Forget Eternity

Ol’ Walt has got me pondering the relationship between memory of events and our ability to tangibly record them.  The two quotes we started class with on Tuesday (which I can’t cite because I turned them in with the quiz) brought this up first: on one hand, Walt believed his writing about the Civil War was synonymous with the war itself; on the other, it is impossible for us readers to experience such an enormous tragedy second-hand.

This came up again when I read two juxtaposed poems entitled “Continuities” and “Yonnondio.”  The former claims that “Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost, / No birth, identity, form — no object of the world.”  The poem goes on to eloquently compare and catalog, as per usual, the Natural and the Body, moving through the seasons as if to reiterate that first law of thermodynamics, circa 1850.  Energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  This too shall pass.  This too shall return, and continue, and is eternal.

But then there is “Yonnondio” and the definition Walt gives for its title, a ‘lament for the aborigines.’  PBS assures us that Walt is no stranger to lamentation, for “swarms of stalwart chieftains, medicine-men, and warriors / As flitting by like clouds of ghosts, they pass and are gone in the twilight[…].”  Indeed, he laments that there is “No picture, poem, statement, passing them to the future […]unlimn’d they disappear[…]Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost.”  Granted, I am taking some liberty in my interpretation, but I get the feeling — as some of you seem to –that Walt’s early faith in the redeeming power of art had begun to wane.  Perhaps he recognized that regardless of his own verbosity, some details would be ‘utterly lost.’

…Which reminds me of something Kingsley (or was it Martin?) Amis once wrote about the way the world seems to unfold endlessly, and yet resist either memory or record.  Whitman first wrote “Leaves of Grass” with the great ambition of altering the future, but later additions such as the aforementioned indicate he was powerless to write even the past down accurately.  Quite a shift, don’t you think?

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One Response to Forget Eternity

  1. Joshua Goddard says:

    These are really interesting ideas, Anna Kate. However, I’m not entirely certain that Whitman’s faith in the redemptive aspects of poetry was waning at this time. I’ll concede that Walt was maybe aware of the limitations of trying to maintain an “accurate” depiction of the past, though. The two quotes you referred to “My book and the war are one” and “The real war will never get in the books” would seem to imply this. I’d never want to believe that Whitman was trying to tell us that “Drum-Taps” was not “real” and therefore irrelevant, but rather I think he was genuinely aware that there were limitations to his perspective on the war, or maybe there were things he experienced in the hospital that he simply did not want to write about. There is also the added complexity on the readers end that you put so well “it is impossible for us readers to experience such an enormous tragedy second-hand,” so I agree with you that Whitman was maybe becoming more reserved about trying to “capture” the past.

    A general trend I’ve picked up in the first annex is that Walt appears to cut down on using cataloguing as a poetical device. Catalogues are still present, at points, there’s no denying that, but when they pop up they’re generally a lot shorter than his earlier ones. For instance, if you contrast section 16 of “Starting From Paumanok” with the later poem “Yonnindio,” both poems deal, and I’ll admit I’m being a bit fast and loose here, with a loss of the Native American way of life. In the earlier poem, Walt tries to evoke this loss with a catalogue of tribes, whereas in the later poem he can convey a similar feeling with one word “Yonnindio.” So at this point, maybe he was skeptical of trying to maintain an “accurately recorded” image of the past by cataloguing it.

    But did Whitman really need to accurately portray (or even accurately remember) the past to change the future? Do any of us? Not to wax too philosophical, but people generally make friends, lose friends, fall in love, have children, raise kids, deal with personal crises, and all these things alter the future somehow. Yet most of us probably couldn’t remember what we were wearing on any given day two weeks ago. Granted, all this stuff is small potatoes when we’re talking about how Whitman was trying to change the future, but maybe Walt realized that accurate details weren’t necessary to alter the course of events (a scary but equally liberating thought). Yet I don’t feel this realization dissuaded him from trying to change the course America was taking.

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