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"Let there arise out of you a band of people inviting to all that is good enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong; they are the ones to attain felicity".
(surah Al-Imran,ayat-104)
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User Name: Dr.Maqsood
Full Name: Dr. Maqsood Jafri
User since: 19/Nov/2011
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Walt  Whitman:  American National Poet

 

By:  Dr. Maqsood Jafri

 

Walt Whitman is a modern American Poet. He is considered to be the introducer and innovator of prose poetry in American literature. He hailed from a meager family and in youth period remained the victim of penury and poverty. He started his career as a clerk and did some other los salaried jobs. on the publication of his poetical work titled " Leaves of Grass", he was severely criticized by some critics of promoting some  immoral norms. Bur a time came when he was recognized and praised by great literary giant Emerson. Then onwards, he earned much name and fame. He is known as the National Poet of America. He is enjoys the epithet Poet od Democracy. He was a great champion of freedom of speech. He was not a traditional poet. He promoted modern sensibilities and was a well read person. His patriotic passion is laudatory. Malcolm Cowley in his foreword on Walt Whitman in " The Works of Walt Whitman" cites the words of the poet about his strong conviction in Self-expression. " I am determined, says Walt Whitman," to have the world know what I was pleased to do." Malcolm further opines that for half a century his work had been discussed not as poetry, but usually as " affirmation." Whatever that means is of America, democracy, comradeship or the socialist revolution. He writes:" My introduction was a broad attack on that fashion of misconceiving his work and his personality. What we have to rediscover, I said, is the Whitman who was not acting, who spoke from the depth of his nature and wrote the greatest poems of his time. we have to rescue him from the time of pundits and politicians and give his work back to poetry. Actually what Malcolm Cowley wants to impress upon is that a poet is neither a prophet nor a priest. Hence to look at him by the didactic glasses is not reasonable attitude. It is a debatable dilemma. The critics like Sidney are of the view that the basic purpose of poetry is just to please, not to teach. On the other hand the critics like Dr. Johnson plead the moral aspect of poetry. He says that the aim of poetry is to teach. Apart from this contrariety, I am of the view that poet should teach with pleasing style. Great poetry, in the words of Longinus, is universal and ever fresh and pleasing. T.S. Eliot was also a reformer. The poet- philosophers mostly teach but they do not preach like priests. Poets have intuitive and inspirational traits. They have natural boon of creativity. They are free to express their views but these views must not harm the human interests and values.

 

Randall Jarrel in "Some Lines From Whitman" writes:" Nowadays, it is people who are not particularly interested in poetry. Who admire Whitman most. Whitman is often written about, either approvingly or disapprovingly, as if he were the Thomas Wolfe of 19th century democracy, the hero od a de mille movie about Walt Whitman."  Song of Myself is the most representative poem of Whitman in his poetry work " Leaves of Grass." It exhibits the modern sensibility of liberty. Dr. Iqbal wrote the books in Persian languages titled" Secrets of the Self" and "The Mysteries of the Selfless ness."  These books depict the value of individualism. The French philosopher Yean Paul Sartre also promoted the value of individual against totalitarian system that strangulates the individual liberty. Walt Whitman was a great pioneer of the liberty of individual. Malcolm Cowley in " Whitman: The Poet and The Mask" opines that almost all the Americans critics of Whitman poetry have failed in their task of separating the pines from the polars, the lasting values from what is trivial or sententious or weedy. It is true that Tennyson, Swinburne and William Michael Rossetti were among his early English readers,  that they were good critics as well as poets and that in general, they admired his work for its' literary qualities instead of approaching it as a political or religious text. In his country, however, the poets of his time were hostile to Whitman; almost the only exception was Emerson in very beginning. The hostility has vanished, but with out giving way to enthusiasm. As a group the poet-critics of our time pay less attention to Whitman than to any other American author of the first magnitude.

 

Whitman published the " Leaves of Grass" on his own and then in the later editions added some more poems and kept on improving the manuscript. He never published any other book under any other title. The improved editions of the " Leaves of Grass" published  many a time in his life time. It is a short book. The first edition of the book contains only twelve poems, including the " Songs of Myself." But they summarize and suggest all his later achievements; and for other poets they are better than those achievements, because in his first book Whitman was a great explorer, whereas he later became a methodical exploiter and at worst an expounder by rote of his own discoveries. Whitman himself regarded " Leaves of Grass" as the product of intuition because once he told one of his disciples, Dr. Maurice Bucke:" Leaves of Grass was there, though unformed, all the time, in whatever answers as the laboratory of the mind." The Democratic Reviews Essays and Tales( those he published before 1848) came from the surface of the mind and had no connection with what lay below--- a great deal of which, indeed, was below consciousness. At last the time came when the concealed growth had to come to light, and the first edition of "Leaves of Grass" was published. In my opinion the very title "Leaves of Grass" portrays two messages. First; his love for his land and landscape. This title depicts his indomitable conviction as a great patriot. his love for Nature is also concealed in this title. Second; his love for lower class. Grass is the bed of the peasants and the poor wayfarers. The person who does not get the beds of velvet to sleep upon sleeps on the lush green grass. This shows the innate socialist temper and ideology of the poet. As he was a poor mam in youth time, he was prone to socialist ideology. He was a chronic bachelor. Some of the opinion that in his youth period he did not have resources to marry and was enmeshed in homosexual proclivities. Besides, in the Song of Myself, a child asks, " what is grass? holding out both hands full of it and the poet answers: " I guess it must be the flag of my disposition or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord bearing the owners' name someway in the corners. And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves." But we see that here, in the Lincoln poem, the grass has become a formal symbol, a sort of ideogram; it is merely the fresh, sweet herbage under foot. And it is so with all other images( except" flowing glaze," which is good for the surface of the river): the leaves are " pale green," the trees are " prolific," the hills are " ranging," the city dwellings are," so dense" and the workmen are " home ward returning" -- every thing is formalized and conventionalized, as if described from a series of Currier and Ives, prints instead of from the scenes before the poets' eyes. We can not help turning pages and comparing this lifeless landscape with the poets' invocation to the " voluptuous cool breathed earth" in the twenty first chant of the Song of Myself. Whitman about the Earth says:

Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!

Earth of departed Sunset; earth of the mountains misty top.

Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tingled with blue.

Earth of shine and dark mottling to tide of the river.

Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake.

Far -- swooping elbowed earth- rich apple, blossomed earth!

Smile, for your lover comes.

Robert Frost also eulogizes earth to be the right place for love. Some poets use the symbol of Sky. They live in the world of higher celestial spheres. They are cut from ground realities. They are idealists. They are romanticists. They take refuge in so called spiritual firmaments. Such poets are the victim of superstitions and self created empty domes. On the other hand the poets who believe in social change and revolution face ground realties and give clarion call for change. They have deep roots in the soil. 

 

Emerson had praised Whitman and it was a great pleasure for the poet to be recognized by such a great literary giant. In Emersons' essays the very first essay " The Poet" seems to effect Whitman. The two novels of George Sand, " The Countess of Rudolstadt and " The Journeyman Joiner" had also greatly influenced his mind. Malcolm Cowley in this regard writes: " There is no doubt that both books helped to fix the direction of Whitmans' thinking. They summarized the revolutionary current of ideas that prevailed in Europe before 1848, and his early poems would be part of that current. But the principle effect of the two novels was on Whitmans' picture of himself. After reading them, he slowly formed the project of becoming a wandering bard and prophet like the musician in the epilogue to " The Countess of Rudolstadt." He no longer planned to get ahead in the world by the means open to other young journalists: no more earning, saving, calculating, outshining. He stopped writing for the magazines and, according to his brother George, he refused some editorial positions offered to him; instead he worked as a carpenter with his father, like the hero of " The Journeyman Joiner."

 

We might find it easier to picture at least three Whitman  existing as separate persons. There was Whitman 1, the printer and small politician and editor, always described by his associates as indolent, timid ( except when making public speeches), awkward and rather conventional in his manners. He disappeared from public sight after 1850, yet he survived for thirty years or more in his intimate relations with his family. Then there was Whitman 11, the persona, who characterized himself as " one of the rouges, large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded, his posture strong and erect, his voice bringing hope and prophecy to the generous races of young and old. This second Whitman, ripening with age and becoming much more discreet after he moved to Washington and went to work for the Government-- at last merged blandly into the figure of the Good Gray Poet. He wrote poems, too, as part of his role, but they were poems of the sort that Polonius might have written. The real poet still another person; let us call him Whitman 111. He never appeared in public life. he was hardly more than a voice from the depths of the subconscious; but the voice was new, candid, powerful; and it spoke in different words not only from Whitman, the young editor but also from Whitman the gray bard of Democracy. Whitman Third was boastful but often tender and secret whereas Whitman Second was bluff and lusty. He was feminine and maternal rather than physically adventurous; but at the same time he was revolutionary by instinct where as Whitman First was liberal and Whitman Second merely sententious. Different critics tell us about this miracle of Leaves of Grass that there could be three reasons: First; his visit to New Orleans. Second; he had a chronological reading. Third; he was inspired by Emersons' doctrine of the representative individual.

 

Whitman was a well read person. He had studied world religions. His love for humankind is above board. He was a pluralist by temperament and was diametrically opposes to priesthood. He was far away from racial and religious prejudices. He had faith in democracy, social justice and humanity. He opined that future democracy would have to be based on manly comradeship or adhesiveness. About the unanimity and unison of humanity in Leaves of Grass he writes:

" And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,

And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,

And that all the men ever born are also my brothers,

And the women my sisters and lovers,

And that a Kelson of the creation is love."

Malcolm Cowley writes:" I doubt that any other poet has expressed self- love with so much ardor."  It was his Bohemian outlook that is found in the Concept of Sex of D.H. Lawrence.

 

The civil war was the greatest of those events in the poets' life as it was in the American history. It put an end to his period of dejection and gave him a shared purpose to which he could devote himself. Though his own brother George was also wounded in December 1862 and soon revealed yet Whitman was a regular visitor of the hospital in Washington and did not return to New York by saying; " I can not leave them." His intense passion is reflected in its' swing in his Civil War Poems especially in " The Wound Dresser." He writes:

" Aroused and angry, I had thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,

But soon my fingers failed me, my face drooped and I resigned myself,

To sit by the wounded and soothe them or silently watch the deed."

The bloodbath of the countrymen by each other shuddered the poet. He emerged as a great lover of peace and strongly abhorred war. It seems necessary to mention that in later years he was a rich man and the man of fame but never shirked from his innate shriek and that was the love for democracy and humanity. I must acknowledge his influence in the shaping of my poetic zeal. I live in Valley Stream New York. He also lived for certain period in that vicinity. I may not agree with his lascivious ideology but I admire his deep love for democracy and humanity. He is the great sage of all ages. Of course, there are so many misconceptions about his poetic mantra. The real but almost unknown poet was American, not by thesis or proclamation but because he was born in America, absorbed it with his ears and eyes and gave back honestly what he heard and saw. He was democratic, not by his vagrant philosophy, but by instinct, inheritance; and he was a democrat, as it were, from below, feeling his brotherhood with the crippled and despised; rather than with the healthy average persons he later celebrated in his poems. he looked for companionship, not because he was  grandly expensive by nature, but because he was wounded and alone. He presented a Showmans'  Mask to the world. he was a great poet behind the mask; not because he was wise, but because, at first, he was rash and unworldly enough to reveal the depths of his nature; and not because he celebrated " the prairies, pastures, forests , vast cities, and the snows"; but because he wrote of his own Manhattan and Long Island as no other poet has ever done; and not because he soared ecstatically to the heights where people become abstractionists, but because in his early work the ecstasy that was real; whatever its' source-- cleared his eyes so that he could see the infinite wonder of little and homely things.  He is the  Poet of America giving us the clarion call of Democracy. I appeal to all sane and committed poets to bravely and solemnly raise the standard of democracy and weed out the roots of fascism, militancy, monarchy. The real message od Walt Whitman must be followed. We have to unite all mankind on the platform of love, peace, democracy, social justice and humanity.

    

 

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