As I ponder'd in silence,
Returning upon my poems, considering, lingering long,
A Phantom arose before me with distrustful aspect,
Terrible in beauty, age, and power,
The genius of poets of old lands,
As to me directing like flame its eyes,
With finger pointing to many immortal songs,
And menacing voice, What singest thou? it said,
Know'st thou not there is but one theme for ever-enduring
And this is the theme of War, the fortune of battles,
The making of perfect soldiers.
Be it so, then I answer'd,
I too haughty Shade also sing war, and a longer and greater one
Waged in my book with varying fortune, with flight, advance
and retreat, victory deferr'd and wavering,
(Yet methinks certain, or as good as certain, at the last,) the field
For life and death, for the Body and for the eternal Soul.
Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battles,
I above all promote brave soldiers.
While I have admitted before to not being a huge fan of Walt Whitman, I, as Ezra Pound did, have decided to make my peace with him. And fortuitously, I was given a beautiful copy of his seminal collection, Leaves of Grass as a gift. So I have begun delving fully into Walt Whitman's work, and I happy to find myself changed. This bold, declaratory poem is the second in the volume, and speaks beautifully to the challenges any artist faces, and answers that challenge with breath-taking confidence.
The poem begins from after having written poetry. Whitman "ponder'd in silence" his poems, "considering, lingering long"on them. It is then that he introduces the second character of the poem, the "Phantom" of poets past. He describes it as "the genius of poets of old lands." He speaks of the European masters, the looming giants of literature. This is a feeling that I can relate to, as I'm sure any creative type can. As an aside, whenever I sing Bach, I wonder how anyone else ever motivated themselves to write music.
Regardless, this Phantom approaches Whitman. "What singest thou?" it asks him. Put more plainly, "what poetry do you write?" It's a challenge, a directive to prove your value. However, the Phantom goes on. It asserts that there is only one theme: War, and the making of perfect soldiers. I can imagine how anything can be framed as war, really. The making of perfect soldiers could be the cultivation of a cultured person, educated in the works of the great masters.
Whitman does not shrink from the challenge. Rather, he stands and answers this Phantom without fear. If anything, he taunts the Phantom, calling it a "haughty Shade." He goes on to describe his way of "sing[ing] war." In his book (Whitman's, Leaves of Grass) is waged life and death, the Body and the eternal Soul. And it is here that Whitman declares himself arrived among the great poets. "Lo, I too am come, chanting the chant of battle. I above all promote brave soldiers." I find Whitman's confidence in declaring himself arrived intoxicating. He was not alone in thinking so, either. At the first publishing of Leaves of Grass, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to him, and said, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. I find incomparable things said incomparably well."
Whitman doesn't seek the creation of "perfect soldiers" in his "chant of battle" (poetry) but "brave soldiers." I feel that is an important distinction, and one reflected in Whitman's life and works. His politics were radical, as was his homosexuality. But Whitman was brave, and so was his poetry. I find it beautiful where once I found it overly saccharine, and I am seeing it with fresh eyes. It is accessible and I look forward to making my way through the whole book. I will not take you through the whole book, but do not be surprised if I post more Whitman in the coming months.