Allison for Nov. 10

There has been a shift in the way I read and relate to Whitman. In the 1855 edition, Whitman felt like my pal; his messiness, his unbridled passion, his desire to explore everything and know everything, his embrace of his own egotism—all these things I relate to as a twenty-something. While reading the deathbed edition of Leaves, however, I couldn’t help the feeling that I had become Walt’s daughter / granddaughter, or student. Instead of focusing on mere aspects of life, Whitman reflects on life as whole. He bestows his “words of wisdom” to his readers in succinct, almost adage-like poems. With the 1891-1892 Leaves of Grass, I have found my Papa Walt.

I am beside myself with excitement to finally be able to discuss my favorite Walt Whitman poem of all time. O Me! O Life! is the perfect example of Papa Walt’s wisdom. Many of you might remember this scene from the movie Dead Poets Society, in which Robin Williams’ character uses this poem (abbreviated in the movie) to inspire teenage boys to study poetry. Papa Walt would have approved of this, because within the poem he presents a student/teacher dialogue.

The poem is divided into two parts with two different speakers: the first is spoken by the student/ the son / the youth, followed by a response by the answerer / the teacher / the father figure. The youth questions what is the “good” of life when it’s often filled with foolish and faithless people, and daily routines and struggles forever renewed; to which the older and wiser speaker responds calmly:

“That you are here—that life exists and identity,

That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse” (410).

The first speaker speaks from the thick of life, whereas the second speaker comes from a more objective point of view—as one “beyond” life. Not that the second speaker is a ghost, but rather someone who has experienced and come out the other side of what the first speaker recounts. Even though the answerer is older and wiser, they give value to the questioner. By responding with the direct address “you,” the second speaker emphasizes the first speaker’s importance in the large, consuming world.

This poem could also be read as Papa Walt’s address to his former, younger self. The first section mirrors his 1855 writing style with its many “O”s, exclamation and question marks, repeated line beginnings, and verbose detail; whereas the answer portion is short, “seriously” punctuated,” and makes a broader statement, all of which are tell-tale signs of the more mature Walt Whitman. While the younger Walt zeros in on specificities and uses many words to do so, Papa Walt squeezes more profundity into fewer words (notice how Walt’s shorter poems do not emerge until after 1855). Within this one poem, Whitman reflects on his current and former self, and many “verses” he has contributed.

Though there is a greater focus on death in the 1891-1892 edition of Leaves, which is, of course, sad, there is still a sense of optimism in Whitman’s writing. There is never death without the reflection on life. Even his most morbid poems like The Last Invocation, Life and Death, and Good-Bye my Fancy! include reflections on love, the soul, and life. Papa Walt inspires us in his old age to live a life as full and passionate as his own. And Papa Walt knows what’s best.

“O I see life is not short, but immeasurably long,

I henceforth tread the world chaste, temperate, an early riser, a steady grower,

Every hour the semen of centuries, and still of centuries.

I must follow up these continual lessons of the air, water, earth,

I perceive I have no time to lose” (380).

  1. Avatar of kevinv

    #1 by kevinv on November 8, 2009 - 7:15 pm

    Interesting take on the two editions i think i would have to agree. But we cant be mad at the guy for the second approach, it came with his old age.

  2. Avatar of chelseanewnam

    #2 by chelseanewnam on November 9, 2009 - 12:43 pm

    Allison, this is a wonderful and thought-provoking post. Drawing attention to the differences between the speakers in this poem by comparing them to the Whitmans of 1855 and 1892 is an interesting and, I think, dead on approach to discussing Whitman’s change and progression as a writer and as an individual over time.

    In thinking further about this poem, especially via the way you have set up the speakers, it seems to me that the last few lines sum up a lot of Whitman’s intent in writing Leaves of Grass. Whitman’s nationalism and his insistence in one’s self-education live in the lines, “That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse” (410). If required to pick a single overarching theme in Whitman’s work, (a difficult task for such a prolific writer and man) I would argue that his work is unified through his desire to destroy apathy and complacency in Americans, or rather in the human race. These lines suggest that the point of living is to “suck the marrow out of life” (to go back to your lovely allusion to the Dead Poets’ Society, a plug I very much appreciate 😉 ), to be an individual, to think, to do, and to give and receive as much as you can to the world before you are gone from it. I find it interesting that these lines are situated under the heading Answer., as if Whitman himself is providing a life remedy, a straightforward, doyougetitnow? approach to the themes he addresses in his work.

  3. Avatar of Mara Scanlon

    #3 by Mara Scanlon on November 10, 2009 - 11:05 am

    Great post, Allison. I hope you will go add “Papa Walt” to Brendon’s old post cataloging our various Whitmans. I’ll let our Freudians analyze your search for him….

    That you are here—that life exists and identity,
    That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse

    I perceive I have no time to lose

    These lines you quoted just about sum up Whitman’s urgency, don’t they?

  4. Avatar of Erin Longbottom

    #4 by Erin Longbottom on November 10, 2009 - 12:53 pm

    Yeah DPS reference! One of the reasons I took this class, not gonna lie…
    I also see Whitman as somewhat of a grandfather figure (which is a little weird, considering all the sexuality in his work) when I’m reading. I think that’s why last week’s reading upset me. Not only was I envisioning a dying Walt, but also this man who I have a strange familial feeling for, which made it even more sad to me.

  5. Avatar of cirvine1965

    #5 by cirvine1965 on November 10, 2009 - 5:06 pm

    Allison- I should have known that if anyone would find the optimism in this week’s readings it would be you. I had felt this terrible sadness in seeing Whitman deteriorate. Picturing him spending the end of his life alone in a dark room, unable to handle seeing people or even going outside seemed was so heartbreaking in comparison to the vivacious character that we have grown to love. But you’re right, Whitman had a long, full life. And he brought the scope of all of his experience to the final edition of LoG, leaving his readers with a vision of him that was older and wiser, but far from broken. Also- snaps for the Dead Poets clip. I love that movie and haven’t watched it since taking this class but now I really want to see it again, I think that you’re right to assume that Walt would approve.

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