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Personal Refections on Walt Whitman

PERSONAL REFLECTIONS ON WALT WHITMAN

 By John Peirce

 

"Behold, the sea itself".

Following the magnificent opening fanfare chord, this phrase was my first, knowing introduction to Walt Whitman.  It's a moment I'll never forget: I was one of a choir of perhaps 150 voices, singing Vaughan Williams' great Sea Symphony in London's Royal Albert Hall.  I had fairly recently joined the Choir (the London Philharmonic) and was caught up in the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of its founding.  We all gave those words all we'd got - of volume, yes, and of commitment too.

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Raph Vaughan Williams and Cat
The words of Vaughan Williams' first symphony are taken from Walt Whitman: not a straight quote of any one of his works but phrases and fragments chosen by the composer for his purposes from across Whitman's poetry.  This first phrase comes from Song of Myself: line 1085.

The composer began the work in 1903 (11 years after Whitman's death) as "Songs of the Sea" and he continued with the project over 6 years until its completion as a full-blown symphony - his first - in 1909.  This implies that he studied and knew well the poems of Whitman.  He would have resonated with them.  Though the son of a clergyman, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a self-declared agnostic, without formal religious affiliation.  On his mother's side (she being from the Wedgewood family of pottery fame) he was related to Charles Darwin.

Vaughan Williams' genius, true to his times, is as an observer of nature, of the world about him and of human affairs.  Here lies the basis of his deep spirituality.  Here lies his resonance with Walt Whitman to whose writings he had been introduced by Bertrand Russell when they were undergraduates together at Cambridge.

The Whitman words and ideas have quietly burned their way into my own consciousness ever since that concert.  While that opening summons about the sea made its first impression on me, these days I reflect on quieter, later passages - of the man communing with his soul; of the analogy of a sea voyage with the journey of life; of the merits of the journey itself, regardless of the arrival at its eventual end.

Another link between Whitman and Vaughan Williams is their experience of war.  The former volunteered in the American Civil War, comforting the wounded and dying, the latter did the same in the First World War, carrying the dead and the seriously wounded to the field hospitals in Northern France.  That experience was to influence both men deeply, their writing and their valuing of human life.

Latterly, into my reflections on all of this, came the invitation to attend (at the London bookshop "Gay's the Word") a reading by Michael Robertson to launch his book "Worshipping Walt".  This has greatly and rapidly expanded both my knowledge and my appreciation of Walt Whitman - though I still have a long way to go following this path!

Simultaneously - over the last couple of years - I have found myself renewing my long-time acquaintance and friendship with John Baker.  From him I have discovered so much more about Edward Carpenter.  How moving it was to share in a day's pilgrimage to Carpenter's house and graveside in Guildford!  Sitting in his one-time drawing room, almost parallel with an event captured in a contemporary photo, hearing readings from his writings; standing by his tomb-stone reading his own prepared death statement.

Did Edward Carpenter know Ralph Vaughan Williams?  Did they ever meet?  Did they know one another's work?  They appear so different.  The composer seems the epitome of an establishment Edwardian country gentleman, titled for his services to music, married and living in a fine house.  The writer had turned his back on a potentially distinguished career in academia to challenge the establishment, heralding so many of the ideas behind the reforms of the twentieth century.  Yet Carpenter's background was also one of privilege and wealth, which he could hardly shake off and Vaughan Williams presaged new and radical musical ideas for the new century which were often misunderstood.  They lived within a few miles of each other in Dorking and Guildford, respectively.

Their greatest link, perhaps, is their indebtedness to Walt Whitman: his writings, his insights, his aspirations and his prophecy for the future.  In short it is the insight into the human condition that links these three men.  It is the human that is the starting point for their spirituality and it is that human spirituality that informs their work: words and music.  Nor is our study of them some retrospective nostalgic trip: even today we have barely begun to cash the cheques that they have bequeathed to us.  We have still so much to learn from them, all three, to help us in our own critical times.

Which brings me to the shocking title of Michael Robertson's book: "Worshipping Walt".  Does this not appear sacrilegious?  Many would say that there is One to be worshipped: God alone.  And would Walt, who adopted such a simple, self-denying lifestyle, want to be worshipped?  The book shows, as I at least hadn't understood before, just what followers he had for his ideas, how the support of these followers enabled his work to proceed at a practical level, even how, without this provision his ideas might well not have been promoted.  But "worship"?....

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Walt Whitman Early 1870s
There can be no doubt that Walt Whitman - the man and his message - called forth a devotion in those around him that went beyond the quotidian meeting of practical needs.  Whether he wanted it or not, they became his disciples and were willing to offer their all: in some cases quite literally.  Opening his Introduction, Michael Robertson says: "In the last decades of his life Walt Whitman was surrounded by a large group of exceptionally generous people".  He then comes to his material in a series of chapters based around some of those people - and with those people some of Whitman's over-arching themes.  Many of them were fellow Americans but a notable band went across the Atlantic from England to sit at his feet.  They were among the first to bring Whitman's teachings back to Europe.  That they took root on both sides of the Atlantic so readily demonstrates how accurately his ideas struck the spirit of the age.  Hearing of the responses of those first disciples I realise that "worship" might not be too strong a word after all.

These first English disciples in turn influenced thinkers, writers, musicians and politicians of the early 20th century.  We have already seen how Bertrand Russell introduced Walt Whitman's work to Vaughan Williams and how the latter, through his parallel experience of field hospitals, found common cause in his hatred of war.  This is reflected both in his (wordless) Pastoral Symphony of 1921 depicting the devastated fields of Northern France and more especially in his 1936 Dona Nobis Pacem where again he quotes Walt Whitman directly, alongside words from the Mass and from The Bible.  How chillingly the words, born of the American Civil War, reinforced by the experience of World War 1, are used by Vaughan Williams to warn of the impending Second World War:

            "Beat! Beat! Drums! - Blow! Bugles! Blow!

            Through the windows - through the doors - burst like a ruthless force,

            Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,

            Into the school where the scholar is studying.

            Leave not the bridegroom quiet - no happiness must he have now with his bride".

                                                                                                                               (Drum Taps)

This music, these words, find a renewed resonance with our own times, as thousands of American and British troops are dying in Iran and in Afghanistan.  There is a new abhorrence of war a century-and-a-half later to which Walt Whitman still speaks.

While Whitman's insights were mediated to Vaughan Williams in a second generation, Edward Carpenter had a more immediate, first generation connection.  Michael Robertson devotes an extended chapter to him, John Addington Symonds and Oscar Wilde who between them corresponded with Whitman and visited him personally in America.

One thing which obviously and immediately links these three first generation English disciples is what we would now call their "sexual orientation".  Robertson takes the opportunity, in describing their links to Walt Whitman, to discuss this matter.  At the book launch (mentioned above) he took this discussion further and was questioned more closely about it. 

So, to the big question: was Walt Whitman gay?  The very posing of it is anachronistic.  There was no such thing in early to mid nineteenth century America as what we now know as a gay identity.  True, men had sex with men, as they always have done throughout history - but this was an incidental, occasional activity; it was a punishable crime in most western countries but did not represent any sort of sub-culture.  Homosexuality was only described medically and sociologically from the latter years of the century by the new, mostly German, sexologists.

Rather, Walt Whitman writes exceptionally directly and personally to his readers.  His very opening to Song of Myself sets the tone for this:

            "I celebrate myself,

            And what I assume you shall assume,

            For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you."

                                                                                    (Song of Myself: lines 1-3)

He ends in the same vein:

            "Listener up there!  Here you....what have you to confide to me?

            Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,

            Talk honestly, for no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer"

                                                                                   (Song of Myself: lines 1311-1313)

Here he pictures himself on the written page being looked down to by the reader above and he uses this vivid image to engage the reader in a direct dialogue.  With this immediacy with his readers established he proceeds to write very frankly:

            "I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;

             You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,

             And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my                                 

             barestript heart,

             And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet".

                                                                                   (Song of Myself: lines 76-81)

Such a passage is bound to stir today's readers according to their own sexual orientation - whether straight or gay, male or female.  Walt Whitman can speak to us today without distinction or discrimination: an example of his "democracy" (of which more later).

Further it is known that he was physical with a wide range of people.  He held the dying soldiers' hands, smoothed their brows and kissed their foreheads as they passed.  Or consider this passage:

            "The young mechanic is closest to me....he knows me pretty well,

            The woodman that takes his axe and jug shall take me with him all day,   ....

            My face rubs to the hunter's face when he lies down alone in his blanket".

                                                                                  (Song of Myself: lines 1252-1257)

and

            My left hand hooks you round the waist,

            My right hand points to landscapes....

            ....I will certainly kiss you with my goodbye kiss....

                                                                                 (Song of Myself: lines 1205 and 1224)

More, it is known that men shared his bed and that these probably included Edward Carpenter, who is claimed in correspondence as his lover.  So Whitman was able to be unashamedly intimate with men and to write frankly in these terms. He sees and describes men working together, facing hardship and suffering together, meeting one another's needs.  It was part of his observation of the world around him. 

Edward Carpenter takes up this and amplifies it in his strong views about the importance of the comradeship of men.  Many, particularly heterosexual men today would deny this aspect of their nature - and truth to tell many of today's occupations require men to work alone, separately and independently (from the farmer driving his tractor all day to the executive in his office with his computer). 

But in my view the need for male comradeship will out: it is one of our basic imperatives: men must act co-operatively together and we need physical contact with one another.  This can be seen on the sports-field, even in the street gangs of our towns: it can be observed in social settings and in men tackling practical tasks and projects together.

Carpenter carried all this further, working with friends and followers on his smallholding and living unostentatiously with his life partner George Merrill.  Nor was that relationship sexually exclusive: other men (particularly working-class men) came to share their life, home and bed.  Others visited or joined this group for shorter or longer times (could it yet be called a community?) - writers and thinkers of the time including the likes of E M Forster.  Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" was their study, their inspiration and their source book.

            "What made me cling to "Leaves of Grass" from the beginning was largely the poems which celebrate comradeship".

(From Carpenter's autobiography, quoted by Robertson in Worshipping Walt)

But how did these men describe their experience of themselves?  Whitman made an approach with his Calumus poems and the word "Uranian" was used.  Not all wanted to adopt the effeminate lifestyle of Oscar Wilde (though Wilde and Whitman had a mutual respect following their meetings in 1882, described by the Philadephia Press as "The Aesthetic Singer meets the Good Gray Poet").  The answer to the question was not to come until the latter half of the twentieth century with the decriminalising of consensual sexual acts between men and the emergence of a gay identity.

Now in the twenty-first century we have a thorough-going queer subculture, though I wonder whether Walt Whitman, Edward Carpenter, et.al. would recognise it as what they might have been aspiring to.  I believe that in such a setting Whitman can still speak prophetically to our own times on this matter too.

There is another area in which Whitman can be claimed as a man for all seasons, a prophet for the future.  Much of what he says in relation to men, he says also in relation to women.  The passage about the young mechanic quoted above is immediately followed by the following:

            "I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,

            And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,

            And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men".

                                                                                            (Song of Myself: lines 426-428)

and:

            "This is the female form,

            A divine nimbus exhales from it from head to foot....

            ....I am drawn by its breath as if I was no more than a helpless vapour....

            ....hair, bosom, hips, bend of legs....

            ....loveflesh swelling and deliciously aching...."

                                                                                         (I sing the Body Electric: lines 46-54)

and again:

            "The young mother and the old mother shall comprehend me,

            The girl and the wife rest the needle a moment

            And forget where they are,

            They and all would resume what I have told them".

                                                                                        (Song of Myself: lines 1258-1261)

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Anne Gilchrist
If he speaks intimately to men Whitman speaks intimately to women also.  His friendships with men often extended to their wives as well.  It is no surprise therefore that women corresponded with him - none more so than the Englishwoman Anne Gilchrist.  Obtaining no satisfactory answers to her letters, she sold up in England and moved with her children to America, hoping to become Whitman's wife.  She was clearly infatuated by him and took his words, written more generally, to be particularly addressed to herself.  By stages her passion turned to discipleship, which proved to be a support to him and his work. 

Whitman writes of the equal place of women with men: they are physically and sexually attractive and can as fully receive his teaching.  These ideas are reflected in Carpenter's more political application in England.  He spoke out for women's rights ahead of the women's suffrage movement and for the equality of women certainly before the advent of feminism.

Was Whitman, then, a heterosexual?  Again this is to ask an anachronistic question.  True, he never married but his view of the place of women is part of a wider expression of the equality of all people.  Here lies Whitman's democratic principle (referred to above). 

Our use of this word, "democratic", today refers largely to a form of government and none are more insistent in its use in this way than contemporary Americans.  Yet I take this to be a narrowing of what Whitman intended.

Modern western democracy concerns itself with a wide suffrage - all adult citizens of a country can vote for its government.  In practice however a system is operated by which a majority in each constituency win a seat and a majority of constituencies decides a ruling party.  This ruling party often achieves a minority of the total votes cast and sometimes the outcome has to be determined through recounts or even courts of law.  In this way the majority voters may have no representation in the final result.

The importance and uniqueness of each individual person is the basis of what Whitman means by democracy.  All and each are of equal value: a truth we have largely lost sight of today.

            "The President is up there in the White House for you

            It is not you who are here for him,

            The secretaries act in their bureaus for you

            Not you here for them.

            Laws, courts, the forming of states, the charters of cities

            The going and coming of commerce and mails are for you".

                                                                                         (A Song of Occupations: lines 83-85)

and:

            "A slave at auction!....

            ....Within there runs his blood...the same old blood...

            The same red running blood....

            ....This is not only one man

            He is the father of those who shall be fathers in their turn....

            ....How do you know who shall come from the offspring

            of his offspring through the centuries?

            Who might you find you have come from yourself

            If you could trace back through the centuries?"

                                                                                   (I Sing the Body Electric: lines 83-103)

[I read this passage at the time of the election of the first black president of the USA and am reminded of the popular English TV series "Who do you think you are?"]

Other aspects of what Whitman might have meant by democratic principles are now taken up by what we call equality of opportunity.  Again, I think we have a rather thinner view of this than Whitman might have intended.  While in theory no one can be debarred from employment or service delivery on account of their skin colour, age, disability, gender, sexual orientation etc. (the list gets ever longer in our clumsy attempts to define our practice), our society and its operation is still hierarchical: achievement is honoured disproportionately and the gaps between the haves and have-nots get ever wider.

            "Why what have you thought of yourself?

            Is it you then that you thought yourself less?

            Is it you that thought the President greater than you?....

            ....Because you are greasy or pimpled....

            ...or a thief or diseased or rheumatic, or a prostitute...

            ....do you give in that you are any less immortal?

                                                          (A Song for Occupations: lines 23-29, but see the whole of section 2)

            "This is the city....and I am one of the citizens;

            Whatever interests the rest interests me....

              politics, churches, newspapers, schools....

              ....the weakest and shallowest is deathless with me,

             What I do and say the same waits for them....

                                                                      (Song of Myself: lines1070-1078)

I find these words challenging to the inadequacy of our own understandings of equality between people.  Our society is riddled with inequality: privilege and need. My fear is that within the struggles facing us for increasingly scarce resources, the gaps will only become more polarised and our mechanisms for government will become less adequate to the task.  Whitman would have us find our common cause with one another, our mutual equality based in our respect for one another. 

Again Carpenter took up these aspirations and writings: they are the basis both of his own simple life-style and of his basic socialist principles.

            "Not a youngster is taken for larceny,

            But I go too and am tried and sentenced.

            Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp,

            But I also lie at the last gasp".

                                                         (Song of Myself: lines 947-950)

It surprised me to think that Whitman must have witnessed a slave auction to have written as I quote him above.  Further, he writes elsewhere of sheltering a runaway slave.  He sees himself in those slaves - as he sees himself in so many other human situations.  Do we see ourselves in others who differ from us?  Our mass media, politicians, even our language tend to separate us from one another.  The shock-horror headlines encourage us to consider ourselves superior, far removed from the perverts and criminals paraded before us.  We hide ourselves from our own shortcomings and vulnerabilities, our illnesses, aging and death.

Brought up in the inter-war years in white Tory-voting, middle class England, university educated and professionally qualified - I was little short of surprised by the end of the 1980s, to find how radical I had become.  On reflection I realise this was a result of my life experience and self-knowledge.  It was as if I was ripe to sing those words of Walt Whitman in the mid nineties - and "sing" is just about the right description of how I felt about finding them.

            "Behold the sea itself".

JOHN PEIRCE