This is my first life 10

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this is my first life 10

Poetry and Prose by Walt Whitman

Started on the expanded 530 page edition (1891-92) of Leaves of Grass, the so called deathbed version. Reading as a periodic alternative to prose, this should keep me busy for a month or more. I had finished 1855 edition a few years ago, which is exquisite. His main device is the catalog. He inventories America, good and bad. He loves the totality. Its fascinating how this poetry of exhortation, seemingly addressed to a multitude, can also be intimate.

What a paean to masculinity, to the body! The play of physique through clothing—and without clothing. The naked male is iconographic here. Its always a surprise to me how very transparent he was in his preferences so early in our history. Women by contrast, though he seeks to balance his men with them, lack physical detail that brings the lusty descriptions of men to life. (The Female equally with the Male I sing.) Yet women are far more likely to be described by their setting, the home, or their place amid a tumult of children, than for their physicality. Part of this was simply the age, when there was great outrage against prurient feminine depiction, among so-called polite (i.e. hypocritical) society at least; part seems to be Whitmans disinterest. Im reminded of Michelangelos Medici Tombs in Florence, whose female nudes have been criticized as too male, their musculature wrong, their breasts appended almost as an afterthought.

Specimen Days begins with an overview of both the paternal and maternal branches of his family and their lives on Long Island, New York, in the early 1800s. The description of L.I. Includes some of his boyish activities there, his friends and their exploits. Its a vivid dispatch from another world. That he writes of these matters so late in life--he visits the old family graveyards and resurrects his dead--lends special poignance. He moves on to his well-known visits to the bedsides of injured Civil War (1861-65) soldiers, mostly Union but Confederate also, among whom his brother George lay convalescing for a time. He writes letters home for the soldiers, distributes small amounts of money, listens to their tales, reads them the Bible, kisses a few, (probably fellates a few more) and watches them die. Most are amputees, some gravely ill with typhoid. Some laid helpless on the field of battle for days before being brought to primitive field hospitals.
Oh heavens, what scene is this? – is this indeed humanity – these butchers shambles? There are several of them. There they lie, in the largest, in an open space in the woods, from 200 to 300 poor fellows – the groans and screams – the odor of blood, mixed with the fresh scent of the night, the grass, the trees – the slaughter-house! O well is it their mothers, their sisters cannot see them – cannot conceive, and never conceived, these things.


In the section called A Cavalry Camp, Whitmans enthusiasm--can we call it ecstasy?--at for the first time being among actual soldiers, and not only the sick, seems to me keen. Back in Washington in August of 1863, he daily sees President Lincoln on LEnfants broad, dusty avenues. Before long they have a nodding acquaintence with each other. Sometimes the president is in a barouche, at other times he rides a grey horse amid a detachment of uniformed cavalry, swords drawn.

Ive read only half of Specimen Days, in which everything seems to work. Every phrase is compelling. After the war, Whitman stayed in Washington to work in the Office of the Attorney General in 1866 and 67 and, he says, for some time afterward. In February 1873 hes stricken with a paralysis that sounds like stroke. It forces him to retreat to the famous little house in Camden, New Jersey. Hes bed-ridden there through 1875 and 76. On recovery he is still partly disabled but is able to retreat to a country farm belonging to his friends the Staffords on Timber Creek, twelve or thirteen miles from where it enters the Delaware. Here the book enters a nature phase. All I see before me now are descriptions of nature. It remains to be seen if I will be as beguiled by these pages as I was by his war recollections.
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Published 13.05.2019

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