If you’re just joining us, I introduced Whitman Wednesdays as a way to get myself excited about poetry again, so here I am, working through Leaves of Grass one poem a week.
To thee old cause!
Thou peerless, passionate, good cause,
Thou stern, remorseless, sweet idea,
Deathless throughout the ages, races, lands,
After a strange sad war, great war for thee,
(I think all war through time was really fought, and ever will be
really fought, for thee,)
These chants for thee, the eternal march of thee.
(A war O soldiers not for itself alone,
Far, far more stood silently waiting behind, now to advance in this book.)
Thou orb of many orbs!
Thou seething principle! thou well-kept, latent germ! thou centre!
Around the idea of thee the war revolving,
With all its angry and vehement play of causes,
(With vast results to come for thrice a thousand years,)
These recitatives for thee,—my book and the war are one,
Merged in its spirit I and mine, as the contest hinged on thee,
As a wheel on its axis turns, this book unwitting to itself,
Around the idea of thee.
I spent some time thinking about what this “old cause” is that Whitman rants and raves about. At the time, the “cause” could probably have referred to the anti-slavery cause during the Civil War (or, I suppose, “states’ rights” if you were in the South.) Since then, the Cause has quickly come to stand for any dare-I-say trending civil and social rights “causes” — women’s suffrage, voter’s rights, etc. Maybe Whitman is generalizing these into an “American” cause, and his book is one of the Cause’s key champions.
I found a pretty neat website, Looking for Whitman, which is like my Whitman Wednesdays taken to the next level. From clicking around, I found a snippet from one of Whitman’s notebooks (which is allegedly the manuscript for this poem) about what Cause signified to Whitman (Thanks, Lisa R.!):
The ‘good old cause’ is that in all its diversities, in all lands, at all times, under all circumstances,—which promulgates liberty, justice, the cause of the people as against infidels and tyrants.
He is connecting the poet with the soldier, his book with the fight for the “American” cause. Do you remember his earlier poem, “As I Ponder’d in Silence“? We see again the same linking between war and poetry, poet and solider. To Whitman, “my book and the war are one.”
I’ve noticed Whitman uses parentheticals pretty frequently – twice in this poem. Whitman uses these to insert asides into his poems, as well as to change voices or points of view. Right now, I don’t know if I’ve read enough of Leaves of Grass to trust Whitman in these “side notes.” I don’t know if I should read these as Whitman confiding in us or if he’s being patronizing towards us. I’ll have to revisit this after a few more Wednesdays with Whitman.
Lisa R. also pointed out some interesting structural choices for this poem. In this poem, the stanzas are structured into lines of 7, 2, 2, 7. These mirror each other and fold upon one another. In this way, the poem starts with the idea of a war and ends with the idea of a book, and they reflect one another. I’ve never formally learned how to parse poetry, but trust me, I’ll definitely begin counting stanzas and lines going forward.
As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well! If you’re hesitant, take a peek at the free Leaves of Grass eBook at Project Gutenberg. The next poem, Eidolons, is much longer, and I’d really love to hear your thoughts.