Walt Whitman: Translating Nature

walt-whitman1Walt Whitman’s poetry provides an enormous volume of material for ecocritics interested in exploring American poetry.  ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ is perhaps the best starting point in looking at Whitman as an eco-poet.  In it Whitman draws on the natural world as a tutor for his poetic technique.  It is important to look at the structure first.  Whitman obviously indulges in free-verse poetry.  Neither standard meter, nor rhyme scheme is present in his work.  It may seem a trivial point, but there are interesting implications.  The human world is constantly trying to force structure on the natural world, and likewise trying to force structure on the language in poetry by applying meter, rhythm and rhyme.  Whitman, though, rejects this structure and instead opts for free-verse and through this embraces a natural form over contrived structure, a technique not unique to ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’, but present in all of Whitman’s poetry.  We see upon the opening a child, who we assume to be the poet as a youth, leaving the confines of the human sphere to enter nature: “the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot” (line 4).  The child leaves the human made bed, does not wear a hat, and his feet are barefoot as he rejects human comforts and enters the world of nature, and it is here in the natural world where we see the child is first communicated to, not by another human, but by a bird.  The child’s interaction with the human world is characterized by lying in a “cradle endlessly rocking”.  There is no attempt in that presentation for the adult human world to communicate with the child, so the reader sees that it is nature who gives the child his first lesson when “the bird chanted to” the poet and it is here where Whitman makes a connection with the natural world by referring to this bird as a “brother” (line 9), something that is repeated throughout the poem, implying a familial connection with nature.  This kind of connection is something that stood in stark contrast with humanist ideologies that saw the human world as not only something apart from the natural world, but also something above the natural world. 

Two-birds-in-loveNot only does Whitman suggest that the bird is his brother, but he suggests also that the bird is “sad” (line 9), lending to the bird an emotive feeling commonly reserved for the human world and goes on to further this by suggesting that the notes sung by the bird have “yearning and love” in them, and these notes are referred to as words (line 13) and those words, those natural emissions from this bird are “stronger… than any” (line 14) human words.  In this poetic process Whitman initially uplifts the song of the bird to the standing of language.  Words are a human construct, the product of cognitive thinking, and Whitman at first equates the bird’s song with language, but then goes on to lift it past the human constructed language by suggesting that the bird’s words are “stronger… than any”.  Literary theorists have debated the arbitrary and unnatural nature of human language and the limits of language that result, but here Whitman suggests that the bird, through his natural, unlearned ability, is capable of producing a language that exceeds the ability of languages constructed by the human world and one that the meaning of, even as the poet listens, elude him (line 17). 

Just as Alexander Pope (above) translated the works of the Latin and Greek classics, so to di Whitman translate the voice of nature.

Just as Alexander Pope (above) translated the works of the Latin and Greek classics, so to di Whitman translate the voice of nature.

As the poem continues we see Whitman furthers the emotional diversity of the natural world as he narrates the events of two “feather’d guests from Alabama” (line 26).  The young poet in Whitman’s poem takes note of the relationship between the two birds and as they sing he translates (line 31), again suggesting that the bird are capable of language and one that, like Greek and Latin, is worthy of translation into English verse (where famed poets such as Alexander Pope would translates works such as The Iliad and The Aeneid. we see Whitman translating nature’s song).  Whitman writes in italics when he translates the birds’ words and creates a world in which the two birds are loyal to each other and share happiness (lines 32-40).  The narrative takes a tragic turn as the she-bird disappears and the male counterpart sings awaiting her response (lines 53-55), but the she-bird does not return and the he-bird laments, and again, the poet “translating the notes” (line69) relays to the reader the sorrow of the bird (lines 71-80).  This is a very human process, but Whitman makes clear that such emotion is not limited to the human world, but extends also to the natural world. 

birdThe male bird is capable of cognitive thinking as well.  He recognizes that the absence of his partner means her death.  This has two important implications.  First, the bird is capable of reasoning, and second that the birds’ love for one another is the basis of this reasoning.  Because the two birds love and are loyal to each other, only death could separate them.  The fact that the bird can feel such emotions suggest they are equal to humans emotively, and the fact that the bird can reason the cause of the separation between he and his partner suggests the ability to reason which puts him on equal footing with humans cognitively, especially considering the humanist maxim put forth be Rene Descartes: “I think, therefore I am.”  Here, Whitman illustrates, the bird can think, and therefore, according to Descartes’ maxim, is on equal footing with all reasoning creatures.  As the bird sings, Whitman translates: “This gentle call is for you my love” (line 114) the bird sings to his lost partner.  Here we again see Whitman reinforcing the idea that birds are capable of the same emotions as humans. 

whitman3Later, when the bird is done his song, we see Whitman ask the bird: “Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me” (line 145)?  Here we see Whitman make a common humanist mistake, assuming that the bird sings for humanity, much as the humanist would believe that the natural world lives only to service the human world, but Whitman, whose poetic voice is born in this instance as he states: “Now in a moment I know what I am for” (Line 147), acknowledges also that the voices born within in him in that instance are a “thousand warbling echoes” (line 149) suggesting they are not his voice, but rather reverberations of the bird’s voice, even if Whitman is arrogant enough to suggest that the songs born within him are “clearer, louder and more sorrowful than” (line 148) the bird’s.  It is not Whitman that is the author to these voices, but the bird, as Whitman states, speaking to the bird: “O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me” (line 151).  It is the bird that is projecting Whitman, not the other way around, and Whitman takes it as his duty to carry the voice of the bird to the human world as he states that he will never “cease perpetuating” (line 151) the bird.  In this process through which the poet is born, it is nature, through the bird, that teaches Whitman, not only about death, but about love as well. 

lincoln1In the poem ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ Whitman seems to duplicate the structure he employed for ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’, which is fitting since just as nature teaches Whitman about death in ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’, so too does it teach him of death in his poem on the funeral procession of Abraham Lincoln.  We see straight away that Whitman uses the natural world to define Lincoln.  He refers to him as the “great star” (line 2), drawing on a element of the natural world to uplift Lincoln, and an interesting parallel as it lends itself to a Christian reading (aligning Lincoln with the great star, just as Christ was aligned with a great star in the nativity story), but also with the slave movement as escaped slaves would often use the stars to guide them to their freedom (Lincoln, here, can be seen also as a star that has helped to liberate them).  This Christian element comes up again as Whitman at one point in the poem speaks, not to Lincoln, but to the coffin that carries him.  This again has a duality to it.  Whitman uses apostrophe to speak to the coffin which is made of wood, which is in turn an element of nature, and so Whitman lends human qualities to the natural world, but is also can be seen as being in line with the approach employed in ‘The Dream of the Rood” in which a man speaks to the tree, or rather cross, that bore Christ.  In both instances that natural world is carrying the heroic figure and is being acknowledged by the poet for its integral role in the human narrative. 

The funeral procession for Lincoln.

The funeral procession for Lincoln.

Throughout the poem Whitman makes references to the natural world and employs the pathetic fallacy to describe the scene, from the “clouds that will not free” (line 11) his soul, to the “shy and hidden bird… warbling a song” (18) for Lincoln.  He uses apostrophe, as mentioned, throughout the poem, most especially in stanzas 5 and 6 where he speaks to the coffin.  Whitman though is unsure how to express his grief for the president and asks: “How shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved” (line71).  One might assume that with the slight arrogance Whitman embraced in ‘Out of the Cradle endlessly Rocking’ that he would have a ‘thousand songs’ greater than the birds to sing in eulogy to Lincoln, but we see that the poem is a struggle for Whitman who is looking for his poetic voice and does not find it until the shy bird of the fourth stanza comes through and sings the ‘Death Carol’ (lines 136-163).  And it is with this bird’s voice that Whitman aligns the “voice of [his] spirit” (line 135).  This is interesting on an ecocritical level because Whitman is again suggesting that the natural world can express itself more efficiently than the human world, but is doubly interesting because it expresses that the natural world is in tune with the human world as the bird is singing to grieve for Lincoln.  This has a potentially troubling implication.  One can take away from this that the natural world is subservient to the human world and that the natural world serves the human world and in turn that the bird is performing a duty owed to the human world.  It also suggests a certain level of arrogance on the part of the human world to suggest that the natural world would be so preoccupied with the goings on of the human world as to mourn the death of a single human.  But the more empowering reading would be that the natural world is in tune with the human world and that it is expressing an ideal relationship shared between the two worlds, and that the human world should aspire to be in tune with the natural world just as the natural world is in tune with the human world.  There is another element of the bird’s ‘Death Carol’ in that it is referred to as a carol (lines: 128, 131, and 132).  This is interesting because a carol by definition is a song that is linked to religion explicitly, and while Whitman leant to the bird the cognitive and emotive ability of the human world in ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’, his presentation on their spirit was more ambiguous in that poem.  Here though he makes it clear that the bird has a soul just like the human.  Like ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ Whitman also refers to the bird as his brother (lines 24 and 103), and notes that the song he sings is a “human song” (line 104), leading to the bird the human voice.  There is also an interesting line in which Whitman confesses that the “lilac with mastering odor holds” (line 107) him.  This is interesting because it expresses how that natural world is capable of mastering something that not only can the human world not master, but also master it in a way that holds the human world captive to its abilities, like a person might be captivated by a song, poem or painting. 

A civil war hospital.

A civil war hospital.

For some ecocritics it is not always enough to simply embrace nature, but also reject the constructs of the human world, and Whitman does this as well in his poem ‘A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown’.  In the poem Whitman tells of a march where soldiers came across a church turned into a makeshift hospital.  The setting is the retreat of a group of soldiers, and Whitman is careful not to align the soldiers with either side (be it the North or the South), leaving it open for the reader to identify with the soldiers regardless of which side the reader might be on.  The poem paints a picture of the results on the human world.  The victims of war are seen, and left to be cared for in a building of human constructs, not only in terms of its architecture, which is constructed by humans, but also in terms of its theology as religion is a construct of the human world.  These constructs though fail to alleviate the pain caused by war.  Nature has given these men life, and it is the human construct of war that takes it from them prematurely.  Even the church cannot save them as we see in the poem that a young man, “a mere lad” (line 11) as Whitman notes, is dying and no reprieve is offered him in the church, nor is it offered to the others who are suffering through “death-spasm[s]” (line 17).

whitman2For those who suffer, human language is moot, and they instead speak in the natural language of screams and cries (line 18).  Other human constructs fail to capture this scene as well as Whitman notes earlier in the poem that the sights he sees in the church are “beyond all the pictures and poems ever made” (line 7) and then reiterates this by saying that horrific scene is “beyond description” (line 14).  Not only is this scene beyond words, but beyond pictures as well.  When a human voice does interject it is only to relay more orders, to continue the marching.  The marching, as it is described in the first line, is in darkness, and we assume because it is at night, but as Whitman begins to close the poem he notes that the marching will be “ever in darkness” (line 24), implying that even in day light they will be marching in darkness.  Whitman’s attack on the human world is not overt in the poem, indeed, he doesn’t even mention war, but we know through the language and the presence of soldiers that this world is one consumed by war.  Whitman’s choice to have the “impromptu hospital” (line 6) a church suggests that Whitman wants the reader to see that the church, even if it is not explicitly tied in with causing the war, at the same time offers no reprieve from it, and these human constructs fail to offer humanity a world that is better than the natural one. 

locomotiveWhitman’s poetry is not limited to humanity’s relationship with the natural world, but also with humanity’s relationship with itself.  In ‘To a Locomotive in the Winter’ Whitman makes a curious exploration that is at once filled with social implications and at the same time homoerotic and lends itself to a ‘Queer theory’ reading.   Published in 1881, the poem came on the heels of some great progress for Black men.  The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution came and gave Black men: freedom, citizenship and the right to vote respectively, and so the “black cylindric body” (line 4) of the train, moving ever forward through a canopy of white snow can be seen as an analogy of the progress made by Black men in a white world.  It is important to note that it is Black men who were the recipients of this progress though because though the 13th amendment did free Black men and women alike, the 14th and 15th amendments applied only to Black men.  The train has long been seen as a phallic symbol too, and with the language employed by Whitman, which includes words like: driving (line 2), throbbing, convulsive (line 3), gyrating (line 5) and swelling (line 6), coupled with phrases such as “black cylindric body (line 4) and “great protruding head” (line 7), it is easy to see the overt sexual nature of the poem.  The train emits human noises as it is heard to “pant and roar” (line 6), sounds that can also be equated with the sex act.  Whitman has clearly loaded this poem with overt sexual undertones and celebrates the Black male form in the poem as he refers to it as the “emblem of motion and power” (line 13) and invites it to “merge “ (line 14) with him and roll “through [his] chant with all [its] lawlessness” (line 19).  Through this language Whitman creates a complex poem with multiple potential readings. 

whitman4Whitman’s work, overall, is interesting in that it carries both humility and arrogance and seems very much in touch with humanity and its flaws, as well as oppressed classes, perhaps most especially nature.  It challenges conventions but has a strong understanding of the conventions it challenges and perhaps most of all, it is just beautifully written.  Whitman’s place among the canon of American literature is well deserved. 

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

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