Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Poem of the Week 2/5/2007: from When Lilacs Last in the Courtyard Bloom'd


O western orb sailing the heaven,
Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walk'd,
As I walk'd in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop'd from the sky low down as if to my side, (while the other stars all look'd on,)
As we wander'd together the solemn night, (for something I know not what kept me from sleep,)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rin of the west how full you were of woe,
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,
As I watch'd where you pass'd and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.


Sing on there in the sawmp,
O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you,
But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain'd me,
The star my departing comrade holds and detains me.


Oh how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone"?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Sea-winds blown from east and west.,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.

Walt Whitman 1865-66

More than Song of Myself, Whitman's most famous poem, I find this and other poems treating death and loss more interesting and profound. Here we get the same communion with nature that Whitman finds in Song of Myself, but with an injection of melancholy, affection, and more. Poetry is one of the great vehicles of melancholy, especially when well executed. Whitman follows in the tradition of Keats and Coleridge's great odes on grief in this elegy written after the death of Abraham Lincoln. I have chosen these three stanzas because they represent a communion with that tradition and because they eclipse particular grief at the death of a well-loved symbol.

Beside the universal quality of this elegy (there are particular charateristics and references too, but more interesting to me is the project of using the individual to transcend the individual--using the particular as entry point to the infinite), I hope that you can notice the breathlessness of the stanzas. The repetition of "as" in the first stanza brings each line in to lap at us like waves, like the slow in and out of breath, the turning of the heavens. In most of his poems, Whitman uses this device--in my mind, he employs it as a kind of chant or invocation, something to mesmerize the reader, bring him into the song...

Though Whitman is a master of song, he discusses the difficulty of singing, writing of it as warbling, of expressing ourselves in the face of enormous grief. It is only in nature that he can find the expression of the love he feels--wow--hear how that doesn't sound as nice in prose as it does in his poetry? That's why people write poems. And this concludes this week's poem of the week, a somewhat poorer discussion than usual.

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