Commentary

Selected Criticism

Whitman's "Live Oak with Moss"

Alan Helms


Almost forty years ago, while working on Whitman's manuscripts for the third edition of Leaves of Grass, Fredson Bowers discovered that twelve of the poems had originally formed a sequence entitled "Live Oak with Moss," which tells the story of Whitman's unhappy love affair with a man. Bowers immediately published his extraordinary findings (in Studies in Bibliography and then in Whitman's Manuscripts: Leaves of Grass (1860), yet since that time "Live Oak" has been virtually ignored. No one has discussed it at length, and the few who have remarked on it merely point out that it gave rise to the "Calamus" sequence and leave it at that.

We know, however, that Whitman valued the poems of "Live Oak" enough to include all of them among the forty-five poems of "Calamus" (published in the third Leaves in 1860), although he first reordered them in such a way that he obliterated the narrative they contain. He was obviously sensitive not so much about the separate poems but about the sequence itself: he never published it, never so far as we know even mentioned it, and in his fourth edition of the Leaves, two of the three poems dropped from "Calamus" were crucial "Live Oak" poems (5 and 8). Perhaps he felt the sequence revealed too much, for it gives us the only sustained treatment of homosexual love in all of his poetry. True, Whitman had written of men loving men before "Live Oak" but only fleetingly or in ways so opaquely figurative that most readers still aren't sure what's going on. Only in "Live Oak" do we get a clear story of a love affair with a man, along with a story of a coming out that affects Whitman's other poetry in this period and even changes the course of his life. In understanding what it meant to Whitman to love a man and to come out as America's first self-identified "homosexual," in seeing how, that affects the best poetry of his third edition, and in making sense of his subsequent career, we might at last begin where Whitman himself began.

By Bowers's calculations, Whitman copied the twelve poems into a little notebook sometime in the spring of 1859, apparently transcribing them from originals composed a short time before but now lost. Bowers says the fact that the poems "had a special significance for Whitman seems clear from the form he gave them in the little notebook" (Whitman's Manuscripts, lxvii),and this significance is confirmed by a note in Whitman's hand found on the back of a separate manuscript of the title poem:

A Cluster of Poems, Sonnets expressing the thoughts,
pictures, aspirations &c
Fit to be perused during the days of the approach of
Death.
(that I have prepared myself for that purpose.—
(Remember now—
Remember then (lxvii)
The injunction to "Remember now—Remember then" strongly suggests that "Live Oak" is autobiographical, for we rarely remind ourselves to remember anything but our actual experience. (In Calamus Lovers, Charley Shively has identified the lover of this period as Fred Vaughan, a young man who lived with Whitman in the late 1850s.) Whatever Whitman's original plan for the poems (personal memento? publication? circulation among special friends in the manner of Shakespeare's sonnets?), he soon dispersed them among the "Calamus" cluster which he began assembling in the summer of 1859 from poems mostly composed after "Live Oak." In order, the twelve poems of "Live Oak" became "Calamus" 14, 20, 11, 23, 8, 32, 10, 9, 34, 43, 36, and 42—a rearrangement so complete that no one suspected the existence of the sequence until Bowers discovered Whitman's little notebook almost a century later. ("There is something furtive in my nature," Whitman told Edward Carpenter, "like an old hen" [Carpenter, Days with Walt Whitman, 42–43].)

A reader unfamiliar with the sequence should turn to it now, at the end of this essay. As with the other poems I quote, I give the "Live Oak" poems in their first published form—that is, as they appeared in the third Leaves of Grass in 1860 in the form Whitman approved for publication. I've simply removed them from "Calamus" and restored them to Whitman's original order.

The love narrative of "Live Oak" tells a fairly simple story of infatuation, abandonment, and accommodation. In the beginning, Whitman is so ecstatically in love that an image of his formerly independent self (the live oak) now bemuses him. His lover joins him, and soon thereafter Whitman renounces his poetry on the lover's behalf. The lover then abandons Whitman, and from that point on Whitman struggles with his loss. That much is clear, but the accompanying narrative of Whitman's coming out and its consequences is harder to discern.

Whitman starts off his sequence in a high-pitched, rhapsodic key that recalls how agitated he could become when he was in love, as in the following entry from his journal for July 1870: "Depress the adhesive nature / It is in excess—making life a torment / Ah this diseased, feverish disproportionate adhesiveness / Remember Fred Vaughan" (Notebooks, 888–890). Whitman is certainly "feverish" in poem l and as "out" as he could possibly be in proclaiming his new love, but the poem is also musical, one of the "overtures" that mark key poems of this period and that serve to announce a theme while transporting us from our world into Whitman's. The theme is clear—consuming love of . . . a man? men? love? friendship? the reader/lover of the earlier poetry? It's hard to tell and hard to know whom Whitman is addressing, for he ends the poem exclaiming that his soul is "Wafted in all directions, O love, for friendship, for you." From the start, Whitman is having trouble imagining his reader.

Poem 2 gives the sequence part of its title: "I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing." The live oak shows Whitman the gulf now separating his former self from the new self he's beginning to explore in these poems. He's mesmerized by the tree, as we all are by vivid reminders of former selves, but he ends the poem affirming his new self, saying that although the live oak thrives alone (creatively in "uttering joyous leaves" and sexually in that it "glistens"), "I know very well I could not." We learn why in poem 3, a great love poem and the most contented poem Whitman ever wrote. It has the best of his tenderness and his homespun grandeur, and it's prosodically masterful—the lines swelling, cresting, and subsiding like the ocean waves Whitman sought to re-create in language. In its mingling of excitement and serenity at the end, the poem recalls the aftermath of the visionary experience in "Song of Myself," but Whitman isn't describing a visionary experience here—just a deeply loving, deeply human one. Note how he places the beach at a safe distance from the capitol, site of the reigning ideology of love and sex that he transgresses in this poem. Note too the nice awareness by which this "crime against nature" is endorsed by nature's congratulations. Clearly, nature isn't bothered by anything these lovers are doing.

The world of the capitol is bound to be, however, and that must be why, after the joyful satisfactions of poem 3, Whitman is "yearning and thoughtful" in poem 4, pining for men "in other lands . . . far, far away." The poem makes sense in terms of the love narrative (since Whitman has a lover, he imagines the whole world full of lovers), but it's also a conventional homosexual fantasy in which the world is conceived as a hospitable place for same-sex lovers. Oddly, the poem reads as though the experience of the previous poem had never happened, for why would the satisfied lover of poem 3 suddenly be "alone" and yearning for "brethren and lovers" in places further and further beyond the boundaries of his own country?

Transgression, retreat; transgression, retreat: therein we have the choreography of "Live Oak" and "Calamus." Thus, after the transgression in poem 3 and the retreat in poem 4 in which Whitman passively yearns for remote men, he transgresses again in poem 5, this time confrontationally by telling the United States that "I can be your singer of songs no longer" for "One who loves me is jealous of me, and withdraws me from all but love." Whitman affirms his new identity here, but his willed conclusion ("It is to be enough for us that we are together") along with his inflated diction ("I sever from what I thought would suffice me") suggest that the capitol is finding ways to invade his new territory. The capitol in fact occupies most of the poem in the form of Whitman's list of things he's renouncing, while the "One who loves me" (the ostensible subject of the poem) hardly appears. A split between the two narratives becomes obvious, for Whitman's claim that he no longer cares about his "songs of the New World" is belied by the space he accords them, while what he presents as his voluntary renunciation of his poetry is no such thing because he cannot be both America's foremost poet and its first homosexual lover. Whitman must renounce his former poetry, and his confused view of the matter results in an ambivalent, bombastic poem in which he sounds more like a man addressing Congress than one celebrating his lover. A deep tension appears in Whitman between pride in his new self and a resistance to that self which absorbs him and provokes his blustering defiance.

The tension breaks out again in poem 7 when Whitman instructs "You bards of ages hence" to "Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover" but then walks with his lover "apart from other men." Somewhere in the future it's fine for Whitman to be known as a man-lover; in the present, however, he and his lover had better become invisible. All lovers prefer privacy, but Whitman is learning that in a homophobic society, homosexual lovers require it. That's surely why he looks so yearningly at those men in poem 6 who hug and kiss "in the midst of the crowd." If they get to do that, why can't he? But he knows he can't—except of course in "parting," which by this point in Whitman's career has become the central act of his poetry—and so the more he exposes and expresses his love in "Live Oak," the more there's a contrary, self-protective impulse in him to hide it or somehow displace it, distance it or sequester it from public view.

In poem 8 Whitman has been abandoned, and it's here that the two narratives most forcefully coincide. Without the narrative of homophobic oppression I'm trying to expose, it's merely odd that a man who has boasted of so many like-minded lovers and friends would "harbor" his love "silent and endless," along with his "anguish and passion." And odder still that in being abandoned he would of all feelings feel shame. Yet Whitman's sense of shame and isolation will be painfully familiar to most lesbians and gay men as a part of the process of coming out. "Is there even one other like me?" is a question that gay men and lesbians have asked themselves by the millions. At the heart of this poem, Whitman echoes Shakespeare's Sonnet 121 ("I am that I am") in which Shakespeare is "vile esteemed" by those who "count bad what I think good." But Shakespeare's self-definition is affirmative and defiant in the face of such judgment, whereas in Whitman the judgment combines with his pain at being abandoned in a way that defeats him: "(I am ashamed—but it is useless—I am what I am)." "It is useless" describes the related efforts to love a man and to write about that love, for everything in Whitman's culture tells him that both efforts are wrong. He thus enacts the centuries-old response to such cultural judgment—he stifles his cries, harbors his feelings "silent and endless" (he hides them and protects them, hides them to protect them), and he ends the poem "taciturn and deprest" in a mood reminiscent of a Poe nightmare. By shaming Whitman, by isolating him, and—most disastrous for a writer—by silencing him, homophobia wins the determining agon of "Live Oak." From here to the end, it controls the sequence.

Immediately after Whitman's abandonment, poem 9 gives us a compensation in the form of a wish fulfillment, a utopian solution to the twin pains of abandonment and social oppression: "I dreamed in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth, / I dreamed that was the new City of Friends." The danger Whitman now perceives is clear from the fact that his imagined city is attacked by "the whole of the rest of the earth." How perfectly typical, then, for a man who feels so threatened, who locates the site of love far from the capitol, who daydreams of sympathetic men "far, far away," who walks with his lover "apart from other men," and who feels isolated and shamed in his loving to dream of a safe city of male lovers, a subversively different capitol where men can safely love men in public. As always in his poetry, Whitman is entranced by the visibility of men loving men: "It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city, / And in all their looks and words." The images of men publicly touching, kissing, embracing, and holding hands that run throughout the first three editions of Leaves of Grass comprise a set of personal icons for Whitman, for they represent not his satisfactions but his yearnings, as in this poem where the images occur in a dream within a dream. It's hard to imagine anything more remote from possibility or a maneuver more self-protective.

In the last three poems, the former lover returns or a new lover appears—it's not entirely clear, but it hardly matters as far as the love narrative is concerned since the prohibition against speaking of homosexual love has triumphed. In poem 10 Whitman expresses his love only in the silence of thought ("Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is burning within me"), now boasting of what only two poems earlier had caused him great pain. In poem 11 he imagines his love as so "fierce and terrible" that "I dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs." In his earlier poetry Whitman has said that he won't speak because he chooses not to or that he can't speak because words fail him, but never has he said that he dare not speak—though he will say so in other poems written in this period. Little wonder then that in the final poem Whitman abandons his new self, exchanging the role of seeking lover for that of sought-for teacher.

What a sad journey the sequence takes us on, from the proud lover in the beginning who boasts of loving men to the cautious teacher at the end who can only profit young men who've already learned the lesson of loving "silently." (What then is there for this teacher to teach?) The whole weight of his homophobic culture finally descends on Whitman, exacting silence and with it the end of the sequence. There is literally nowhere for Whitman the lover and writer to go from this point on.

"Live Oak" is a deeply troubled sequence, mostly about the confusion, pain, and fear that surround the fact of men loving men. It's tremulous with yearning, but Whitman's satisfactions are accomplished mostly in reminiscence, in boast, in dream or daydream, or somewhere in the future. It contains some excellent but also some terrible writing, including one of the most awkward inversions ever "penned," as Whitman might say: "All alone stood it." But then, improbable as it seems, Whitman is writing sonnets, and he naturally has Shakespeare in mind since Shakespeare provides him with sanction for writing about homosexual love. Shakespeare is an otherwise unfortunate influence, however, since the more Whitman transgresses, the more there's a compensatory, even propitiatory move in him toward conventionally approved forms of writing, and Shakespeare fuels that unfortunate tendency. A line like "What think you I take my pen in hand to record?" is as awful as it is because it's Whitman filtered through Shakespeare—the pose of poet in awkward pentameter, as if Whitman can't trust his new identity or even his prosody. In the next few years, the thy's and thou's Whitman banished from his early work begin to reappear, and before long this radically original poet becomes a largely conventional one, producing second-rate verse that wins him some of the popular audience he always longed for. The retreat from his sexuality that follows the third edition thus has its counterpart in a degeneration of Whitman's style.

Such problems of style in "Live Oak" also derive from Whitman's difficulty in finding a way to deal with his subject, a difficulty that shows in euphemisms like "manly love" and "robust love" and in frequent couplings of friend and lover; friendship and love; a friend, a lover; my dear friends, my lovers. Whitman is searching for a new vocabulary with which to speak of men loving men, but his paired words and phrases (the former disarming the latter) convey not new meanings so much as his discomfort in speaking of his love. He's extremely ambivalent about the act of writing poetry: in poem 2 he needs a lover to "utter leaves," but because he has a lover in poem 5, "I am indifferent to my own songs." He never fully imagines his lover, who fades in and out until finally disappearing toward the end, and he's having a hard time imagining his audience. Is he writing to himself as his private memo suggests, to the reader/lover of his earlier work, to "bards of ages hence," to the United States, or to some potential readership "eligible to burst forth" if only he can find the right attitude and tone? The odd omission here is the lover himself (think again of Shakespeare). Not once does Whitman speak to his lover about his desire; in fact, he's quite clear in saying at the end that "I dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs." In a sequence written about men loving men in general and one man in particular in which he initially boasts of singing songs of "manly love," to arrive at a prohibition so strong that he ends by not daring to speak at all is astounding—at least until we recall where and when Whitman wrote these poems.

Though "Live Oak with Moss" ends in silence, Whitman pressed on in exploring his homosexuality by assembling the much longer "Calamus" sequence. In working up "Calamus" he worked out some of the problems in the earlier sequence. For one, his readership comes into view; he's now writing for "them that love, as I myself am capable of loving." It's as if Whitman has rewritten the opening lines of "Song of Myself" to read "I celebrate my homosexuality, / And what I assume, you, dear common reader, shall not assume." Yet Whitman's clearer sense of audience brings with it a heightened awareness of further transgressing the boundaries of the culturally acceptable. After all, he knows that he will publish "Calamus," so the bolder he becomes, the more aware he is of the cultural prohibitions surrounding his project. "Calamus" is shot through with a sense of fear and impending danger, the need for caution and seclusion, and again the sense of a prohibition against speaking of desire for men. Whitman's attention is so troubled by thoughts of what he dare and dare not do that he sometimes seems oblivious to what he's up against, as in "Calamus" 22:

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look
      upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (It
      comes to me, as of a dream,)
. . . . . . . .
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we
      pass—you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you when I
      sit alone, or wake at night alone,
I am to wait—I do not doubt I am to meet you again,
I am to see to it that I do not lose you. ("To a Stranger," l–2, 7–10)
It's a bold imagination that in mid-nineteenth-century America could replace a heterosexual model of love relationships based on capitalist possession with this gliding exchange of erotic gifts between strangers, but the poem ends in defeat for Whitman. "I am not to speak to you—I am to think of you . . . I am to wait"—these are the words of someone who's following orders. As he often does in "Live Oak" and "Calamus," Whitman settles for an empty boast, a kind of whistling in the homophobic dark.

"Calamus" is in fact framed by such incoherence. Whitman begins the sequence declaring that he is "Resolved to sing no songs to-day but those of manly attachment" and that he will therefore "tell the secret of my nights and days." But by the penultimate poem, the songs are silent, the secret untold:

Here my last words, and the most baffling,
Here the frailest leaves of me, and yet my strongest-
      lasting,
Here I shade down and hide my thoughts—I do not
      expose them,
And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.
"Calamus" thus repeats the same movement I've outlined in "Live Oak with Moss"—a frank, unashamed celebration of same-sex love in the beginning, silence at the end. Insofar as "Calamus" is more ambitious than "Live Oak" and published besides, the tension between the need to speak and the prohibition against doing so becomes excruciating. It finally erupts in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life."

In his third edition, Whitman places "As I Ebb'd" first in a group of poems titled "Leaves of Grass," so we now find "Leaves of Grass" inside Leaves of Grass. Perhaps we're invited to take "As I Ebb'd" as a new "Song of Myself"; but if so, how different from the ebullient, self-confident speaker of five years before is this new speaker so full of self-disgust and shame. When the poem begins, Whitman is walking along the beach, one of those marginal settings that constitute for him the sites of love and knowledge. It's "late in the autumn day" and he's tormented by doubt and confusion:

As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and
      closer,
At once I find, the least thing that belongs to me, or that
      I see or touch, I know not;
I, too, but signify, at the utmost, a little washed-up drift,
A few sands and dead leaves to gather,
Gather, and merge myself as part of the sands and drift.

O baffled, balked,
Bent to the very earth . . .
Oppressed with myself that I have dared to open my
      mouth,
Aware now, that, amid all the blab whose echoes recoil
      upon me, I have not once had the least idea who or
      what I am,
But that before all my insolent poems the real ME still
      stands untouched, untold, altogether unreached,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory
      signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I
      have written or shall write,
Striking me with insults till I fall helpless upon the sand.

The beach that Whitman made safe for his lover in "When I Heard at the Close of the Day" has been invaded by an embodiment of the oppression he struggled with in "Live Oak" and "Calamus." The "real ME" that in "Song of Myself" was imagined as compassionate and companionable has become humiliating and violent. This horribly changed "real ME" is in essence an outraged superego, an ideology on a rampage. Immense and terrifying, it reaches through all time and space, it leaves no room for Whitman, and at this moment it frankly wouldn't care if he died. Then nature attacks, as if in league with the phantom overhead:

O I perceive I have not understood anything—not a
      single object—and that no man ever can.

I perceive Nature here, in sight of the sea, is taking
      advantage of me, to dart upon me, and sting me,
Because I was assuming so much,
And because I have dared to open my mouth to sing
      at all. (36–39)

Threatened with annihilation, Whitman pleads with nature, "Be not too rough with me." Then what little remains of the new self he exposed and expressed in "Live Oak" and "Calamus" is swallowed up:

. . . I submit—I close with you . . .
What is yours is mine, my father . . .
I throw myself upon your breast, my father,
I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me,
I hold you so firm, till you answer me something.
Kiss me, my father,
Touch me with your lips, as I touch those I love,
Breathe to me, while I hold you close, the secret of the
      wondrous murmuring I envy,
For I fear I shall become crazed, if I cannot emulate it,
      and utter myself as well as it.
In the words "I submit" and the address to the father that follows, Whitman pays the price of having dared so much. The poet who previously had merged with and absorbed the people and things of his experience is now himself merged and absorbed. In De Profundis, Oscar Wilde, another nineteenth-century writer who offended his culture because of his sexual difference, says that "the moment of repentance is the moment of initiation," and so it is here. Initiated into the father's ideology, Whitman the lover, singing his unabashed songs of homosexual love, henceforth ceases to exist. His place is taken by Whitman the father, the "good gray poet" who writes publicly acceptable poems of American patriotism so dear to the father's heart, Whitman the male nurse who ministers to the Civil War soldiers he called "my boys" and "my sons," Whitman the "laughing philosopher" who wrote no more successful love poems except his great elegy for a father.

Some may think it simplistic to argue that homophobia is the sole or even the main reason why, after his third edition, Whitman never again wrote frankly about loving men. Granted, other influences played their part in the sea-change that took place in Whitman's life and work, foremost among them the continued failure of his book, his Civil War nursing, his advancing age and declining health, and his abrupt dismissal from his government job by Secretary of the Interior James Harlan. But it would be at least as simplistic to think that the operations of any ideology are ever less than complicated, covert, and pervasive, by which I mean to suggest that these additional influences contributed, each in its different way, to the pressures on Whitman whereby he henceforth remained silent on the subject of homosexual love. To take only one example, shortly after Whitman was fired, William D. O'Connor wrote a letter of protest to Secretary Harlan in which he mounted a new defense of Whitman's poetry, one that he would elaborate in The Good Gray Poet and that would become a dominant theme in future defenses of Leaves of Grass: "I think it imperative that the productions of an author of this kind, be largely tried by the standard of his actual life" (F. D. Miller, 93). In other words, in O'Connor's muddled view there couldn't possibly be anything offensive to public morality in the Leaves because Whitman lived a pure life. A man that pure couldn't write anything that wasn't free of taint and certainly couldn't be as vile as many said he was. Thus, in attempting to defend Whitman, O'Connor created yet one more reason why Whitman began a lifelong effort to mute and suppress the evidence of homosexuality in his work, for obviously the man O'Connor argued for couldn't possibly be a man-lover. At the very least, he could not be perceived as such.

Imagine if you will one last sequence, a frankly biographical one. Whitman copies "Live Oak with Moss" into his little notebook in the spring of 1859. That summer, he begins assembling the "Calamus" cluster from poems mostly written around the same time. In December he publishes "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking" in which the boy on the beach at night is awakened to his vocation as poet by the bird's song of loss, whereupon the boy realizes that "Never again [shall] the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me." Imagine that "Live Oak with Moss" contains those "cries of unsatisfied love" (their epigraph "We two together no more!") and shows Whitman exploring the world of homosexual love he'd longed for in his earlier poetry while learning the costs of expressing that love. Imagine that "Calamus" shows him continuing that exploration but with the growing sense that his project is doomed. Imagine finally that "As I Ebb'd" (completed last in this sequence and published in April 1860) conveys the outcome of his struggle between a deep need to express his love and a prohibition against doing so that was so powerful it finally defeated him.

"Remember now—Remember then." A tantalizing, poignant couplet. For if Whitman did in fact recall his suppressed sequence "during the days of the approach of Death," did he also remember enough to realize how much more than a lover he had lost?





"Live Oak with Moss"

l

NOT heat flames up and consumes,
Not sea-waves hurry in and out,
Not the air, delicious and dry, the air of the ripe
      summer, bears lightly along white down-balls of
      myriads of seeds, wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop
      where they may,
Not these—O none of these, more than the flames of
      me, consuming, burning for his love whom I love!
O none, more than I, hurrying in and out;
Does the tide hurry, seeking something, and never give
      up? O I the same;
O nor down-balls, nor perfumes, nor the high rain-
      emitting clouds, are borne through the open air,
Any more than my Soul is borne through the open air,
Wafted in all directions, O love, for friendship, for you.

2

I SAW in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it, and the moss hung down from the
      branches,
Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous
      leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of
      myself,
But I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves,
      standing alone there, without its friend, its lover
      near—for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves
      upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away—and I have placed it in sight in
      my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear
      friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token—it makes me think
      of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in
      Louisiana, solitary, in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life, without a friend, a
      lover, near,
I know very well I could not.

3

WHEN I heard at the close of the day how my name had
      been received with plaudits in the capitol, still it was
      not a happy night for me that followed;
And else, when I caroused, or when my plans were
      accomplished, still I was not happy;
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect
      health, refreshed, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of
      autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and
      disappear in the morning light,
When I wandered alone over the beach, and,
      undressing, bathed, laughing with the cool waters,
      and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend, my lover, was
      on his way coming, O then I was happy;
O then each breath tasted sweeter—and all that day my
      food nourished me more—And the beautiful day
      passed well,
And the next came with equal joy—And with the next,
      at evening, came my friend;
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll
      slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as
      directed to me, whispering, to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the
      same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was
      inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—And that
      night I was happy.

4

THIS moment as I sit alone, yearning and thoughtful, it
      seems to me there are other men in other lands,
      yearning and thoughtful;
It seems to me I can look over and behold them, in
      Germany, Italy, France, Spain—Or far, far away, in
      China, or in Russia or India—talking other dialects;
And it seems to me if I could know those men better, I
      should become attached to them, as I do to men in
      my own lands,
It seems to me they are as wise, beautiful, benevolent,
      as any in my own lands;
O I know we should be brethren and lovers,
I know I should be happy with them.

5

LONG I thought that knowledge alone would suffice
      me—O if I could but obtain knowledge!
Then my lands engrossed me—Lands of the prairies,
      Ohio's land, the southern savannas, engrossed me—
      For them I would live—I would be their orator;
Then I met the examples of old and new heroes—I
      heard of warriors, sailors, and all dauntless persons—
      And it seemed to me that I too had it in me to be as
      dauntless as any—and would be so;
And then, to enclose all, it came to me to strike up the
      songs of the New World—And then I believed my life
      must be spent in singing;
But now take notice, land of the prairies, land of the
      south savannas, Ohio's land,
Take notice, you Kanuck woods—and you Lake
      Huron—and all that with you roll toward Niagara—
      and you Niagara also,
And you, Californian mountains—That you each and all
      find somebody else to be your singer of songs,
For I can be your singer of songs no longer—One who
      loves me is jealous of me, and withdraws me from all
      but love,
With the rest I dispense—I sever from what I thought
      would suffice me, for it does not—it is now empty
      and tasteless to me,
I heed knowledge, and the grandeur of The States, and
      the example of heroes, no more,
I am indifferent to my own songs—I will go with him I
      love,
It is to be enough for us that we are together—We never
      separate again.

6

WHAT think you I take my pen in hand to record?
The battle-ship, perfect-model'd, majestic, that I saw
      pass the offing to-day under full sail?
The splendors of the past day? Or the splendor of the
      night that envelops me?
Or the vaunted glory and growth of the great city
      spread around me?—No;
But I record of two simple men I saw to-day, on the pier,
      in the midst of the crowd, parting the parting of dear
      friends,
The one to remain hung on the other's neck, and
      passionately kissed him,
While the one to depart, tightly prest the one to remain
      in his arms.

7

YOU bards of ages hence! when you refer to me, mind
      not so much my poems,
Nor speak of me that I prophesied of The States, and led
      them the way of their glories;
But come, I will take you down underneath this
      impassive exterior—I will tell you what to say of me:
Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the
      tenderest lover
The friend, the lover's portrait, of whom his friend, his
      lover, was fondest,
Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless
      ocean of love within him—and freely poured it forth,
Who often walked lonesome walks, thinking of his dear
      friends, his lovers,
Who pensive, away from one he loved, often lay
      sleepless and dissatisfied at night,
Who knew too well the sick, sick dread lest the one he
      loved might secretly be indifferent to him,
Whose happiest days were far away, through fields, in
      woods, on hills, he and another, wandering hand in
      hand, they twain, apart from other men,
Who oft as he sauntered the streets, curved with his
      arm the shoulder of his friend—while the arm of his
      friend rested upon him also.

8

HOURS continuing long, sore and heavy-hearted,
Hours of the dusk, when I withdraw to a lonesome and
      unfrequented spot, seating myself, leaning my face in
      my hands;
Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth,
      speeding swiftly the country roads, or through the
      city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling
      plaintive cries;
Hours discouraged, distracted—for the one I cannot
      content myself without, soon I saw him content
      himself without me;
Hours when I am forgotten, (O weeks and months are
      passing, but I believe I am never to forget!)
Sullen and suffering hours! (I am ashamed—but it is
      useless—I am what I am;)
Hours of my torment—I wonder if other men ever have
      the like, out of the like feelings?
Is there even one other like me—distracted—his friend,
      his lover, lost to him?
Is he too as I am now? Does he still rise in the morning,
      dejected, thinking who is lost to him? and at night,
      awaking, think who is lost?
Does he too harbor his friendship silent and endless?
      harbor his anguish and passion?
Does some stray reminder, or the casual mention of a
      name, bring the fit back upon him, taciturn and
      deprest?
Does he see himself reflected in me? In these hours,
      does he see the face of his hours reflected?

9

I DREAMED in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the
      attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth,
I dreamed that was the new City of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust
      love—it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that
      city,
And in all their looks and words.

10

O YOU whom I often and silently come where you are,
      that I may be with you,
As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the
      same room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake
      is playing within me.

11

EARTH! my likeness!
Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric
      there,
I now suspect that is not all;
I now suspect there is something fierce in you, eligible
      to burst forth;
For an athlete is enamoured of me—and I of him,
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in
      me, eligible to burst forth,
I dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs.

12

TO the young man, many things to absorb, to engraft, to
      develop, I teach, to help him become élève of mine,
But if blood like mine circle not in his veins,
If he be not silently selected by lovers, and do not
      silently select lovers,
Of what use is it that he seek to become élève of mine?


Publication Information
Reproduced from Robert K. Martin, ed., The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman: The Life After the Life (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992), pp. 185-205, by permission.


Whitman Archive ID
anc.00154


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