I had thought initially of leaving out American poets from this series. The principal reason for this is that, with one clear exception, I am not sure that they achieve excellence in their fields. It is true that I have already included some writers whose excellence as poets might be doubted, but I believe they more than make up for this by their general standing as writers. This is not true of any of the American poets.
In case my rationale might seem subjective, I should note that, obviously, if I do not think highly of the generality, I would not do justice to them. But on balance I think I should try, where I find it possible, given that I cannot really omit the one I admire most. And with regard to the others I shall deal with, I should acknowledge that there is something special about the perspectives they present to us.
Foremost in this regard is Walt Whitman, whom Harold Bloom, in an otherwise generally convincing analysis of genius, thinks worthy of the highest praise. He refers to his seminal influence, and perhaps a pun is indeed intended here, on several writers including D H Lawrence and the host of youthful homosexual poets at the turn of the last century who found Whitman inspiring.
Perhaps, in fairness to the man, I should begin by citing some of the passages Bloom finds overwhelming. His favourite passage in Song of Myself he claims gives a ‘gracious, affectionate description of the Me myself’
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it
This does not seem very illuminating, and Bloom notes that his students ‘divide as to whether this charmingly cool citizen is female or male’. But then she/he turns to mock the writers ‘poetic pretensions’ –
O baffled, balk’d, bent to the very earth,
Oppress’d with myself that I have dared to open my mouth,
Aware now that amid all that blab whose echoes recoil upon me I have
not once had the least idea who or what I am,
But that before all my arrogant poems the real Me stands yet
untouch’d, untold, altogether unreach’d,
Withdrawn far, mocking me with mock-congratulatory signs and bows,
With peals of distant ironical laughter at every word I have written,
Pointing in silence to these songs, and then to the sand beneath
Compared with this, a passage from Bunch Poem that Bloom quotes would seem less solipsistic, but the next line that he omits brings us back to the self-indulgence
The young man that wakes, deep at night, the hot
hand seeking to repress what would master
him—the strange half-welcome pangs, vis-
ions, sweats—the pulse pounding through
palms and trembling encirling fingers—the
young man all colored, red, ashamed, angry;
The souse upon me of my lover the sea, as I lie
willing and naked,
This obsession with the self and its fantasies is light years away from Wordsworth’s exploration of his own sensations, to which we can respond so readily. Whitman however inhabits a world of his own, and though one is aware of a great deal of energy, I am not convinced that this communicates widely, except in that it deals with matters that, because generally suppressed, seem exciting when set down in black and white.
I should note that repressed or rather suppressed homosexuality has certainly contributed much to literature, as with Forster say, or Thomas Mann or Tennessee Williams or, amongst poets, Wilfred Owen. So has its overt expression, in Gide or Auden. But the combination of repression and bombast, which Whitman evinces, seems to me merely sound and fury, signifying nothing very much. It is of course understandable that this trumpeting should have appealed to those who felt they had to contain themselves in the restrictive social milieu in which Whitman’s excesses seemed like a breath of fresh air; but in itself it conveys neither beauty nor understanding. Nor, to be blunt, does it sound nice, and there is rather a lot of it, centred upon a powerful but not especially appealing, pace Bloom’s ‘charmingly cool’, personality.
Whitman did occasionally however manage to step outside himself, as in the poem Bloom thinks ‘implicitly culminates Whitman’s poetry, When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. This is an elegy on Abraham Lincoln, and some of it is touching, though I would not call it poetry –
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
What Bloom describes as the ‘elegy’s superb crisis’ is supposed to be a song of a bird to which the ‘voice of my spirit tallied’ –
Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.
Prais’d be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.
Such consolation for death seems to me hollow, and it is not made more convincing by Whitman’s characteristic reference to the soldiers dead in the Civil War
I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer’d not,
The living remain’d and suffer’d, the mother suffer’d,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer’d,
And the armies that remain’d suffer’d.
But I suppose we should register his understanding here of the continuing suffering of the bereaved in a war, even though the full rest attributed to the dead is no consolation for the waste of war. And to end on an even more positive note, I have to confess to a soft spot for one of Whitman’s poems, his elegy for Abraham Lincoln, though this is obviously in a very different style from his other work.
In this poem he uses the image of a ship coming to port to convey the conclusion of the American Civil War, in which the guiding force of the Union died at the moment of triumph. The poem is worth citing in full, for the manner in which Whitman sustains his metaphor and conveys the depth and dignity of his grief.
O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills; 10
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths–for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won; 20
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead
The poem commands one’s attention and one’s sympathy. And yet, I cannot but note that, when one compares the imagery with what Tennyson achieves in Crossing the Bar, one realizes the difference between a poet and a writer of verse. Tennyson is succinct, and uses sound too to convey sense, and an impression of a world much larger than himself. Whitman does nothing similar. Wordsworth’s dictum then comes to mind, about poetry representing an overflow of emotion, recollected in tranquility. With Whitman there was little recollection, and less tranquility. His verse was only about strong emotion, not recollected but simply released. But I suppose an excess of emotion too has its place.