Walt Whitman. Philosophical basics of his work

Themes of sex and sexuality have dominated Leaves of Grass from the very beginning and have shaped the course of

Walt Whitman. Philosophical basics of his work

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soul, and defined sexual experience as essentially spiritual experience. He very early adopted two phrenological terms to discriminate between the two relationships: «amativeness» for man-woman love «adhesiveness» for «manly love.» Although Whitman did not in the 1855 Preface call direct attention to this element in his work, in one of his anonymous reviews of his book («Walt Whitman and His Poems,» 1855) he wrote of himself and the 1855 Leaves: «The body, he teaches, is beautiful. Sex is also beautiful…. Sex will not be put aside; it is a great ordination of the universe. He works the muscle of the male and the teeming fibre of the female throughout his writings, as wholesome realities, impure only by deliberate intention and effort» (Poetry and Prose 535).

Whitman added other sex poems to his book in 1856, including «Poem of Procreation» (now «A Woman Waits for Me») and «Bunch Poem» («Spontaneous Me»). At the end of the volume he included, without permission, Emerson's letter praising the 1855 Leaves (its «great power,» and «free and brave thought»), and alongside it he published his own letter in reply. He may have been misled by the nature of Emerson's praise to emphasize the centrality of his themes of adhesiveness and amativeness: «As to manly friendship, everywhere observed in The States, there is not the first breath of it to be observed in print. I say the body of a man or woman, the main matter, is so far quite unexpressed in poems; but the body is to be expressed, and sex is» (Poetry and Prose 529).

It was not until the 1860 edition of Leaves that Whitman gathered the poems celebrating sexuality into the cluster «Enfans d'Adam» («Children of Adam») and the poems celebrating «manly love» into «Calamus.» When Whitman came to Boston to see his book through the press there, Emerson tried to persuade him to withdraw the sex poems, but Whitman refused. He probably understood that if he really desexed Leaves it would be like self-castration. Although Emerson never publicly withdrew his endorsement of Whitman, he passed up opportunities to repeat it. Emerson's silence together with Whitman's loss of his job at the Interior Department in 1865, charged with writing «indecent poems,» were early warning signs that he and his Leaves were embarked on a difficult road ahead.

In subsequent editions of Leaves, Whitman revised and shifted his poems of amativeness and adhesiveness, but by and large his dominant themes became not the body but the soul, not youth but old ageand death. His experience in the Civil War hospitals seems to have provided a turning point for Whitman's focus. He even claimed, in «A Backward Glance O'er Travel'd Roads» (1888), that the war revealed to him, «as by flashes of lightning,» the «final reasons-for-being» of his «passionate song» (Poetry and Prose 516). In his Civil War poems, Drum-Taps (1865, later included in the 1867 Leaves), the «Calamus» theme runs throughout «cropping out» as Whitman himself said of it in his 1876 Preface to Two Rivulets (Prose Works 2:471). Whitman critics have not failed to notice in «Drum-Taps» the poet's theme of adhesivenessthe joy in the physical transmuted by the war into pain and anguishin such poems as «The Wound-Dresser,» «Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night,» and «A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown.»

In 1868 W.M.Rossetti published a British edition of Whitman's poetry, Poems by Walt Whitman. In effect, this was an expurgated Leaves, with «Song of Myself,» «Children of Adam,» and «Calamus» omitted, except for a few poems of the «Calamus» cluster placed in a section entitled «Walt Whitman.» In spite of Rossetti's gutting of the book, it established Whitman's reputation in England and attracted many ardent admirers. Some, when they became familiar with the poems purged by Rossetti, became even more ardent, while others turned hostile. The former included Anne Gilchrist, who fell in love with Whitman and wrote an article «An Englishwoman's Estimate of Walt Whitman» (Boston 1870), especially praising Whitman's sex poems. Algernon Swinburne wrote a poem in praise of Walt Whitman in Song Before Sunrise (1871), but loudly reversed himself in his 1887 essay, «Whitmania,» after encountering all of Leaves. John Addington Symonds read Whitman's poems as a young man, and, bowled over, found his way to the whole of «Calamus.» He would later strike up a correspondence with Whitman in Camden, pressing him on the real meaning of his «Calamus» poems, leading Whitman ultimately to reply in a notorious letter in 1890 claiming to have had six illegitimate children during his «jolly» «times south» (Poetry and Prose 958).

Although in the fifth edition (18711872) of Leaves, Whitman seemed temporarily to lose his way in shaping Leaves to contain his new work («Passage to India» and related poems), some ten years later, in the sixth edition (18811882), he adopted his earlier practice of integrating the poems of a lifetime into a single structure. Before the book could be distributed by its publisher in Boston, however, it was found to be immoral by the Society for the Suppression of Vice; because Whitman refused to remove the offensive parts, the book was withdrawn and published in Philadelphia. The Boston censors found offensive not only the whole of «A Woman Waits for Me,» «The Dalliance of the Eagles,» and «To a Common Prostitute,» but also passages vital to the life of a number of Whitman's greatest works, including «Song of Myself.» But the «Calamus» cluster with its songs of «manly love» was left intact!

In «A Backward Glance,» Whitman made his final assessment of the sex poems that had given him so many problems. Writing a bit after the most recent attempt to censor his book, whitman affirms boldly» Leaves of Grass is avowedly the song of Sex and Amativeness, and even Animality…. Of this feature… I shall only say the espousing principle of those lines so gives breath of life to my whole scheme that the bulk of the pieces might as well have been left unwritten were those lines omitted» (Poetry and Prose 518). A similar claim might have been made for the «Calamus» poems of adhesiveness; that no such claim was made was attributable, surely, to the fact that they had never inspired public controversy as had the sex poems.

 

The theme of death.

 

Whitman deals with death as a fact of life. Death in life is a fact, but life in death is a truth for Whitman; he is thus a poet of matter and of spirit.

Whitmans view on death is reflective of his belief in Transcendentalism. In «Song of Myself», Whitman uses the scientific principle of Thermodynamics to assert that there is life after death, because energy cannot be destroyed; only transformed. In stanza six, he writes «And what do you think has become of the women and children? / they are alive and well somewhere, / The smallest sprouts shows there is really no death». Death contends that life remains long after death, and to find him now all one must do is look «under your boot-soles».

Lincolns death influenced Whitmans works a lot too.

The death of Abraham Lincoln had a profound impact on Walt Whitman and his writing. It is the subject of one of his most highly regarded and critically examined pieces, «When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed» (18651866) and one of his best-known poems, «O Captain! My Captain!» (18651866). Whitman also delivered (sporadically) annual public lectures commemorating Lincoln's death beginning in April 1879. Although the two never met, Whitman and Lincoln, both deeply committed to the Union, remain intertwined in Whitman's writing and in American mythology.

Whitman intensely admired Lincoln from the late 1850s onward, remarking at one point, «After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else» (Traubel 38). On the Friday of 14 April 1865, when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., Whitman was in New York and read about the assassination in the daily newspapers and extras.

His first poem responding to Lincoln's death came only a couple of days later when he added to Drum-Taps (1865), already in press, a short piece titled «Hushed Be the Camps To-day» (1865). Although it ends solemnly with «the heavy hearts of soldiers,» this public commemoration of Lincoln's funeralspoken to the poet by and for Union soldiersasks us to «celebrate» his death as it remembers «the love we bore him.» «Hushed Be the Camps To-day» is not one of Whitman's best-known poems, but it is significant not merely because it was his first poetic word on Lincoln's death, but also because it exemplifies the primary features that generally characterize Whitman's poetic treatment of Lincoln's death: as in «Lilacs,» the poem mourns for the dead but celebrates death; it identifies Lincoln's death with the coming of peace; and it remembers Lincoln not because he was a great leader or conqueror but because he was well-loved. The poem also associates Lincoln with the

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