Chapter 12 of Studies in Classic American Literature
But what of Walt Whitman?
The ‘good grey poet’.
Was he a ghost, with all his physicality?
The good grey poet.
Post-mortem effects. Ghosts.
A certain ghoulish insistency. A certain horrible pottage of human parts. A certain stridency and portentousness. A luridness about his beatitudes.
DEMOCRACY! THESE STATES! EIDOLONS! LOVERS, ENDLESS LOVERS!
I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.
Do you believe me, when I say post-mortem effects?
When the Pequod went down, she left many a rank and dirty steamboat still fussing in the seas. The Pequod sinks with all her souls, but their bodies rise again to man innumerable tramp steamers, and ocean-crossing liners. Corpses.
What we mean is that people may go on, keep on, and rush on, without souls. They have their ego and their will, that is enough to keep them going.
So that you see, the sinking of the Pequod was only a metaphysical tragedy after all. The world goes on just the same. The ship of the soul is sunk. But the machine-manipulating body works just the same: digests, chews gum, admires Botticelli and aches with amorous love.
I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.
What do you make of that? I AM HE THAT ACHES. First generalization. First uncomfortable universalization. WITH AMOROUS LOVE! Oh, God! Better a bellyache. A bellyache is at least specific. But the ACHE OF AMOROUS LOVE!
Think of having that under your skin. All that!
I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.
Walter, leave off. You are not HE. You are just a limited Walter. And your ache doesn’t include all Amorous Love, by any means. If you ache you only ache with a small bit of amorous love, and there’s so much more stays outside the cover of your ache, that you might be a bit milder about it.
I AM HE THAT ACHES WITH AMOROUS LOVE.
CHUFF! CHUFF! CHUFF!
Reminds one of a steam-engine. A locomotive. They’re the only things that seem to me to ache with amorous love. All that steam inside them. Forty million foot-pounds pressure. The ache of AMOROUS LOVE. Steam-pressure. CHUFF!
An ordinary man aches with love for Belinda, or his Native Land, or the Ocean, or the Stars, or the Oversoul: if he feels that an ache is in the fashion.
It takes a steam-engine to ache with AMOROUS LOVE. All of it.
Walt was really too superhuman. The danger of the superman is that he is mechanical.
They talk of his ‘splendid animality’. Well, he’d got it on the brain, if that’s the place for animality.
I am he that aches with amorous love:
Does the earth gravitate, does not all matter, aching, attract all matter?
So the body of me to all I meet or know.
What can be more mechanical? The difference between life and matter is that life, living things, living creatures, have the instinct of turning right away from some matter, and of blissfully ignoring the bulk of most matter, and of turning towards only some certain bits of specially selected matter. As for living creatures all helplessly hurtling together into one great snowball, why, most very living creatures spend the greater part of their time getting out of the sight, smell or sound of the rest of living creatures. Even bees only cluster on their own queen. And that is sickening enough. Fancy all white humanity clustering on one another like a lump of bees.
No, Walt, you give yourself away. Matter does gravitate helplessly. But men are tricky-tricksy, and they shy all sorts of ways.
Matter gravitates because it is helpless and mechanical.
And if you gravitate the same, if the body of you gravitates to all you meet or know, why, something must have gone seriously wrong with you. You must have broken your mainspring.
You must have fallen also into mechanization.
Your Moby Dick must be really dead. That lonely phallic monster of the individual you. Dead mentalized.
I only know that my body doesn’t by any means gravitate to all I meet or know, I find I can shake hands with a few people. But most I wouldn’t touch with a long prop.
Your mainspring is broken, Walt Whitman. The mainspring of your own individuality. And so you run down with a great whirr, merging with everything.
You have killed your isolate Moby Dick. You have mentalized your deep sensual body, and that’s the death of it.
I am everything and everything is me and so we’re all One in One Identity, like the Mundane Egg, which has been addled quite a while.
‘Whoever you are, to endless announcements-‘
‘And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.’
Do you? Well then, it just shows you haven’t got any self. It’s a mush, not a woven thing. A hotch-potch, not a tissue. Your self.
Oh, Walter, Walter, what have you done with it? What have you done with yourself? With your own individual self? For it sounds as if it had all leaked out of you, leaked into the universe.
Post-mortem effects. The individuality had leaked out of him.
No, no, don’t lay this down to poetry. These are post- mortem effects. And Walt’s great poems are really huge fat tomb-plants, great rank graveyard growths.
All that false exuberance. All those lists of things boiled in one pudding-cloth! No, no!
I don’t want all those things inside me, thank you.
‘I reject nothing,’ says Walt.
If that is so, one might be a pipe open at both ends, so everything runs through.
‘I embrace ALL,’ says Whitman. ‘I weave all things into myself.’
Do you really! There can’t be much left of you when you’ve done. When you’ve cooked the awful pudding of One Identity.
‘And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral dressed in his own shroud.’
Take off your hat then, my funeral procession of one is passing.
This awful Whitman. This post-mortem poet. This poet with the private soul leaking out of him all the time. All his privacy leaking out in a sort of dribble, oozing into the universe.
Walt becomes in his own person the whole world, the whole universe, the whole eternity of time, as far as his rather sketchy knowledge of history will carry him, that is. Because to be a thing he had to know it. In order to assume the identity of a thing he had to know that thing. He was not able to assume one identity with Charlie Chaplin, for example, because Walt didn’t know Charlie. What a pityl He’d have done poems, paces and what not, Chants, Songs of Cinematernity.
‘Oh, Charlie, my Charlie, another film is done-
As soon as Walt knew a thing, he assumed a One Identity with it. If he knew that an Eskimo sat in a kyak, immediately there was Walt being little and yellow and greasy, sitting in a kyak.
Now will you tell me exactly what a kyak is?
Who is he that demands petty definition? Let him behold me sitting in a kyak.
I behold no such thing. I behold a rather fat old man full of a rather senile, self-conscious sensuosity.
DEMOCRACY. EN MASSE. ONE IDENTITY.
The universe is short, adds up to ONE.
Which is Walt.
His poems Democracy, En Masse, One Identity, they are long sums in additions and multiplication, of which the answer is invariably M Y S E L F.
He reaches the state of ALLNESS.
And what then? It’s all empty. Just an empty Allness. An addled egg.
Walt wasn’t an Eskimo. A little, yellow, sly, cunning, greasy little Eskimo. And when Walt blandly assumed Allness, including Eskimoness, unto himself, he was just sucking the wind out of a blown egg-shell, no more. Eskimos are not minor little Walts. They are something that I am not, I know that. Outside the egg of my Allness chuckles the greasy little Eskimo. Outside the egg of Whitman’s Allness too.
But Walt wouldn’t have it. He was everything and everything was in him. He drove an automobile with a very fierce headlight, along the track of a fixed idea, through the darkness of this world. And he saw everything that way. Just as a motorist does in the night.
I, who happen to be asleep under the bushes in the dark, hoping a snake won’t crawl into my neck; I, seeing Walt go by in his great fierce poetic machine, think to myself: What a funny world that fellow sees!
ONE DIRECTION! toots Walt in the car, whizzing along it.
Whereas there are myriads of ways in the dark, not to mention trackless wildernesses, as anyone will know who cares to come off the road – even the Open Road.
ONE DIRECTION! whoops America, and sets off also in an automobile.
ALLNESS! shrieks Walt at a cross-road, going whizz over an unwary Red Indian.
ONE IDENTITY! chants democratic En Masse, pelting behind in motor-cars, oblivious of the corpses under the wheels.
God save me, I feel like creeping down a rabbit-hole, to get away from all these automobiles rushing down the ONE IDENTITY track to the goal of ALLNESS.
‘Athletic mothers of these States -‘ Muscles and wombs. They needn’t have had faces at all.
As I see myself reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist, One with inexpressible completeness, sanity, beauty,
See the bent head, and arms folded over the breast, the Female I see.
Everything was female to him: even himself. Nature just one great function.
This is the nucleus – after the child is born of woman, man is born of woman,
This is the bath of birth, the merge of small and large, and the outlet again –
‘The Female I see -‘
If I’d been one of his women, I’d have given him Female, with a flea in his ear.
Always wanting to merge himself into the womb of some- thing or other.
‘The Female I see -‘
Anything, so long as he could merge himself.
Just a horror. A sort of white flux.
He found, as all men find, that you can’t really merge in a woman, though you may go a long way. You can’t manage the last bit. So you have to give it up, and try elsewhere if you insist on merging.
In Calamus he changes his tune. He doesn’t shout and thump and exult any more. He begins to hesitate, reluctant, wistful.
The strange calamus has its pink-tinged root by the pond, and it sends up its leaves of comradeship, comrades from one root, without the intervention of woman, the female.
So he sings of the mystery of manly love, the love of comrades. Over and over he says the same thing: the new world will be built on the love of comrades, the new great dynamic of life will be manly love. Out of this manly love will come the inspiration for the future.
Will it though? Will it?
Comradeship! Comrades! This is to be the new Democracy of Comrades. This is the new cohering principle in the world: Comradeship.
Is it? Are you sure?
It is the cohering principle of true soldiery, we are told in Drum Taps. It is the cohering principle in the new unison for creative activity. And it is extreme and alone, touching the confines of death. Something terrible to bear, terrible to be responsible for. Even Walt Whitman felt it. The soul’s last and most poignant responsibility, the responsibility of comradeship, of manly love.
Yet you are beautiful to me, you faint-tinged roots, you make me think of death.
Death is beautiful from you (what indeed is finally beautiful except death and love?)
I think it is not for life I am chanting here my chant of lovers, I think it must be for death,
For how calm, how solemn it grows to ascend to the atmosphere of lovers,
Death or life, I am then indifferent, my soul declines to prefer
(I am not sure but the high soul of lovers welcomes death most)
Indeed, O death, I think now these leaves mean precisely the same as you mean–
This is strange, from the exultant Walt.
Death is now his chant! Death!
Merging! And Death! Which is the final merge.
The great merge into the womb. Woman.
And after that, the merge of comrades: man-for-man love.
And almost immediately with this, death, the final merge of death.
There you have the progression of merging. For the great mergers, woman at last becomes inadequate. For those who love to extremes. Woman is inadequate for the last merging. So the next step is the merging of man-for-man love. And this is on the brink of death. It slides over into death.
David and Jonathan. And the death of Jonathan.
It always slides into death.
The love of comrades.
So that if the new Democracy is to be based on the love of comrades, it will be based on death too. It will slip so soon into death.
The last merging. The last Democracy. The last love. The love of comrades.
Fatality. And fatality.
Whitman would not have been the great poet he is if he had not taken the last steps and looked over into death. Death, the last merging, that was the goal of his manhood.
To the mergers, there remains the brief love of comrades, and then Death.
Whereto answering, the sea
Delaying not, hurrying not
Whispered me through the night, very plainly before daybreak,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death.
And again death, death, death, death.
Hissing melodions, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging neat as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death-
Whitman is a very great poet, of the end of life. A very great post-mortem poet, of the transitions of the soul as it loses its integrity. The poet of the soul’s last shout and shriek, on the confines of death. Apres moi le deluge.
But we have all got to die, and disintegrate.
We have got to die in life, too, and disintegrate while we live.
But even then the goal is not death.
Something else will come.
Only we know this much: Death is not the goal. And Love, and merging, are now only part of the death process. Comradeship – part of the death-process. Democracy – part of the death-process. The new Democracy – the brink of death One Identity – death itself.
We have died, and we are still disintegrating.
But IT IS FINISHED.
Whitman, the great poet, has meant so much to me. Whitman, the one man breaking a way ahead. Whitman, the one pioneer. And only Whitman. No English pioneers, no French. No European pioneer-poets. In Europe the would-be pioneers are mere innovators. The same in America. Ahead of Whitman, nothing. Ahead of all poets, pioneering into the wilderness of unopened life, Whitman. Beyond him, none. His wide, strange camp at the end of the great high-road. And lots of new little poets camping on Whitman’s camping ground now. But none going really beyond. Because Whitman’s camp is at the end of the road, and on the edge of a great precipice. Over the precipice, blue distances, and the blue hollow of the future. But there is no way down. It is a dead end.
Pisagh. Pisgah sights. And Death. Whitman like a strange, modern, American Moses. Fearfully mistaken. And yet the great leader.
The essential function of art is moral. Not aesthetic, not decorative, not pastime and recreation. But moral. The essential function of art is moral.
But a passionate, implicit morality, not didactic. A morality which changes the blood, rather than the mind. Changes the blood first. The mind follows later, in the wake.
Now Whitman was a great moralist. He was a great leader. He was a great changer of the blood in the veins of men.
Surely it is especially true of American art, that it is all essentially moral. Hawthorne, Poe, Longfellow, Emerson, Melville: it is the moral issue which engages them. They all feel uneasy about the old morality. Sensuously, passionally, they all attack the old morality. But they know nothing better, mentally. Therefore they give tight mental allegiance to a morality which all their passion goes to destroy. Hence the duplicity which is the fatal flaw in them, most fatal in the most perfect American work of art, The Scarlet Letter. Tight mental allegiance given to a morality which the passional self repudiates.
Whitman was the first to break the mental allegiance. He was the first to smash the old moral conception that the soul of man is something ‘superior’ and ‘above’ the flesh. Even Emerson still maintained this tiresome ‘superiority’ of the soul. Even Melville could not get over it. Whitman was the first heroic seer to seize the soul by the scruff of her neck and plant her down among the potsherds.
‘There!’ he said to the soul. ‘Stay there!’
Stay there. Stay in the flesh. Stay in the limbs and lips and in the belly. Stay in the breast and womb. Stay there, Oh, Soul, where you belong.
Stay in the dark limbs of negroes. Stay in the body of the prostitute. Stay in the sick flesh of the syphilitic. Stay in the marsh where the calamus grows. Stay there, Soul, where you belong.
The Open Road. The great home of the Soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not ‘above’. Not even ‘within’. The soul is neither ‘above’ nor ‘within’. It is a wayfarer down the open road.
Not by meditating. Not by fasting. Not by exploring heaven after heaven, inwardly, in the manner of the great mystics. Not by exaltation. Not by ecstasy. Not by any of these ways does the soul come into her own.
Only by taking the open road.
Not through charity. Not through sacrifice. Not even through love. Not through good works. Not through these does the soul accomplish herself.
Only through the journey down the open road.
The journey itself, down the open road. Exposed to full contact. On two slow feet. Meeting whatever comes down the open road. In company with those that drift in the same measure along the same way. Towards no goal. Always the open road.
Having no known direction even. Only the soul remaining true to herself in her going.
Meeting all the other wayfarers along the road. And how? How meet them, and how pass? With sympathy, says Whitman. Sympathy. He does not say love. He says sympathy. Feeling with. Feel with them as they feel with themselves. Catching the vibration of their soul and flesh as we pass.
It is a new great doctrine. A doctrine of life. A new great morality. A morality of actual living, not of salvation. Europe has never got beyond the morality of salvation. America to this day is deathly sick with saviourism. But Whitman, the greatest and the first and the only American teacher, was no Saviour. His morality was no morality of salvation. His was a morality of the soul living her life, not saving herself. Accepting the contact with other souls along the open way, as they lived their lives. Never trying to save them. As lief try to arrest them and throw them in gaol. The soul living her life along the incarnate mystery of the open road.
This was Whitman. And the true rhythm of the American continent speaking out in him. He is the first white aboriginal.
‘In my Father’s house are many mansions.’
‘No,’ said Whitman. ‘Keep out of mansions. A mansion may be heaven on earth, but you might as well be dead. Strictly avoid mansions. The soul is herself when she is going on foot down the open road.’
It is the American heroic message. The soul is not to pile up defences round herself. She is not to withdraw and seek her heavens inwardly, in mystical ecstasies. She is not to cry to some God beyond, for salvation. She is to go down the open road, as the road opens, into the unknown, keeping company with those whose soul draws them near to her, accomplishing nothing save the journey, and the works incident to the journey, in the long life-travel into the unknown, the soul in her subtle sympathies accomplishing herself by the way.
This is Whitman’s essential message. The heroic message of the American future. It is the inspiration of thousands of Americans today, the best souls of today, men and women. And it is a message that only in America can be fully understood, finally accepted.
Then Whitman’s mistake. The mistake of his interpretation of his watchword: Sympathy. The mystery of SYMPATHY. He still confounded it with Jesus’ LOVE, and with Paul’s CHARITY. Whitman, like all the rest of us, was at the end of the great emotional highway of Love. And because he couldn’t help himself, he carried on his Open Road as a prolongation of the emotional highway of Love, beyond Calvary. The highway of Love ends at the foot of the Cross. There is no beyond. It was a hopeless attempt to prolong the highway of love.
He didn’t follow his Sympathy. Try as he might, he kept on automatically interpreting it as Love, as Charity. Merging!
This merging, en masse, One Identity, Myself monomania was a carry-over from the old Love idea. It was carrying the idea of Love to its logical physical conclusion. Like Flaubert and the leper. The decree of unqualified Charity, as the soul’s one means of salvation, still in force.
Now Whitman wanted his soul to save itself; he didn’t want to save it. Therefore he did not need the great Christian receipt for saving the soul. He needed to supersede the Christian Charity, the Christian Love, within himself, in order to give his Soul her last freedom. The high-road of Love is no Open Road. It is a narrow, tight way, where the soul walks hemmed in between compulsions.
Whitman wanted to take his Soul down the open road. And he failed in so far as he failed to get out of the old rut of Salvation. He forced his Soul to the edge of a cliff, and he looked down into death. And there he camped, powerless. He had carried out his Sympathy as an extension of Love and Charity. And it had brought him almost to madness and soul-death. It gave him his forced, unhealthy, post-mortem quality.
His message was really the opposite of Henley’s rant:
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
Whitman’s essential message was the Open Road. The leaving of the soul free unto herself, the leaving of his fate to her and to the loom of the open road. Which is the bravest doctrine man has ever proposed to himself.
Alas, he didn’t quite carry it out. He couldn’t quite break the old maddening bond of the love-compulsion; he couldn’t quite get out of the rut of the charity habit – for Love and Charity have degenerated now into habit: a bad habit.
Whitman said Sympathy. If only he had stuck to it! Because Sympathy means feeling with, not feeling for. He kept on having a passionate feeling for the negro slave, or the prostitute, or the syphilitic – which is merging. A sinking of Walt Whitman’s soul in the souls of these others.
He wasn’t keeping to his open road. He was forcing his soul down an old rut. He wasn’t leaving her free. He was forcing her into other people’s circumstances.
Supposing he had felt true sympathy with the negro slave? He would have felt with the negro slave. Sympathy – compassion – which is partaking of the passion which was in the soul of the negro slave.
What was the feeling in the negro’s soul?
‘Ah, I am a slave! Ah, it is bad to be a slave! I must free myself. My soul will die unless she frees herself. My soul says I must free myself.’
Whitman came along, and saw the slave, and said to himself: ‘That negro slave is a man like myself. We share the same identity. And he is bleeding with wounds. Oh, oh, is it not myself who am also bleeding with wounds?’
This was not sympathy. It was merging and self-sacrifice. ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens’; ‘Love thy neighboar as thyself’: ‘Whatsoever ye do unto him, ye do unto me.’
If Whitman had truly sympathized, he would have said: ‘That negro slave suffers from slavery. He wants to free himself. His soul wants to free him. He has wounds, but they are the price of freedom. The soul has a long journey from slavery to freedom. If I can help him I will: I will not take over his wounds and his slavery to myself. But I will help him fight the power that enslaves him when he wants to be free, if he wants my help, since I see in his face that he needs to be free. But even when he is free, his soul has many journeys down the open road, before it is a free soul.’
And of the prostitute Whitman would have said:
‘Look at that prostitute! Her nature has turned evil under her mental lust for prostitution. She has lost her soul. She knows it herself. She likes to make men lose their souls. If she tried to make me lose my soul, I would kill her. I wish she may die.’
But of another prostitute he would have said:
‘Lookl She is fascinated by the Priapic mysteries. Look, she will soon be worn to death by the Priapic usage. It is the way of her soul. She wishes it so.’
Of the syphilitic he would say:
‘Look! She wants to infect all men with syphilis. We ought to kill her.’
And of still another syphilitic:
‘Look! She has a horror of her syphilis. If she looks my way I will help her to get cured.’
This is sympathy. The soul judging for herself, and preserving her own integrity.
But when, in Flaubert, the man takes the leper to his naked body; when Bubi de Montparnasse takes the girl because he knows she’s got syphilis; when Whitman embraces an evil prostitute: that is not sympathy. The evil prostitute has no desire to be embraced with love; so if you sympathize with her, you won’t try to embrace her with love. The leper loathes his leprosy, so if you sympathize with him, you’ll loathe it too. The evil woman who wishes to infect all men with her syphilis hates you if you haven’t got syphilis. If you sympathize you’ll feel her hatred, and you’ll hate too, you’ll hate her. Her feeling is hate, and you’ll share it. Only your soul will choose the direction of its own hatred.
The soul is a very perfect judge of her own motions, if your mind doesn’t dictate to her. Because the mind says Charity! Charity! you don’t have to force your soul into kissing lepers or embracing syphilitics. Your lips are the lips of your soul, your body is the body of your soul; your own single, individual soul. That is Whitman’s message. And your soul hates syphilis and leprosy. Because it is a soul, it hates these things, which are against the soul. And therefore to force the body of your soul into contact with uncleanness is a great violation of your soul. The soul wishes to keep clean and whole. The soul’s deepest will is to preserve its own integrity, against the mind and the whole mass of disintegrating forces.
Soul sympathizes with soul. And that which tries to kill my soul, my soul hates. My soul and my body are one. Soul and body wish to keep clean and whole. Only the mind is capable of great perversion. Only the mind tries to drive my soul and body into uncleaness and unwholesomeness.
What my soul loves, I love.
What my soul hates, I hate.
When my soul is stirred with compassion, I am compassionate.
What my soul turns away from, I turn away from.
That is the true interpretation of Whitman’s creed: the true revelation of his Sympathy.
And my soul takes the open road. She meets the souls that are passing, she goes along with the souls that are going her way. And for one and all, she has sympathy. The sympathy of love, the sympathy of hate, the sympathy of simple proximity; all the subtle sympathizings of the incalculable soul, from the bitterest hate to passionate love.
It is not I who guide my soul to heaven. It is I who am guided by my own soul along the open road, where all men tread. Therefore, I must accept her deep motions of love, or hate, or compassion, or dislike, or indifference. And I must go where she takes me, for my feet and my lips and my body are my soul. It is I who must submit to her.
This is Whitman’s message of American democracy.
The true democracy, where soul meets soul, in the open road. Democracy. American democracy where all journey down the open road, and where a soul is known at once in its going. Not by its clothes or appearance. Whitman did away with that. Not by its family name. Not even by its reputation. Whitman and Melville both discounted that. Not by a progression of piety, or by works of Charity. Not by works at all. Not by anything, but just itself. The soul passing unenhanced, passing on foot and being no more than itself. And recognized, and passed by or greeted according to the soul’s dictate. If it be a great soul, it will be worshipped in the road.
The love of man and woman: a recognition of souls, and a communion of worship. The love of comrades: a recognition of souls, and a communion of worship. Democracy: a recognition of souls, all down the open road, and a great soul seen in its greatness, as it travels on foot among the rest, down the common way of the living. A glad recognition of souls, and a gladder worship of great and greater souls, because they are the only riches.
Love, and Merging, brought Whitman to the Edge of Death! Death! Death!
But the exultance of his message still remains. Purified of MERGING, purified of MYSELF, the exultant message of American Democracy, of souls in the Open Road, full of glad recognition, full of fierce readiness, full of the joy of worship, when one soul sees a greater soul
The only riches, the great souls.