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Whitman’s Desperation

While reading Song of Myself and comparing it to the 1855 version I had a much stronger sense of being told how to understand the world. In the first reading of Song of Myself I found myself both wanting Whitman to be more structured, and getting frustrated that he seemed to think he knew the structure of the world. As I read more Whitman I forgave him for what I had previously believed to be a sort of pretension, almost a god-complex, and started to enjoy his enthusiastic wandering poetry. Then I read his 1867 version.

All the sudden the poem was completely different than how I had first read it. This was due mostly to his breaking up of the poem. For instance, in the 1855 version Whitman writes “I am mad for it to be in contact with me/The smoke of my own breath” (27). When I first read this passage I could imagine Whitman roaming though the woods, drunk on the sight of nature, his breath fogging against the leaves and vines. In the 1867 version however, Whitman puts a section break between these two lines. Now when I read it, I see the ecstatic Whitman in section one, followed by a much calmer, categorizing Whitman in section two.

I’m not saying that he didn’t intend for this to be the case, or that he even had an intention one way or the other, all I’m saying is, by putting the section breaks in it Whitman manages to lead the reader in a way that he didn’t accomplish in the 1855 version. I still haven’t decided whether I really do prefer the 1855 version, or if it’s just a matter of me not liking a change in Whitman’s style when I feel like I’ve just gotten the hang of it.

Whether I like it or not though, I have some speculation as to why this kind of change takes place. Mancuso talks about the fact that Whitman changed many of his poems to move from the personal to the national and that the 1867 Leaves of Grass was intended to show the way in which a unified nation was the only hope of rebuilding the America that Whitman had praised so often before. Mancuso gives a sense that Whitman was trying to reach out more than ever. I think that after the civil war Whitman developed a sense of urgency and desperation to make people see what he had been trying to argue since 1855. He did not feel that he could wait for everyone to discover the truth for themselves, he felt a stronger hand was needed.

This could explain why Whitman’s 1867 version was so much more structured than his 1855 version. He was worried he was losing the America he loved and felt the need to lead readers more strongly towards the ideals which he had been presenting. I say that I prefer the 1855 version, but I also don’t have a civil war to contend with, which probably makes me a little more relaxed than Whitman was at the time. I think it will be interesting to see how Whitman continues to change as the America he knows recovers from the turmoil of the Civil War.

~ by bcbottle on September 20, 2009.


2 Responses to “Whitman’s Desperation”

  1. I think that the structural differences are the most intriguing thing about comparing the two versions. You’re right, the way that the lines sort of all flow together in the earlier version give the impression of Whitman wandering around or excitedly spouting lists or tasks for readers. The 1867 edition seems overall more somber, but I guess in the wake of the war everything probably seemed like that. I think you’re right though, it seems that Whitman made the change to illicit a sense of urgency among his readers. He loved America so much, he must have been really traumatized by seeing her almost fall apart. He probably didn’t think that there was enough time for people to spend it meandering through his poetry.

  2. Look at you analyzing line and stanza breaks, Mr. Philosophy! Truly, you got me wanting to do a careful analysis of those changes to see how they enable/disable the messages of the poem. Good stuff.

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