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!