“Starting From Paumanok”
Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer
than water ebbs and flows.
I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the most spiritual poems,
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and of immortality.
I will make a song for these States that no one State may under
any circumstances be subjected to another State,
And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by
night between all the States, and between any two of them,
And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of weapons with menacing points,
And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces;
And a song make I of the One form’d out of all,
The fang’d and glittering One whose head is over all,
Resolute warlike One including and over all,
(However high the head of any else that head is over all.)
I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
I will trail the whole geography of the globe and salute courteously every city large and small,
And employments! I will put in my poems that with you is heroism upon land and sea,
And I will report all heroism from an American point of view.
I will sing the song of companionship,
I will show what alone must finally compact these,
I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love, indicating it in me,
I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me,
I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
I will give them complete abandonment,
I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades?
Trying to make sense of the recent events in Washington yesterday, I turn to Whitman, that incomparable soul, who has the uncanny effect of sounding more than just relevant or timely. His words are not only relevant or timely, though they are that; he did serve as a nurse during the Civil War.
Whitman is timeless, and immanent, because he speaks directly to you. He has anticipated that you would find him here, in this predicament. It is this very premise that drove the entire work of his life. Because he lived through the Civil War, and understood the nature of it, he devoted his life to the purpose of throwing his voice into the future, to speak to us.
Of course plenty of people do this. Plenty of people write for posterity. But how many of them come to the same conclusions as Whitman, having lived through what he lived through?
Whitman worked in the infirmaries at Virginia and New York and DC. He was there in the battle of Fredericksburg. He tended to his own wounded brother. He had seen what we only imagine and fear now.
And yet here is his declaration of the soul persisting in love, of the soul bent on comity and the well-being of all. Even the perpetrators. He makes no distinction in his book. In fact the opposite. And that in spite of everything.
We have amassed a hundred hundred reasons to distrust and resent each other. We have endless proofs that we recite daily. We read them in the papers. We see them on the news. Each person, in his heart, builds up his case. Yesterday was just another example.
So how can one be conditioned, beyond all animal and rational sense, to regard the world with infinite mercy? Yet I read Whitman, and I am made to believe such a thing is possible.
2 thoughts on “Starting From Washington: Whitman and the Soul of America”
Yes, I believe it is possible to regard the world with infinite mercy, although it greatly helps to have distance from it. From far away one can feel wry amusement for a coup attempt by an ill educated narcissist but I am not so sure I would have felt the same had I been at the Capitol that day.
From afar I can feel pity for a man like Hitler or Stalin who were so twisted they put millions to cruel death.
I am not sue I could have felt pity from Buchenwald.
In general there is nothing I would like better to resign from the world. For preference I would live in the Culture – a post scarcity and infinitely wise society posited by Scottish writer Ian Banks.
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That’s very true. Distance does give one the advantage, the safety and security, to allow for compassion or pity, which might be necessarily absent in the moment.
Would it be worthwhile to be compassionate in the moment, or shortly after, when it might be seen as being crass, naive, or even harmful? Part of me wants to believe it would still be valuable, at whatever point one was living through, to have the capacity for mercy, even perhaps, in the most extreme case (I’m imagining something like being put to death and forgiving your enemies.)