Monday, December 2, 2013

Walt Whitman on Longfellow, Translation, and the American Poetic

America's specific strain of commercialism tends to turn human figures into cartoons, which in turn become stock characters in advertising schemes. An imprisoned bishop, who once rescued young women from sexual slavery by anonymous charity, is now remembered as an employee of Macy's: a fat, jolly elf dispensing toys for our insatiable appetites. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hock cars each February. So long as they wear a powdered wig and stove pipe hat, we recognize them: all of our heroes become declawed, domesticated servants of the advertising agencies, eventually. Death is no deliverer from exploitation: Fred Astaire sold vacuum cleaners posthumously, Marilyn Monroe is the newest spokesmodel for Chanel. (Had Henry VIII been an American president, we'd likely see a cartoon King Hal selling women's hats.)

Poets, never high on any marketing executive's list, are nevertheless subject to a similar type of caricature--it is a bad national habit. Emily Dickinson is turned into a perpetually pouty teenager: her nuclear experiments and explosive results casually dismissed. Robert Frost's portrait hangs in our minds: the famous one never done by Norman Rockwell, with all of his dark hardness softened by the light bulb in the room. And Walt Whitman, perhaps the worst treated of all, has long become a flower child--naively open-armed, accepting of everything and anything, favored child of the universe wallowing in sensuality; amoral, materialistic, wholly non-judgmental and breaker of all ethical codes: the prophet and propagandist of selfishness.

Whitman's verse and his poetic theory are often popularly thought to be expressions of that very caricature, and while it would take several volumes to explain why this represents a shallow understanding of only selected parts of his poetic output, a quicker way to get a grasp of his poetic thought is to read his prose.

Because his verse was so revolutionary, we can make the mistake of thinking Whitman was, himself, a revolutionary: that he was oppositional in mindset towards other poets, aiming at overthrowing them all. Whitman disturbing the tea party with angry yawps, tearing down ivy covered walls, and wrecking the formal poems of the "Fireside Poets" with his surging waves might be the way we experience his verse, especially as a first impression in context, but his own writings suggest a more circumspect assessment.


Whitman and Longfellow are forever linked by a year which ought to be remembered by all American poets: 1855. This was the year that saw the publication of The Song of Hiawatha, which became a smash-hit for Longfellow, in stark contrast to the commercial struggles of Whitman, whose even more monumental Leaves of Grass also saw its first publication that year. Add to this the historical facts that Emily Dickinson moved back to the Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she would soon begin the most extraordinary phase of her career, and James Russell Lowell delivered his essay on "The Function of the Poet", and 1855 becomes almost as important a year (poetically) as nearly any (politically) in the nation's history.

At first glance, especially now, we tend to see nothing but contrast between Longfellow, the privileged New England academic, and Whitman, the entrepreneurial Long Islander. The similarities of their artistic goals, and how they complemented each other, can be missed. But there is a sense in which they necessarily explain each other, and certainly serve to clarify the other's achievement. Fortunately, we have Whitman's reflections on the subject to guide us. 

On April 3, 1882, upon hearing the news of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's death a week earlier, Walt Whitman wrote :

[Longfellow] is certainly the sort of bard and counteractant most needed for our materialistic, self-assertive, money-worshipping, Anglo-Saxon races, and especially for the present age in America--an age tyrannically regulated with reference to the manufacturer, the merchant, the financier, the politician and the day workman--for whom and among whom he comes as the poet of melody, courtesy, deference--poet of the mellow twilight of the past in Italy, Germany, Spain, and in Northern Europe--poet of all sympathetic gentleness--and universal poet of women and young people. I should have to think long if I were ask'd to name the man who has done more, and in more valuable directions, for America.

Here we have not only a valuable moment of praise for Longfellow's verse, but an assault on what Whitman felt to be the problems of America--"materialistic, self-assertive, money-worshipping" and commerce-centric. The ascendant popular caricature of Whitman suggests he was the ultimate in self-assertion: that "Song of Myself" was a celebration of it. While it's beyond the scope of this brief essay to detail why this is a misreading of Whitman, this quote alone would encourage readers to re-read and re-assess his poetic goals. His insistence on spiritual values over materialism would find him running afoul of both left and right in our current political climate--linking his thought to Lowell's as well (which will be discussed in a later post). The American Poetic is thus set up, from its foundational period, as something distinctly differing from commercial and economic concerns for the nation.

He goes on in his praise of Longfellow: 

I doubt if there ever was before such a fine intuitive judge and selecter of poems. His translations of many German and Scandinavian pieces are said to be better than the vernaculars.

[...]

To the ungracious complaint-charge of his want of racy nativity and special originality, I shall only say that America and the world may well be reverently thankful--can never be thankful enough--for any such singing bird vouchsafed out of the centuries, without asking that the notes be different from those other songsters; adding what I have heard Longfellow himself say, that ere the New World can be worthily original, and announce herself and her own heroes, she must be well saturated with the originality of others, and respectfully consider the heroes that lived before Agamemnon.

Such praise regarding the translation of European poetry was not a passing emotion in Whitman: he believed translation was essential to the emerging American Poetic, as evidenced by his thoughts on the relation of American literature to English literature:

I strongly recommend all the young men and young women of the United States to whom it may be eligible, to overhaul the well-freighted fleets, the literatures of Italy, Spain, France, Germany, so full of those elements of freedom, self-possession, gay-heartedness, subtlety, dilation, needed in preparations for the future of the States. I only wish we could have really good translations.

"Freedom" here means something obviously different from political freedom. Despite his admiration for democracy and the British contribution to its evolution, he felt it a necessity for America to break free of the negative emotional and spiritual influences, as he saw them, of English literature (and here is Whitman the revolutionary--not directed at his fellow American poets in terms of mere style, but at the spiritual substance of English Literature):

With the exception of Shakspere, there is no first-class genius in [English] literature--which, with a truly vast amount of value, and of artificial beauty, (largely from the classics,) is almost always material, sensual, not spiritual--almost always congests, makes plethoric, not frees, expands, dilates--is cold, anti-democratic, loves to be sluggish and stately, and shows much of the characteristic of vulgar persons, the dread of saying or doing something not at all improper in itself, but unconventional, and that may be laugh'd at. In its best, the somber pervades it; it is moody, melancholy, and, to give it its due, expresses, in characters and plots, those qualities, in an unrival'd manner. Yet not as the black thunder-storms, and great normal, crashing passions, of the Greek dramatists--clearing the air, refreshing afterward, bracing with power; but as in Hamlet, moping, sick, uncertain, and leaving ever after a secret taste for the blues, the morbid fascination, the luxury of woe...

Whitman, therefore, while taking his poetic principles much farther in technical, emotional, and spiritual senses, understood and argued for the importance of Longfellow's work. The Song of Hiawatha and Leaves of Grass are forever linked by more than their births in 1855. Their poetic kinship; the need for the American Poetic to flow, epically, from any and all sources poetically, without concern for commercialism or materialistic concerns, was more unifying than their chronological proximity. Through appreciation of Longfellow, we can find the real Whitman; and if we listen to Whitman, we will not lose the importance of Longfellow.

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