May 6, 2020

Holding Walt Whitman’s Mirror Up to the “Very Age and Body of the Time”

By Stuart Mitchner

There is certainly not one government in Europe but is now watching the war in this country, with the ardent prayer that the United States may be effectually split, crippled, and dismember’d by it.
—Walt Whitman, circa 1864

It was when the current administration seemed to be inciting civil unrest in the name of liberty that I began rereading the 1861-1865 entries in Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days in America, where he calls “the war of attempted secession … the distinguishing event” of his time. In his notes to the volume he assembled in the early 1880s, the “specimens” were “impromptu jottings” collected during visits to “the sick and wounded of the army, both on the field and in the hospitals in and around Washington city.” Given the science-driven nature of the ongoing, no-end-in-sight “war” against the coronavirus, it’s worth noting that the poet’s use of the clinical word “specimens” refers to “persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bed-side, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead.” Some entries “were scratch’d down … while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes,” and are left just as he “threw them by after the war, blotch’d here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, … not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march.”

Musings on a Mask

As soon as I tie on the mask, an ordinary walk becomes a wartime narrative. Sensing someone else almost directly behind me, I obey the social distancing guidelines and move to my left, out of the way, and as he passes, we exchange a look, a shared awareness that there’s a war going on and we’re living in the so-called epicenter, with more fatalities per capita at this moment than any other state.

This being the first time I’ve been out for a walk with a piece of Scotch plaid tied over my nose and mouth, I’m imagining masked versions of everyone from Mickey Mouse to Mozart, Darwin to Dostoevsky, including my own history from the bandanna-masked outlaw in boyhood shoot-outs and sword fights to the surgical-masked, blissed-out father witnessing the birth of a son. Mainly, I’m hearing Bob Dylan’s voice as if through a densely-woven mask as he growls his way past “the cities of the plague” to “the last outback at the world’s end” in “Ain’t Talkin,’” the haunting endgame song on Modern Times, an album recorded 15 years ago. Another track on my pandemic playlist is “Murder Most Foul,” Dylan’s epic meditation on the Kennedy assassination, the title lifted from Shakespeare and presented as a gift to “fans and followers” along with the uncharacteristically empathetic advisory “stay safe, stay observant.”

Holding Up the Mirror

It’s thanks to Dylan’s move from “Murder Most Foul” to his most recent release “I Contain Multitudes” that this column begins in the month when both Dylan and Whitman were born, their birthdays a week apart, May 24-31. More to the point is the way the poet who tended the wounded on the field and in the hospitals evokes the health care workers who are the soldiers of the hour risking everything in the front lines of a leaderless war. In fact, the passage from Shakespeare best suited to the occasion is Hamlet’s speech to the players, where he says the “purpose of playing … both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.” If there was ever a time to hold Whitman’s mirror up to nature, it’s now. Only the original, undisputed, container of multitudes can say, “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,/And filter and fibre your blood.” As for empathy: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”

The catch is that Whitman’s mirror, like Shakespeare’s, is large enough to reflect clowns and kings, fools and knaves, its surface susceptible to mysterious distortions, complications, and contradictions like the one in the penultimate 51st section of “Song of Myself” leading to the boast Dylan borrows for a song. “Do I contradict myself?/Very well, then, I contradict myself;/(I am large — I contain multitudes.)”

All through Leaves of Grass, Whitman becomes what he contains, which is to say everything and everybody, including Dylan and his borrowed multitudes. He can be as sly, secretive and sinister as Dylan’s persona in “Ain’t Talking.” At the same time, in the moment, in life, “at the first and now,” he can be the embodiment of compassion, as in the bedside notes collected in Specimen Days, where he gives the full measure of his devotion to wounded and dying soldiers, whether they fought for or against the Union.

The only known recording of Whitman reading in his own voice can be found on YouTube. You can hear just the hint of a broad New York accent as the 70-year-old reads from a six-line poem titled “America” celebrating “equal daughters, equal sons,/All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old/Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich./Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom Law and Love….”

By then, he was living in New Jersey, listed in the Camden Directory of 1877 as “Whitman, Walt, Poet.” Looking back in Specimen Days, he claims that the war not only “substantially settled the question of disunion,” but “was of eternal importance” for revealing that down in the depths “of New World humanity there had form’d and harden’d a primal hardpan of national Union will, determin’d and in the majority, refusing to be tamper’d with or argued against, confronting all emergencies, and capable at any time of bursting all surface bonds, and breaking out like an earthquake.”

Paying a Visit

I’ve only been able to read an online preview of poet Mark Doty’s new book What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life (Norton $25.95), which he will be discussing in a joint Labyrinth and Library livestream presentation tonight, Wednesday, May 6 at 6 p.m.

In his preface, “Apparition,” Doty recalls a 1996 visit to Whitman’s house, now a museum operated by the state, as it was when I visited earlier in the decade. Doty found it hard “to feel any sort of vitality transmitted forward” until he noticed a stuffed bird, perhaps “some sort of small parrot” on the topmost shelf in a glass display case. “Firmly dead as he was, maybe all the more so for having been made immortal, he was nonetheless the first sign of the actual life lived here.” Doty pictures the bird alive: “I thought of him climbing up a wool-sleeved arm toward Walt’s shoulder, where he could sit there above the famous open collar.” Slipping “out of himself for a moment,” Doty imagines looking through the eyes of Whitman’s “green friend when those eyes were still living gel. I saw the pinkish, wrinkled skin of a robust old man’s neck, right before me, comforting, and suddenly I could smell his warm skin, dusted with talc from his bath.”

My version of the “vitality transmitted forward” was the enthusiasm of my guide. It may be that I, too, slipped out of myself for a moment, seeing her as a double for Diana Ross, with a flower in her hair and wrists bedecked with bangles and bracelets. Whoever she was, she’d developed a lively relationship with the man whose home she was showing me, and I’m sure that Whitman would have liked her as much as she seemed to like him. She talked about the man as if she’d grown up playing at his feet or sitting on his lap in his rocking chair, which she couldn’t help laughing at as she pointed out the photo of himself he’d had framed and attached to the back. “Look at him,” her laughter said. “He’s flirting with us!” And so he was, “out of the cradle endlessly rocking” and endlessly making eyes at the world.

Upstairs, as she showed me the bed he died in, she was still smiling, as if the idea of death were no less amusing than the idea of having a picture of yourself in your own rocking chair. When I asked about the battered black object poking out from beneath Whitman’s death bed, she pulled it fully into view. “This is his bath tub,” she said. “Well, not exactly the actual tub, but the tub that held the tub he took his baths in. You know, to catch the overflow.”

Maybe Mark Doty picked up on Walt’s overflow when he imagined smelling the robust old poet’s “warm skin, dusted with talc from his bath.”