Whitman, Neruda, and Earth’s Indifference

In 1856, Walt Whitman wrote “The Poem of Wonder at the Resurrection of the Wheat,” with the prospect of the destructive Civil War looming in the distance. This poem would later be called “This Compost,” and exemplifies Whitman’s classic crisis and recovery form, though the poem does not achieve a glorious recovery. “This Compost” is Whitman’s exploration of how human beings fit into the earth’s processes of rebirth and renewal, and he may not like what he finds. Several poems by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda also typify the Whitmanian form of crisis and recovery. In particular, Neruda’s “The Great Ocean” is similar to “This Compost” in its exploration of humans’ relationship to the power of the ocean. In Walt Whitman and the Earth: A Study in Ecopoetics, M. Jimmie Killingsworth argues “This Compost” puts forth “the suspicion that the earth is indifferent to and separated from human purposes” (82). Neruda’s “The Great Ocean” echoes Whitman’s anxiety over Earth’s indifference to humankind but with the ocean playing the part of nature. Published in Canto General in 1950, “The Great Ocean” bears a strong connection to “This Compost” in that they each display a distinct pattern of Whitmanian crisis and recovery. While trying to make nature a metaphor for human rebirth and resolution, both poets recognize that nature and the earth are indifferent to human beings. In an attempt to recover from that crisis, both Whitman and Neruda try to negotiate “symbolic nature” and “indifferent nature” as a way to understand human relationships and history. Neither poet completely succeeds in their attempts, and each poet bows down to all powerful and indifferent nature.

Throughout Walt Whitman’s extensive body of work, many of his poems find themselves exploring some kind of crisis and making some attempt at a recovery from that crisis. “This Compost” displays a perfect example of a quintessentially Whitmanian poem of crisis and recovery. The crisis in “This Compost” is essentially what Killingsworth calls Whitman’s “suspicion that the earth is indifferent to and separated from human purposes,” (82). Whitman begins “This Compost” by saying “SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest” (495). Whitman thought he was “safest” in nature, but it “startles” him to realize that the earth is not phased by any amount “carcasses” and death that human beings put into it (495). In what Killingsworth calls Whitman’s “gothic fantasy” in the first stanza, Whitman imagines that if he would “run a furrow with [his] plough,” he would certainly “expose some of the foul meat” entrenched in the earth (82, 495). Surprised, Whitman instead finds that “the grass of spring covers the prairies,” and all other manner of “apple-buds,” “wheat,” and “newborn of animals appear” despite the innumerous amounts of death that human beings have disposed of in the ground (496). Though Whitman seems quite in awe of the earth’s “chemistry” and its ability to regenerate despite endless death, he does not quite find a reassuring recovery at the end of the poem as he is still quite anxious and “terrified at the Earth,” as it “turns harmless and stainless on its axis,” utterly indifferent to the death and suffering of human beings (496).

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