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?