Modernist American poetry has two parents, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, but it’s been awhile since we’ve presented any Whitman here. Dickinson is a subversive Modernist, ironically skewing the expected tropes. Whitman on the other hand is the provocateur, the poet who is proud to say right out front everything he wishes to change.
As Whitman prepared his 1860 edition of his evolving Leaves of Grass, he was about to cross a Rubicon of a sort. He had decided that erotic material needed to be added to his great collection. Since he wished to be all-inclusive and unabashed, starting with himself, that material would vary, but it would include expressions of male homosexual longing and relationships.
Walt Whitman as caricatured in 1860 in Harper’s Weekly
Once again, my knowledge of the historical context here is not extensive, but some brief reading this weekend indicates that to the mid-19th century American audience, the homosexual elements of what Whitman was to publish was little or no more disturbing than the erotic element generally. For a man who was already wishing to revolutionize English poetry with his free-verse and universalist message including what would surely be considered shockingly fleshy writing about desire, longing, and connection was certain to complicate his goals for a wide audience. His leading ally within American High Culture, the Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, counselled him to not include, or to greatly tone down that material.
Whitman didn’t take that council. The 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass included a section, Calamus, that was full of love and desire between men. Emerson was right, that would complicate Whitman’s task of revolutionizing American poetry.
When Transcendentalist Thomas Wentworth Higginson* asked Emily Dickinson if she had read Whitman shortly thereafter, Dickinson replied: “You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book but was told that he was disgraceful.” If one is of a speculative mind, one can imagine Emily Dickinson getting a plain brown wrapper delivery of Leaves of Grass that she would never acknowledge.
This Monday is Veteran’s Day/Remembrance Day, and as he prepared the Calamus poems Whitman was not a veteran or a survivor with war memories, as the American Civil War that would add another tremendous shaping force on his poetry was still more than a year off. Still he would write this moving comparison that I present today.
Today’s poem as it appeared in the 1860 edition of “Leaves of Grass.”
“When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame” is a comparison of two things: fame and envy. Perhaps the fame part will strike you first, along with the implications of worth and value. The fame in the title most often comes to prominent men: victorious generals, Presidents who bask in their election and men who put their names on large buildings. The U.S. Presidents that Whitman would have had in mind then were bumbling ineffectual men, totally incapable of coming to grips with the immense and deadly crisis they were careening toward, but famous none the less.** What generals would he have in mind? Napoleon or his adversaries perhaps, men who could shuffle the borders and crowned heads back and forth in tides.
And for comparison, Whitman sets out “the brotherhood of lovers.” Does he mean men who love men? As this is part of the homoerotic Calamus poems section I think we need to accept that is significantly so. He goes on to praise the lovers who are steadfast in their love as aging and fate and even the numbing of time is arrayed against them.
This task of enduring love is not something unique to same-sex lovers, and I suspect that Whitman, the universalist, recognizes that too. But in his particular, he’s saying that unfaltering love which would not then be socially acknowledged is all the more extraordinary, though unknown compared to the war-heroes and political potentates.
Did Whitman, and I suppose myself in my choice to present this poem at this time, just dis veterans? That objection would assume that the two groups are mutually exclusive, at odds. That isn’t so. And if Whitman was here to answer he’d point out he spoke of Generals, Presidents, and rich men, not the soldiers he later comforted and whose wounds he dressed in the upcoming war.
And of course, in the U. S. today it’s Veterans Day, set aside for those who after their service may well have continued as or became those ardent lovers whatever their sexual orientation. We honor them for their service in the one regard, Whitman asks that we consider the second as well.
What of the other comparison, the one you may not have noticed, the one concerning envy? Whitman has chosen not to weigh his comparison between the two sets of roles only by their levels of objective fame, but specifically in the example of his own state of envy. He says he doesn’t envy those powerful and rich men—but of the “long and long” lovers, there he says he is bitterly envious.
Let me suppose Whitman was sincerely speaking here (he has almost no other mode in his poetry than sincerity). But there is an element in Leaves of Grass where the poet speaking—“Walt Whitman” as the character in his great collection of poems—is meant to be an example, as his verse is an example, of an imperfect thing striving to find a different, better path to something new and not fully known. Whitman, like the best of Modernist art, like various America, like many veterans, ardent as a lover is running faithfully and with a heart open toward an affectionate and unknown future.
Once more I marshal the ranks of my marcato orchestral instruments for “When I Peruse the Conquer’d Fame” into another “punk orchestral” piece. Harmonically, I’m working a three-chord trick here, just as if the composer/conductor’s podium was stocked with Ramones. Other than the use of a rock’n’roll drum set, the other unusual textures are mixed subtly into the low-end where there’s a contrabassoon line and Fender electric piano bass (ala Ray Manzarek). You can hear it with the player below.
*It’s possible that a canny Dickinson might have been telling Higginson what Higginson would want to hear, since Higginson, though au fait with political and social radicalism, was also of the opinion that Whitman was disgusting.
**Coincidentally, the U. S. President when the Calamus poems including edition of Leaves of Grass was published was James Buchanan, who may have been gay himself. Though Donald Trump has already selected Andrew Jackson as his favorite President, Buchanan may also prove to be indispensable to his legacy in that Buchanan has long been the consensus choice among historians as the worst-ever President of the United States.