The Sunday poem: Anthony Cronin's personal anthology
Published 25/01/2016 | 02:30
Last week I spoke in a quite different context of the dangers of irony. But this extract from Walt Whitman's poem is full of ironies, statements in which opposites are really intended. The poet had emerged from the Civil War in America badly shaken.
He had worked as a clerk in an office in Washington but his real job was as a hospital visitor among the wounded. When he came back to New York it was to find that his first collection of poems, Leaves Of Grass, was ignored by the literati and unbought by the public.
This although it was full, as he put it, of "the vehemence of pride and audacity of freedom necessary to loosen the mind of America". Then in 1873 he suffered a paralytic stroke. It was no wonder that he felt like turning some of his most characteristic beliefs on their heads. Before he was 'discovered' by Swinburne and Rossetti in England, Whitman had a hard time of it in the country in which he had once reposed his hopes.
Let contradictions prevail! let one thing contradict another!
and let one line of my poems contradict another!
Let the people sprawl with yearning, aimless hands! Let
their tongues be broken! let their eyes be discouraged!
Let none descend into their hearts with the fresh
lusciousness of love!
(Stifled, O days! O lands! in every public and private
Smothered in thievery, impotence, shamelessness,
For not even those thunderstorms, nor fiercest lightnings
of the war, have purified the atmosphere;)
Let the days be darker than the nights! Let slumber bring
less slumber than waking-time brings!
Let the eminence of meanness, treachery, sarcasm, hate,
greed, indecency, impotence, lust, be taken for granted,
Let the worst men beget children out of the worst women!
Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!
Sunday Indo Living