Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892)

All week long I’ve been visiting beautiful vineyards, drinking incredible wines, engaging in amazing conversations with some of France’s most renowned wine artisans, and appreciating Dionysos on many new levels.  Soon I hope to post photos of these experiences, but I can’t let today pass without acknowledging the birthday of one of my most beloved poet-heroes, the quintessential American poet, Walt Whitman.

Almost everyone has heard of Walt Whitman, but American textbooks rarely, if ever, acknowledge the fact that Walt Whitman was a gay man.  The “Calamus” section of Leaves of Grass (named after Kalamos, whose tragic love for another lad, Karpos, is told in the Dionysiaca of Nonnus) is filled with homoerotic poems, but Whitman’s original hand-written manuscripts contain a powerful sequence entitled “Live Oak, with Moss,” which some scholars have called a “manifesto for gay liberation”.  That sequence was later cut up, edited, toned down, and rearranged to form many of the Calamus poems.  But the manuscript poem is staggeringly original in its frank exploration of love, sexuality, alienation, and identity.

There’s a decent biography of Whitman at GLBTQ.com, the wonderful encyclopedia of queer history.  Two sites with a number of great resources (including digital copies of Whitman’s original manuscripts and essays discussing “Live Oak, with Moss”) can be found at The Walt Whitman Archive and The Classroom Electric.

Live Oak, with Moss
by Walt Whitman

l

NOT heat flames up and consumes,
Not sea-waves hurry in and out,
Not the air, delicious and dry, the air of the ripe summer, bears lightly along white down-balls of myriads of seeds, wafted, sailing gracefully, to drop where they may,
Not these—O none of these, more than the flames of me, consuming, burning for his love whom I love!
O none, more than I, hurrying in and out;
Does the tide hurry, seeking something, and never give up? O I the same;
O nor down-balls, nor perfumes, nor the high rain-emitting clouds, are borne through the open air,
Any more than my Soul is borne through the open air,
Wafted in all directions, O love, for friendship, for you.

2

I SAW in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it, and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there, uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves, standing alone there, without its friend, its lover near—for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away—and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token—it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana, solitary, in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life, without a friend, a lover, near,
I know very well I could not.

3

WHEN I heard at the close of the day how my name had been received with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that followed;
And else, when I caroused, or when my plans were accomplished, still I was not happy;
But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refreshed, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn,
When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light,
When I wandered alone over the beach, and, undressing, bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise,
And when I thought how my dear friend, my lover, was on his way coming, O then I was happy;
O then each breath tasted sweeter—and all that day my food nourished me more—And the beautiful day passed well,
And the next came with equal joy—And with the next, at evening, came my friend;
And that night, while all was still, I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands, as directed to me, whispering, to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness, in the autumn moonbeams, his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast—And that night I was happy.

4

THIS moment as I sit alone, yearning and thoughtful, it seems to me there are other men in other lands, yearning and thoughtful;
It seems to me I can look over and behold them, in Germany, Italy, France, Spain—Or far, far away, in China, or in Russia or India—talking other dialects;
And it seems to me if I could know those men better, I should become attached to them, as I do to men in my own lands,
It seems to me they are as wise, beautiful, benevolent, as any in my own lands;
O I know we should be brethren and lovers,
I know I should be happy with them.

5

LONG I thought that knowledge alone would suffice me—O if I could but obtain knowledge!
Then my lands engrossed me—Lands of the prairies,
Ohio’s land, the southern savannas, engrossed me—
For them I would live—I would be their orator;
Then I met the examples of old and new heroes—I heard of warriors, sailors, and all dauntless persons—
And it seemed to me that I too had it in me to be as dauntless as any—and would be so;
And then, to enclose all, it came to me to strike up the songs of the New World—And then I believed my life must be spent in singing;
But now take notice, land of the prairies, land of the south savannas, Ohio’s land,
Take notice, you Kanuck woods—and you Lake Huron—and all that with you roll toward Niagara—and you Niagara also,
And you, Californian mountains—That you each and all find somebody else to be your singer of songs,
For I can be your singer of songs no longer—One who loves me is jealous of me, and withdraws me from all but love,
With the rest I dispense—I sever from what I thought would suffice me, for it does not—it is now empty and tasteless to me,
I heed knowledge, and the grandeur of The States, and the example of heroes, no more,
I am indifferent to my own songs—I will go with him I love,
It is to be enough for us that we are together—We never separate again.

6

WHAT think you I take my pen in hand to record?
The battle-ship, perfect-model’d, majestic, that I saw pass the offing to-day under full sail?
The splendors of the past day? Or the splendor of the night that envelops me?
Or the vaunted glory and growth of the great city spread around me?—No;
But I record of two simple men I saw to-day, on the pier, in the midst of the crowd, parting the parting of dear friends,
The one to remain hung on the other’s neck, and passionately kissed him,
While the one to depart, tightly prest the one to remain in his arms.

7

YOU bards of ages hence! when you refer to me, mind not so much my poems,
Nor speak of me that I prophesied of The States, and led them the way of their glories;
But come, I will take you down underneath this impassive exterior—I will tell you what to say of me:
Publish my name and hang up my picture as that of the tenderest lover
The friend, the lover’s portrait, of whom his friend, his lover, was fondest,
Who was not proud of his songs, but of the measureless ocean of love within him—and freely poured it forth,
Who often walked lonesome walks, thinking of his dear friends, his lovers,
Who pensive, away from one he loved, often lay sleepless and dissatisfied at night,
Who knew too well the sick, sick dread lest the one he loved might secretly be indifferent to him,
Whose happiest days were far away, through fields, in woods, on hills, he and another, wandering hand in hand, they twain, apart from other men,
Who oft as he sauntered the streets, curved with his arm the shoulder of his friend—while the arm of his friend rested upon him also.

8

HOURS continuing long, sore and heavy-hearted,
Hours of the dusk, when I withdraw to a lonesome and unfrequented spot, seating myself, leaning my face in my hands;
Hours sleepless, deep in the night, when I go forth, speeding swiftly the country roads, or through the city streets, or pacing miles and miles, stifling plaintive cries;
Hours discouraged, distracted—for the one I cannot content myself without, soon I saw him content himself without me;
Hours when I am forgotten, (O weeks and months are passing, but I believe I am never to forget!)
Sullen and suffering hours! (I am ashamed—but it is useless—I am what I am;)
Hours of my torment—I wonder if other men ever have the like, out of the like feelings?
Is there even one other like me—distracted—his friend, his lover, lost to him?
Is he too as I am now? Does he still rise in the morning, dejected, thinking who is lost to him? and at night, awaking, think who is lost?
Does he too harbor his friendship silent and endless? harbor his anguish and passion?
Does some stray reminder, or the casual mention of a name, bring the fit back upon him, taciturn and deprest?
Does he see himself reflected in me? In these hours, does he see the face of his hours reflected?

9

I DREAMED in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth,
I dreamed that was the new City of Friends,
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust love—it led the rest,
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of that city,
And in all their looks and words.

10

O YOU whom I often and silently come where you are, that I may be with you,
As I walk by your side, or sit near, or remain in the same room with you,
Little you know the subtle electric fire that for your sake is playing within me.

11

EARTH! my likeness!
Though you look so impassive, ample and spheric there,
I now suspect that is not all;
I now suspect there is something fierce in you, eligible to burst forth;
For an athlete is enamoured of me—and I of him,
But toward him there is something fierce and terrible in me, eligible to burst forth,
I dare not tell it in words—not even in these songs.

12

TO the young man, many things to absorb, to engraft, to develop, I teach, to help him become élève of mine,
But if blood like mine circle not in his veins,
If he be not silently selected by lovers, and do not silently select lovers,
Of what use is it that he seek to become élève of mine?

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle (one of Whitman’s long-term partners, who some scholars say was the “love of his life”)

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3 Comments

  1. “The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me-he complains of my gab..” Canto 52. Song of Myself. Leaves of Grass. Walt Whitman. Happy Birthday. « The Nightly Poem
  2. Daddy Walt, or Uncle Walt? Happy Birthday to My Namesake « The Dad Poet
  3. Summer Reading (Book 2) – Walt Whitman’s America « Real Poetry

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