Too long have I stayed away from Whitman's 1855 Leaves of Grass. We are now on page 25, where the poet has just picked up a kind of praise for the defeated:
I sound triumphal drums for the dead . . . . I fling through my embouchures the loudest and gayest music to them,Is this not a quintessentially American sentiment, to gaze lovingly and sympathetically on the fallen? Americans are fascinated by the defeated and by the underdogs. The poet here continues to dig in American soil with not (just) a nationalist's but a completist's fervor.
Vivas to those who have failed, and to those whose war- vessels sank in the sea, and those themselves who sank in the sea,
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes, and the number-less unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known.
This is the meal pleasantly set . . . . this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,We realize that we had been in one of the poet's characteristic interludes, as the he brings back several "this is" statements. This type of statement is already a staple of the poem; it has both an indicative and self-referential purpose, as the poet looks out to the world and defines his own poem as being or creating both the world and its affects. The litany above continues the thread of the defeated and unloved.
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous . . . . I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The keptwoman and sponger and thief are hereby invited . . . . the heavy-lipped slave is invited . . . . the venerealee is invited,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.
This is the press of a bashful hand . . . . this is the float and odor of hair,
This is the touch of my lips to yours . . . . this is the murmur of yearning,
This is the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face,
This is the thoughtful merge of myself and the outlet again.
Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have . . . . for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of a rock has.
Whitman's poet shows himself repeatedly to be concerned above all with continuum, "the thoughtful merge of myself and the outlet again": continuum and recursion and reflection. And then...the poet toggles to intimacy:
Do you take it I would astonish?The poet talks to me, alone, now, in private and in trust of camaraderie. And then...the confidence is interrupted:
Does the daylight astonish? or the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?
This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody but I will tell you.
Who goes there! hankering, gross, mystical, nude?I think we have the poet here bringing us out from the realm of the defeated to one of the unabashed. The poet is at home in both lands, and in all lands.
How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?
What is a man anyhow? What am I? and what are you?
All I mark as my own you shall offset it with your own,
Else it were time lost listening to me.
I do not snivel that snivel the world over,
That months are vacuums and the ground but wallow and filth,
That life is a suck and a sell, and nothing remains at the end but threadbare crape and tears.
Whimpering and truckling fold with powders for invalids . . . . conformity goes to the fourth-removed,
I cock my hat as I please indoors or out.
Shall I pray? Shall I venerate and be ceremonious?