13/9/13

FROM THE "INSOLENT UNKNOWN": A MESSAGE OF HOPE

Here's another essay from my 'memory trunk'. This time on The Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman, my admired American poet:

FROM “THE INSOLENT UNKNOWN”: A MESSAGE OF HOPE

It is now well over one hundred years since the death in Camden, N.J., on March 26, 1892, of Walt Whitman, one of the greatest poets of all times, “the prophet of democracy”, as he has been rightly called, but a few days ago I re-read his Leaves of Grass, and I must confess that I liked it, especially ‘The Song of Myself’, even better than the first time, when I read it for an essay on the pioneers of a new poetry at the University. For, rather than the serene, more mature, “Good Gray Poet” of his forties and onwards, deeply marked by the Civil War that broke out in 1861 and the assassination of Lincoln, democracy’s “first great martyr chief”, in 1865, I have always admired the bohemian of his younger days, the “American bard” who proclaimed himself “one of the roughs”, “the insolent unknown” who taught in his new, transcendent, vigorous style, the beauty of Nature, the human body – “the body electric” – and sex. It is this “turbulent, fleshly, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding” Whitman whose Leaves of Grass saw the light in 1855.
No publisher’s name, no author’s name appeared on the first edition of this masterpiece, but the cover had a portrait of Walt Whitman, “broad shoulders, rouge fleshed, Bacchus-browed, bearded like a satyr”, that gives no doubt a fit image of this “poet of the body”, who believed in the “flesh and the appetites” and found “the scent of his armpits aroma finer than prayer”, this loafer who, “fully aware of his respiration and inspiration, the beating of his heart, the passing of blood and air through his lungs”, would happily run to “the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked, mad for it to be in contact with him.”
But Whitman is also the “poet of the Soul”, the big solitary who spent the last years of his life in Camden, near the river ferries he loved, and who was never happier than when he was alone with Nature: “Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt.../ Falling asleep on the gather’d leaves with my dog and gun by my side.” In fact, he loved Nature to the point of identifying himself with its plants and its animals: “The litter of the grunting sow as they tug at her teats/ The brood of the turkey-hen and she with her half-spread wings/ I see in them and myself the same old law.”
But he could also love man, any man, whatever his hue, his caste or his religion, the “common man” who, in his own words, his verse was addressed to. A “farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker, prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest”, all in one was he. To “the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west”, he went. “The runaway slave came to his house and stopt outside”, knowing perhaps that there lived one who “spoke the pass-word primeval”, who  “gave the sign of real democracy”, one through whom “many long dumb voices, voices of the interminable generations of prisoners and slaves, voices of the diseas’d and despairing and of thieves and dwarfs, were all clarified and transfigur’d.” He did not shun anybody, not even the common prostitute. To her he would say: “Be composed – be at ease with me – I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature, and not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”
He was not a man to frequent church and still I can hardly conceive a more religious man. He “heard and beheld God in every object, yet understood God not in the least”, as he humbly confessed. As to Death, he did not fear her at all, not in vain had he “died himself ten thousand times before”. And so, I’m sure that when she finally came, he was prepared and could cry in her face: “And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me/And as to you Corpse, I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me, /And as to you Life, I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths.” And before he passed away, he had a minute to confide to us: “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/ If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.../ Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/ Missing me one place, search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”


Now that spring is here again, it seems to me I can perceive in the air a message of hope from this “insolent unknown”, this American friend of many years ago, inviting us to rejoice with him in our hearts, for “the smallest sprout shows there is really no death.”

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