On Whitman’s Prose

by Eric Byrd

UnknownLiterature flies so high and is so hotly spiced, that our notes may seem hardly more than breaths of common air, or draughts of water to drink. But that is part of our lesson. (Specimen Days, “New Themes Entered Upon”)

Intensely artful, intensely vernacular – some draughts of the tipsy-making water Emerson talks about in the essay by which young Whitman was called (“The Poet”). But Whitman's waters do not flow in the clear stream of a style that refuses to call attention to itself – the bizarre ideal of those dismayed at the demanding perceptual detours and little linguistic renewals that constitute “good” writing, truly readable writing. Whitman recoiled from what he called “the sickliness of verbal melody,” and the prose of Specimen Days is among the most casual and colloquial in English – but the style still calls and holds one's attention. Style, Flaubert insisted, is an “absolute way of seeing,” and Whitman makes us to see what he sees, in the way he sees, with all the corporeal contours and spiritual subtleties apparent to him.

And did he see! He was everywhere. Metropolitan man of ferried crowds, omnibus flaneur and opera-goer in the booming Astoria of midcentury New York City – an ink-stained bohemian, arguing politics over sudsy steins in rowdy fireman taverns – a stroller of Broadway, where he sees Andrew Jackson, Dickens, and “the first Japanese ambassadors.” In 1861 he goes down to fort-belted wartime Washington (“her surrounding hills spotted with guns”) to nurse the wounded and watch over the dying – meets the bloody boatloads down at the wharf, dresses wounds, reads the Bible at bedsides, loans books, distributes money, stamped letters and writing paper – soda water and syrups when Lee is repulsed at Gettysburg – and pens letters home for the illiterate and feeble. He doesn't know how much good he does but he cannot leave them, stays on in the embattled, cemetery- and hospital-environed capital through the four years of carnage. When not in the wards, he loafs in army camps, observes and notes the goings-on, chills with the pickets through their watches, and clerks part-time in a government bureau until its indignant head realizes he's employing an “indecent poet.” Once stands in the street all night as endless columns file past to the front, savoring unseen the jokes and songs that waft through the dark. He and Lincoln nod to each other when they pass in the street. He chats with Rebel prisoners and Union deserters; compares eastern and western, northern and southern soldiers, speculates about regional types, local moldings, the looks of future Americans. The war – “the most profound lesson of my life,” with “the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Army Hospitals” – breaks his health, and the lusty rambler is confined paralyzed for a time. He regains much of his strength later, enough to resume “gaddings-about in cities” and even to manage “a long jaunt west”—to the “distances join'd like magic” by the railroad—and there to eyewitness the course of empire, to see America planting the prairies with world-feeding wheat, tunneling railways through mountains, feeding forests into steam-powered sawmills, the sublime statistics of this titanic industry yet dwarfed by the continent itself, by the tinted canyons and empyrean peaks, the melted snows thundering through gorges.

* * *

On Abraham Lincoln:

Earlier in the summer I occasionally saw the President and his wife, toward the latter part of the afternoon, out in a barouche, on a pleasure ride through the city. Mrs. Lincoln was dress'd in complete black, with a long crape veil. The equipage is of the plainest kind, only two horses, and they nothing extra. They pass'd me once very close, and I saw the President in the face fully, as they were moving slowly, and his look, though abstracted, happen'd to be directed steadily in my eye. He bow'd and smiled, but far beneath his smile I noticed well the expression I have alluded to. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man's face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.

On New York harbor:

…the mast-hemm'd shores—the grand obelisk-like towers of the bridge, one on either side, in haze, yet plainly defin'd, giant brothers twain, throwing free graceful interlinking loops high across the tumbled tumultuous current below—(the tide is just changing to its ebb)—the broad water-spread everywhere crowded—no, not crowded, but thick as stars in the sky—with all sorts and sizes of sail and steam vessels, plying ferry-boats, arriving and departing coasters, great ocean Dons, iron-black, modern, magnificent in size and power, fill'd with their incalculable value of human life and precious merchandise—with here and there, above all, those daring, careening things of grace and wonder, those white and shaded swift-darting fish-birds, (I wonder if shore or sea elsewhere can outvie them,) ever with their slanting spars, and fierce, pure, hawk-like beauty and motion—first-class New York sloop or schooner yachts, sailing, this fine day, the free sea in a good wind. And rising out of the midst, tall-topt, ship-hemm'd, modern, American, yet strangely oriental, V-shaped Manhattan, with its compact mass, its spires, its cloud-touching edifices group'd at the centre—the green of the trees, and all the white, brown and gray of the architecture well blended, as I see it, under a miracle of limpid sky, delicious light of heaven above, and June haze on the surface below.


Specimen Days made me think of Nabokov. Whitman's attempt to discover the germs of his individual consciousness and destiny in ecological phenomena, historical patterns, and the designs of fate reminded me of Speak, Memory. Also, Whitman is an arch-aesthete guised as loafer, near-bum, democratic mingler and perceiver; a common narrator of Nabokov's Russian novels and stories is the down-at-heel but delicately dreamy émigré poet (or poet manqué) whose exuberant consciousness cannot but perceive inspiriting marvels and fated correspondences in the grimy Berlin and Prague districts to which he is relegated. The narrators of “A Guide to Berlin” and “The Letter That Never Reached Russia,” as well as Fyodor in The Gift, might say with Whitman,

The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and

hearings, on the walk in the street and the passage over

the river…

(“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”)

Whitman felt the import of, and renovated English poetry to sing, the democratic transformation and ungenteel energy of nineteenth century America (particularly the boom and rush of 1850s New York City), and Nabokov was similarly concerned with Russian literature's assimilation of the hitherto unhallowed realities encountered by its now-wandering poets (he found translating Lolita into Russian very difficult because not even his inclusive and flexible literary Russian, forged in the 1920s-30s, could at first accommodate all the gadgets and devices invented since then; if there was going to be a Russian word for jukebox, he had to coin it). A recurring theme of Nabokov's letters to his younger brother Kirill, an aspiring poet, and of his polemical sparring with Georgi Adamovich and the “Paris School” of émigré Russian poetry, is an insistence that the poet's removal to an exilic, demotic-industrial landscape isn't the end of the Russian poetic tradition born amid neoclassic palatial façades. He tells Kirill not to shun warehouses and factories, blasts with scorn and contradicts with the example of his own classically grounded modernism (so darting, filmic) Adamovich's gripe that Pushkin is useless to the émigré writer and the Pushkinian tradition of verbal artistry powerless to accommodate the political and nervous dislocations of interwar Europe.

Once in America, Nabokov fell out of the Russian milieu partly because he did not, could not as an evolving artist with a new tongue and a new milieu to master, share the easy contempt many émigrés felt for “barbaric” America. They were worn out, he tired but ever-responsive; and with butterfly net in one hand, and a stack of note-cards penciled with the germs of Lolita and Speak, Memory in the other, he hit the road—Véra behind the wheel, of course—to net and name new species, to clamber the continent's mountains and immortalize its roadside humanities. Updike said Nabokov had every excuse for exhaustion once he reached these shores—but as he had poetically assimilated Europe, he set about doing the same for America. Think of the first two chapters of Lolita's second part, the Whitmanesque catalogue that begins, “It was then that began our extensive travels all over the States.”

Whitman and Nabokov are superb landscape colorists; spooky naturalist-animists; all-perceiving enchanters sensually-primitively attuned to and obsessed with birdsong, light effects, arboreal personalities, stars, mountains, sex; and Whitman is really into butterflies, too. Both mark the point at which the highest artistry grades into mysticism and gnosis. The New World, they recognized, was not to be dismissed, especially its landscape, flora and fauna. The Rocky Mountains were a fascination to both. Whitman fell in love with Colorado's “delicious atmosphere” and mountain tops “draped in their violet haze,” thought it “the most spiritual show of objective Nature [he:] ever beheld,” and even conceived a wish to spend his last years there; while Nabokov wrote Edmund Wilson that some part of him must have been born in Colorado, for while butterfly hunting on its slopes, he was “constantly recognizing things with a delicious pang” – the Baltic contrast of “the dark velvet of fir trees against a blue of extraordinary intensity,” the appearance of the Boloria freija, a circumpolar species he had pursued as a boy through the bogs on his family estate.

We follow the stream of amber and bronze brawling along its bed, with its frequent cascades and snow-white foam. Through the cañon we fly—mountains not only each side, but seemingly, till we get near, right in front of us—every rood a new view flashing, and each flash defying description—on the almost perpendicular sides, clinging pines, cedars, spruces, crimson sumach bushes, spots of wild grass—but dominating all, those towering rocks, rocks, rocks, bathed in delicate vari-colors, with the clear sky of autumn overhead…I get out on a ten minutes' stoppage at Deer creek, to enjoy the unequal'd combination of hill, stone and wood. As we speed again, the yellow granite in the sunshine, with natural spires, minarets, castellated perches far aloft—then long stretches of straight-upright palisades, rhinoceros color—then gamboge and tinted chromos.

(Specimen Days)

Distant mountains. Near mountains. More mountains; bluish beauties never attainable, or ever turning into inhabited hill after hill; south-eastern ranges, altitudinal failures as alps go; heart and sky-piercing snow-veined gray colossi of stone, relentless peaks appearing from nowhere at a turn of the highway; timbered enormities, with a system of neatly overlapping dark firs, interrupted in places by pale puffs of aspen; pink and lilac formations, Pharaonic, phallic, “too prehistoric for words” (blasé Lo); buttes of black lava; early spring mountains with young-elephant lanugo along their spines; end-of-the-summer mountains, all hunched up their heavy Egyptian limbs folded under folds of tawny moth-eaten plush; oatmeal hills, flecked with green round oaks; a last rufous mountain with a rich rug of lucerne at its foot.