#12-13: Beginners & To The States

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I was sick last week so I missed a Whitman Wednesday, but don’t fret! I’ll make up for lost time by discussing two poems today. The first one is titled “Beginners.”

  How they are provided for upon the earth, (appearing at intervals,)
  How dear and dreadful they are to the earth,
  How they inure to themselves as much as to any—what a paradox
      appears their age,
  How people respond to them, yet know them not,
  How there is something relentless in their fate all times,
  How all times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward,
  And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for the same
      great purchase.

Poetry Vocabulary Word of the Day:

Inure (verb): to accustom (someone) to something, especially something unpleasant.

What is this, amateur hour? Whitman’s poem seems to be addressing all of the aspects of being a beginner or beginning something (such as a self-published self-referential book, perhaps?) I read this as  acknowledging the sweat and tears that go into mastering an art. There will be mis-steps and mis-choosing hobbies and passion projects along the way, and we all suffer, in a way, for our “art” of choice.

Again, Whitman is writing “democratically” and speaking for all the people, instead of for himself personally. I find this a much more approachable when reading a new poem, because I know going into the poem that it’s meant for me. It’s not an obtuse personal poem that only those with an in-depth knowledge of the poet’s biography will understand.

The next poem in Leaves of Grass is “To the States.”

  To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist
      much, obey little,
  Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
  Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever
      afterward resumes its liberty.

This poem is pretty short and feisty! This is a warning to the United States as well as to any city or state in the World. I think Whitman would also extend this warning to people.

However, if reading this as a warning to people, how would Whitman apply this poem to African-Americans who were currently enslaved, does he see them as a lost cause, never again resuming their own liberty? There has been much debate about whether or not Whitman was sympathetic to the Abolitionist movement leading to the Civil War.

Whitman’s portrayal of slaves could serve his political purposes, especially his opposition to the Fugitive Slave Law, which was based, in fact, not on sympathy for slaves but on what he felt was the unwarranted intrusion of federal authority in a local matter.

The idea that Whitman opposed slavery and the Fugitive Slave Law on the grounds of intrusion of federal authority rather than on the grounds that fugitive slaves (and all slaves) deserved to be free is a little disappointing to me. I will be certain to keep an eye out for future hints to his political beliefs in his poems.


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!  Leaves of Grass is available for free from Project Gutenberg, so you really have no excuse!


10 thoughts on “#12-13: Beginners & To The States

  1. You raise some interesting questions. I know so little of Whitman. The article on his attitude towards slavery was an eye-opener for me. I do know that nineteenth century folk are often very difficult to understand. I studied Anthony Trollope, the British novelist, who visited this country several times in connection with his work with the Postal Service.

    While Trollope, like many British citizens of his time, did not agree with slavery he still considered Black folk as inferior to whites. Trollope’s take on slavery was that he was worried was slavery did to the slave owner.
    And so, like Whitman, he, Trollope, wasn’t so much concerned with the welfare of Black slaves as was with the white folks who considered themselves as masters. I think this ambivalence is also manifest in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I’ve witnessed downright ugly fights over whether or not Conrad is racist.

    I can empathize. I remember how disappointed I was to read how Wallace Stevens, my favorite American Poet, was downright racist. Damn.

    • Paul, thank you for such a thoughtful response. I’ve actually never read anything by Trollope, but I know what you mean about 19th century folk being difficult to understand. I suppose they were still seen as liberals and progressives for their time, but in hindsight, it still doesn’t seem liberal enough, does it? I had such a hard time getting through Scarlet Sister Mary, which was about African Americans living in South Carolina post-Civil War and thought the book was absolutely racist and disgusting. Imagine my surprise when I did some Googling and found out how much famous black writers loved this book during the Harlem Renaissance! I think it’s a reason why diversity is so important, otherwise even the worst book about African Americans, for example, can be celebrated, simply because it’s one of the only books available!

      I’ve also never read Heart of Darkness. I’ll have to add that to my list of books to read, and I look forward to discussing whether Conrad is racist with you when I’ve finished it!

      And what! No! I had no idea Wallace Stevens was a racist? I’m heartbroken right now.

  2. It is perhaps a sign of those times that the humanitarian side of the slaves was ill considered compared to the political ideals.

    To the States is an intriguing poem, I need to read more of Whitman, you do inspire me with your reading.

    • What an honor to inspire such a voracious reader such as yourself!

      Yes, it’s a little disappointing but I think so many of the writers we admire from the 18th-19th century had many racial prejudices. It’s just an important reason to read critically, I suppose.

  3. Exactly, read critically and try to understand life from their perspective which is something that the modern world still fails to do in so many contemporary ways as well.

    I am always up for new authors and especially writers I should have some experience of already. You are a constant reminder to pick up his works and I appreciate that…then I can also play Breaking Bad too!

  4. Pingback: #14: On Journeys Through the States | Like Bears to Honey

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