point Whitman attempts to make about the nature of poetry and its place in the world, but ultimately I would argue that the critic misreads Whitman’s intent entirely. He says, “If this work is really a work of genius—if the principles of those poems, their free language, their amazing and audacious egotism, their animal vigour, be real poetry and the divinest evidence of the true poet—then our studies have been in vain, and vainer still the homage which we have paid the monarchs of Saxon intellect, Shakspere, and Milton, and Byron.” For this critic, Whitman is not only a Calliban-esque figure, but he views the work of previous poets (like Shakespeare and Milton) as a threatened Miranda. For him, Walt’s work not only moves away from previous poetic traditions, it cannot exist as “genius” simultaneously.

On the other hand, there are several reviews that do seem to appreciate Whitman’s intent, though perhaps not the chosen manner of execution. One writes, “We must be just to Mr. Whitman in allowing that he has one positive merit. His verse has a purpose…He asserts man's right to express his delight in animal enjoyment, and the harmony in which he should stand, body and soul, with fellow men and the whole universe…Perhaps it might have been done as well, however, without being always so purposely obscene, and intentionally foul-mouthed, as Mr. Whitman is.” This critic seems to be the most rational of Whitman’s dissenters. He does not view him as a devil, or a threat to other poets. Rather he understands Walt’s intent, though perhaps not the language and imagery he employs to convey it.

While many other reviewers were less inclined to declare Whitman the savage of poetry, some did voice similar concerns regarding Walt’s place in the poetic canon. A critic writes, “If this is poetry, where must its foregoers stand? And what is at once to become of the ranks of rhymesters, melancholy and swallow-tailed, and of all the confectioners and upholsterers of verse, if the tan-faced man here advancing and claiming to speak for America and the nineteenth hundred of the Christian list of years, typifies indeed the natural and proper bard?” A fair amount of Whitman’s criticism centers on this question. Critics are unsure of how to proceed with something so radically different than what has come before it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Specimen Days: Cedar-Apples

In this installment, Whitman describes his first experience with Cedar Apples; he calls them a "peculiar fruit," and talks of his happiness upon discovering them and their, "homely beauty and novelty." He describes the "profusion", or abundance, of the fruit twice in the same sentence. It makes for an interesting commentary when one contrasts this idea with the last line of the poem. Whitman ends the installment by saying: "These cedar-apples last only a little while however, and soon crumble and fade."

Just like the lifespan of the cedar-apples, this entry is short. Whitman spends only two (admittedly longer) sentences describing his experience, and then with the third and final sentence, abruptly undermines it. Although the cedar-apples are abundant, they are short lived. I think that this turn from discovery to pessimism may be telling regarding Whitman's personal view of the world at this stage of his life. This entry comes after many about the Civil War, hospital conditions, and most importantly the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. With this entry, Whitman seems to be saying that hope, and life, are much too fleeting. It is an interesting interpretation to consider the cedar-apples representative of young soldiers- initially abundant and new, but as they are plucked from their "bush", or home, they crumble and fade, and are not able to survive (literally) in the face of war.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Whitman's Poetic Peers

When reading works by Whitman's Contemporaries, such as Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith" and Smith's "An Incident" the first similarity that comes to mind is the existence and importance of nature in each of the works. In "The Village Blacksmith," the poem begins with a natural setting; the smithy is "under a spreading chestnut tree" (line 1). Longfellow's placement of the man's workplace under a tree is important because it serves to define his character for the reader from the onset of the work. The blacksmith is later described as "mighty" (3) and his sweat is "honest" (9). Ultimately, the reader gets the sense that the blacksmith is like the chestnut tree his smithy stands under. Through this depiction, Longfellow is creating then reinforcing the man's character and, by extension, the way he lives his life. The blacksmith is a man who works with his hands; he works for himself and "looks the whole world in the face/for he owes not any man" (11-12). Although this man does not loaf in nature as Whitman does, his existence seems to be the type Whitman would approve of.

Elizabeth Oakes Smith's "An Incident" follows along on the same vein; she incorporates the natural world in almost every line of her work. She says, "The ocean lay before me, tinged with beams/that lingering draped over the west a wavering stir;/ and at my feet down fell a worn gray quill" (4-6). Here, Smith's speaker is having a direct experience with nature (a very "Whitmanian" theme) in that the eagle drops its feather at her feet. She uses her experience with the ocean and the eagle to draw conclusions about her experience with the world.