Tuesday 24 October 2017

What Lies Beneath: Walt Whitman by Samuel Hollyer

steel engraving from Leaves of Grass 1855

Walt Whitman by Samuel Hollyer
Walt Whitman by Samuel Hollyer

Niall MacMonagle

How old are you? Old enough to remember those Exploring English Inter Cert textbooks, first published in the late 1960s. Orange for short stories; Blue for prose; and Green for poetry?

Remember a poem called Miracles? Written in 1856, it celebrates the streets of Manhattan, having dinner with friends, walking along a beach in bare feet, sundown and stars, sea, waves, rocks.

Wonderful, upbeat stuff. Though written in "Victorian times" it sounds like an up-to-the-minute list of things that still gladden the heart.

And did you know that in Ireland in 1967 a line from that poem was censored by some self-styled educational KOM-ITT-EEE? Oh to have been the fly on the wall when that decision was made.

In the textbook version line seven was replaced by a series of dainty little dots lest young Irish minds become polluted.

The poem was by Walt Whitman, a man liberal and open in outlook.

Today, the last day of May, is his birthday and today we wake up in a new and different Ireland, an Ireland in which every Irish citizen can now marry the person they love. It's something Whitman would approve of.

Born on a farm on Long Island in 1819, Whitman had just turned thirty-six in this steel engraving by London-born Samuel Hollyer, a line and stipple portrait which was the frontispiece for his poems Leaves of Grass first published 4 July 1855.

The handsome, confident figure, in summer work clothes, the jauntily-angled hat, the relaxed stance is that of a man in his prime. Whitman thought he looked "damned flamboyant" but that the portrait was also "natural, honest, easy". A friend of his thought it "repulsive, loaferish". With friends like that . . . .

And that censored line? The one that would have corrupted the boys and girls of Ireland? It was the one in which Whitman, listing miracles that included looking at strangers, standing under trees in woods, honey-bees, animals feeding in the fields, stated: "Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love." Haven't we come a long way? Yes, we have. We said Yes. Yes.


by Samuel Hollyer

Sunday Independent

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