#15: To a Certain Cantatrice

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Here we go again, another Wednesday, another Whitman poem!

To a Certain Cantatrice --   
  Here, take this gift,
  I was reserving it for some hero, speaker, or general,
  One who should serve the good old cause, the great idea, the
      progress and freedom of the race,
  Some brave confronter of despots, some daring rebel;
  But I see that what I was reserving belongs to you just as much as to any.

A cantatrice is a singer, usually an opera singer. However, the unnamed cantatrice isn’t the star of this poem. I think the focus of this poem is Whitman’s generosity with his “gift”. In this context, I think his gift is his poetry, his songs. In the same vein as “To Thee Old Cause,” Whitman doesn’t think poetry should be reserved for “the good old causes” or some Great idea. Instead, he believes in the democracy of poetry, that it should be accessible and open to all people, the Everyman, the every day unnamed singers out there.

I have been really enjoying the process of reading Leaves of Grass, because I know that I am part of Whitman’s target audience. Even though some of his poems have been a little obtuse to me (especially “Eidolons” — sheesh!) I have been able to persevere because I know that Whitman is trying to speak to me. His poetry isn’t going over my head intentionally, so it is a rather warm and welcoming feeling sinking into a new Whitman poem each week.

What other poets do you think are writing for the “Everyman”? Who are some of the most accessible and least pretentious poets that you admire? I’m already skipping a decade into the future and thinking about what other collections I should read.

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!

 

 

#14: On Journeys Through the States

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You know the drill by now — week by week, I’m going through another Walt Whitman poem. Even though this is the 14th poem (3.5 months in!), we are only on the 8th page of the book! Phew, at this rate, we really do have another 130 months to go.

This one is called “On Journeys Through the States.” If you recall, the preceding poem was called “To the States” which sparked some debate about whether or not Whitman was racist.

  On journeys through the States we start,
  (Ay through the world, urged by these songs,
  Sailing henceforth to every land, to every sea,)
  We willing learners of all, teachers of all, and lovers of all.

  We have watch'd the seasons dispensing themselves and passing on,
  And have said, Why should not a man or woman do as much as the
      seasons, and effuse as much?

  We dwell a while in every city and town,
  We pass through Kanada, the North-east, the vast valley of the
      Mississippi, and the Southern States,
  We confer on equal terms with each of the States,
  We make trial of ourselves and invite men and women to hear,
  We say to ourselves, Remember, fear not, be candid, promulge the
      body and the soul,
  Dwell a while and pass on, be copious, temperate, chaste, magnetic,
  And what you effuse may then return as the seasons return,
  And may be just as much as the seasons.

Poetry Vocabulary Word of the Day:

Promulge (verb): an archaic variant of promulgate. Promulgate means to promote or make widely known.

So, here we are, still journeying through the States. I don’t have much to say about the poem this week. Whitman is travelling to all corners of the United States spreading the word of.. what? I think he’s spreading the news that the body is as important. He’s still sailing around on his book of a boat, singing these songs that are in Leaves of Grass. I like his advice to “be copious” — what a great turn of phrase! The last two lines of the poem end on such a nice idea of karma returning to us just like the seasons return.

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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! I think I’ll start to kick it up a notch with either a few poems a week, or I may start skipping some of the ones that aren’t very exciting to discuss (to me, at least!)

 

#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.

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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!

 

#11 Whitman Wednesday: Beginning My Studies

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This is a perfect poem for the first week of school. (Can you believe that it’s already time to go back to school?) It is 10pm here, but it’s still Wednesday, so I haven’t missed my self-imposed deadline yet. This week’s poem is called “Beginning My Studies.”

  Beginning my studies the first step pleas'd me so much,
  The mere fact consciousness, these forms, the power of motion,
  The least insect or animal, the senses, eyesight, love,
  The first step I say awed me and pleas'd me so much,
  I have hardly gone and hardly wish'd to go any farther,
  But stop and loiter all the time to sing it in ecstatic songs.

I’ve just started school this week, so this poem couldn’t have come at a more poignant time. I think Whitman does a lovely job of capturing just how much there is in the world to learn, and “awed” is definitely the right word to describe this. Do you ever get paralyzed when you think about how many books there are out there in the world, and how little time we have to read everything? I often find myself playing a game that starts, even if I read 100 books a year for the rest of my life, at most that is only 6,000 more books in my life! My to-read list is probably already a thousand books, and that isn’t considering all of the books that will be written during my life.

Whoops, there I go, loitering all of my own time daydreaming about all there is to learn. I think Whitman’s small poem is great at explaining how much time you can spend in the minutiae to really learn things: “I have hardly gone and hardly wish’d to go any further…” Like the other poems of his that we’ve read together, this one is rejoicing in the small details, the daily life, instead of focusing on the grander, and perhaps more traditional, themes of war, planetary alignments, etc. Even the “least insect” is worth examining and dreaming about.

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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.

What about you? Have you caught the back-to-school bug? How would you describe Whitman’s mode of learning?

 

#10 Whitman Wednesday: When I Read The Book

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This week’s poem, “When I Read The Book” raises some interesting philosophical quandaries.

  When I read the book, the biography famous,
  And is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life?
  And so will some one when I am dead and gone write my life?
  (As if any man really knew aught of my life,
  Why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life,
  Only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections
  I seek for my own use to trace out here.)

I think Whitman’s talking about how un-know-able we all are from one other. How can you truly know anyone else, when we often know so little of our own lives? How, then, can anyone feel confident writing a biography on someone else? How can you sum up someone’s life into a few hundred words or pages? I think these are the questions that Whitman was wrestling with as he spilled his heart into Leaves of Grass.

This poem made me feel really isolated and lonely. I don’t think this is a very hopeful poem. I couldn’t find any glimmer of understanding or connections here, except maybe the “diffused faint clews and indirections”? I think that a lot of us here spend so much time with our noses in books because it helps us either process the world or feel connected to someone else. Whitman makes me question whether any of these connections are genuine, because they’re mostly one-sided attempts by me trying to reach out and touch the author. Maybe that’s why we turn to blogging about books, to try to share these connections with other book-lovers. I have a lot to think about this week — hopefully next week’s poem leaves me feeling a little more optimistic.

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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.

#9 Whitman Wednesday: For Him I Sing

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If you’re just joining us, I introduced Whitman Wednesdays as a way to get myself excited about poetry again, working through Leaves of Grass a poem at a time. I’m no expert on Walt Whitman or parsing poetry, but I hope to get better with practice (and by discussing the poetry with you, dear readers!)

This week’s poem is short and sweet, “For Him I Sing:”

For him I sing,
  I raise the present on the past,
  (As some perennial tree out of its roots, the present on the past,)
  With time and space I him dilate and fuse the immortal laws,
  To make himself by them the law unto himself.

My initial reaction here was whether the “him” referred to Jesus or God. However, because it isn’t upper-case Him, I don’t think this is a religious reference. I think the “him” being sung to is Whitman’s Modern Man, as we saw in “One’s-Self I Sing.” I think the last two lines are a daydream of a world where the “immortal laws” could fuse together and let the Modern Man become a self-sufficient self-governing person.

What are the immortal laws? Time and space are two of examples that Whitman provides. I think immortal laws would be anything that exists beyond human civilization — not man-made laws, but natural laws. What do you think?

Finally, I think the parenthetical aside is so lovely, the idea of raising the present on the past is much like growing a tree out if its roots. While it’s a pretty simple statement that a tree starts from the roots, it produced a lovely image for me to think about on this dreary Wednesday in New York.

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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.

#8 Whitman Wednesday: Eidolons

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 I met a seer,
  Passing the hues and objects of the world,
  The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,
       To glean eidolons.

       Put in thy chants said he,
  No more the puzzling hour nor day, nor segments, parts, put in,
  Put first before the rest as light for all and entrance-song of all,
       That of eidolons.

       Ever the dim beginning,
  Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle,
  Ever the summit and the merge at last, (to surely start again,)
       Eidolons! eidolons!

       Ever the mutable,
  Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohering,
  Ever the ateliers, the factories divine,
       Issuing eidolons.

       Lo, I or you,
  Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,
  We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,
       But really build eidolons.

       The ostent evanescent,
  The substance of an artist's mood or savan's studies long,
  Or warrior's, martyr's, hero's toils,
       To fashion his eidolon.

       Of every human life,
  (The units gather'd, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed, left out,)
  The whole or large or small summ'd, added up,
       In its eidolon.

       The old, old urge,
  Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles,
  From science and the modern still impell'd,
       The old, old urge, eidolons.

       The present now and here,
  America's busy, teeming, intricate whirl,
  Of aggregate and segregate for only thence releasing,
       To-day's eidolons.

       These with the past,
  Of vanish'd lands, of all the reigns of kings across the sea,
  Old conquerors, old campaigns, old sailors' voyages,
       Joining eidolons.

       Densities, growth, facades,
  Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
  Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
       Eidolons everlasting.

       Exalte, rapt, ecstatic,
  The visible but their womb of birth,
  Of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape,
       The mighty earth-eidolon.

       All space, all time,
  (The stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,
  Swelling, collapsing, ending, serving their longer, shorter use,)
       Fill'd with eidolons only.

       The noiseless myriads,
  The infinite oceans where the rivers empty,
  The separate countless free identities, like eyesight,
       The true realities, eidolons.

       Not this the world,
  Nor these the universes, they the universes,
  Purport and end, ever the permanent life of life,
       Eidolons, eidolons.

       Beyond thy lectures learn'd professor,
  Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen, beyond all mathematics,
  Beyond the doctor's surgery, anatomy, beyond the chemist with his chemistry,
       The entities of entities, eidolons.

       Unfix'd yet fix'd,
  Ever shall be, ever have been and are,
  Sweeping the present to the infinite future,
       Eidolons, eidolons, eidolons.

       The prophet and the bard,
  Shall yet maintain themselves, in higher stages yet,
  Shall mediate to the Modern, to Democracy, interpret yet to them,
       God and eidolons.

       And thee my soul,
  Joys, ceaseless exercises, exaltations,
  Thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet,
       Thy mates, eidolons.

       Thy body permanent,
  The body lurking there within thy body,
  The only purport of the form thou art, the real I myself,
       An image, an eidolon.

       Thy very songs not in thy songs,
  No special strains to sing, none for itself,
  But from the whole resulting, rising at last and floating,
       A round full-orb'd eidolon.

So, first things first, what the heck is an eidolon? In ancient Greek literature, eidolon (εἴδωλον) is a spirit-image of a living or dead person. In the first stanza, Whitman meets a seer, and he spends the rest of the poem “gleaning” or gathering eidolons.

I think this poem is a ballad, which is generally four lines per stanza, and in some sort of rhyme scheme, whether “abcb” or “abab.” While Whitman’s poem doesn’t actually rhyme, it has a nice rhythm when read aloud. According to the internet, there is another requirement for ballads too:

The first and third lines are iambic tetrameter, with four beats per line; the second and fourth lines are in trimeter, with three beats per line.

I’m not great at counting rhyme schemes, but I immediately noticed that the last line of each stanza is about eidolons – the focus of the poem. I had a lot of trouble understanding this poem. From what I can tell, Whitman is warning us that our science and reality are eidolons, spectres of a true reality. I think Whitman is saying we must collect all of these eidolons in order to see a well rounded, “full orb’d” eidolon, instead of only looking at a single eidolon at a time. To Whitman, the sum is greater than the parts.

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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.

There are some interesting blog posts that I found which helped me understand this poem. Check them out here:

 

#7 Whitman Wednesday: To Thee Old Cause

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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.

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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.

 

#6 Whitman Wednesday: To A Historian

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I’m still making my way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, “Inscriptions.” The next poem is called “To a Historian.”

To a Historian

  You who celebrate bygones,
  Who have explored the outward, the surfaces of the races, the life
      that has exhibited itself,
  Who have treated of man as the creature of politics, aggregates,
      rulers and priests,
  I, habitan of the Alleghanies, treating of him as he is in himself
      in his own rights,
  Pressing the pulse of the life that has seldom exhibited itself,
      (the great pride of man in himself,)
  Chanter of Personality, outlining what is yet to be,
  I project the history of the future.

To be honest, I don’t have much to say about this poem. It seems like Whitman is telling his contemporaries who are obsessed with looking backwards and to the previous Golden Eras of culture (maybe the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, you know, the typical eras that art historians are obsessed with), that he is looking forward instead. Whitman seems to have adopted a sort of Jesus/Messiah-esque ego in writing this book. He is prophesying the future of American literature and establishing himself at the helm of this new era. I’m not sure if I would get along with him in “real life,” I think his ego would get in the way!

I looked up the Alleghanies, because it wasn’t a term that I was familiar with. I found out this is actually referring to the Allegheny Mountain Range, which is part of the Appalachians. These mountains run from Pennsylvania, through Maryland, and into the Virginias.

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Photo Courtesy of The Land Report

As far as I can tell, Whitman was never truly a “habitan of the Alleghanies.” Instead, he was born in Long Island, New York, and bounced around the New York area, and briefly lived in Washington, before settling in New Jersey. His childhood home in Huntington Station is a historic site that is open to the public. The house was built by his father around 1819. I might have to make a trip out to see this site later this year!

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Photo Courtesy of NY State Parks

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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! Are you just tuning in? You’re in luck – since this is only the sixth poem, it’s really easy to catch up on Whitman Wednesday posts!

#4-5 Whitman Wednesday: In Cabin’d Ships at Sea & To Foreign Lands

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I’m still making my way through the first section of Leaves of Grass, “Inscriptions”. The next poem is “In Cabin’d Ships at Sea,” and because I missed last week, I’ve thrown in the next poem as well since it’s a short one.

In cabin’d ships at sea,
The boundless blue on every side expanding,
With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves,
Or some lone bark buoy’d on the dense marine,
Where joyous full of faith, spreading white sails,
She cleaves the ether mid the sparkle and the foam of day, or under
many a star at night,
By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read,
In full rapport at last.

Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts,
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said,
The sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,
We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,
The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the
briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.

Then falter not O book, fulfil your destiny,
You not a reminiscence of the land alone,
You too as a lone bark cleaving the ether, purpos’d I know not
whither, yet ever full of faith,
Consort to every ship that sails, sail you!
Bear forth to them folded my love, (dear mariners, for you I fold it
here in every leaf;)
Speed on my book! spread your white sails my little bark athwart the
imperious waves,
Chant on, sail on, bear o’er the boundless blue from me to every sea,
This song for mariners and all their ships.

I thought this was some lovely writing about ocean-imagery. I think this poem is an extensive metaphor comparing Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s lone book, to the “lone bark cleaving the ether” — the lone boat at sea trying to reach both those on land and at sea. Is this another way that Whitman is trying to create a Democratic poem? A poem for everyone, mariners and landlubbers alike? In fact, Whitman even says “Speed on my book!” What a lovely image of a little book boat with white sails for pages and Whitman’s love folded into each page.

From what I remember from 10th grade American literature, in the early years of the United States as a nation, its artists, writers and thinkers struggled to break out from the shadow of high European culture. We still see this today in our obsession over finding the next Great American Novel (just look at the Pulitzers which searches for at least one definitive work every year!) Well, in “To Foreign Lands,” Whitman is officially taking the world up on its challenge to create the definitive American work. I’m guessing the foreign lands that Whitman refers to would be our European neighbors. Doesn’t this remind you of Ashlee Simpson’s song Shadow? It must be hard living in the shadow of your classier, well-established older sister-continent!

“To Foreign Lands”

I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.

So far, it seems that all the poems in the “Inscriptions” section of the book is part of a larger manifesto or map of Whitman’s aspirations for Leaves of Grass. I’m becoming quite curious on his writing process. While his poems are individually interesting, I am having a hard time imagining any of these published independent of one another. Or were all of the poems published all at once in this book? I’ll have to look this up and report back next week.

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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! Are you just tuning in? You’re in luck – since this is only the fourth poem, it’s really easy to catch up on Whitman Wednesday posts!