Last night (read that as early this morning) I shared with you a reading of E. E. Cummings’ poem “Love Is Thicker Than Forget,” and I promised you some Valentine poems from Walt Whitman . Well, I might be bending the rules just a bit here, but you should be used to that by now. These two might better be described as a poem about love and an are-you-sure-you’re-up-to-loving-me poem.
Let’s face it, Uncle Walt was a bit of a rascal by reputation, “one of the roughs,” he called himself in Leaves of Grass. And even if some of that reputation was self-styled for publicity sake, there seems to be enough evidence to support some truth in it. One of my favorite articles on the topic was a sort of review from 2013, by Natalie Ortberg in The Toast, of Neil McKenna’s biography, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. In that article we learn that our flirtatious Uncle Walt probably fooled around with young Oscar Wilde, who was on his American speaking tour at the time. Oh Daddy! Read the article, you’ll enjoy it.
In the first photo on this page we see Whitman and Peter Doyle, a street car conductor in DC, with whom he was said to have a romantic friendship that spanned nearly thirty years. They met when Peter was 21 and Walt was 45. The first poem below is called “A Glimpse,” and it may very well be about holding Peter Doyle’s hand in a crowded bar, as it fits well the description by Doyle (from the Whitman Archive):
It was our practice to go to a hotel on Washington Avenue after I was done with my car. I remember the place well—there on the corner. Like as not I would go to sleep—lay my head on my hands on the table. Walt would sit there, wait, watch, keep me undisturbed—would wake me up when the hour of closing came
And of course there were others, like the young Bill Duckett (on the right), who held the affectionate gaze of poet Walt Whitman. Before the long beard there was this handsome likeness in the first volume of Leaves of Grass, at the age of 37. That dashing look, the cocked hat and the daring, open-necked shirt caused a bit of a scandal at the time.
He was a manly looking man, fond of hiking, swimming and other athletic activities, besides those that involved young men, of course. And when he rode the omnibuses of New York he enjoyed climbing up and sitting on the top, with the drivers.
But in the second poem he warns us that he may not be all that we expect. “Maya,” he warns us, a Hindu word for illusion, and he asks pointedly if we are sure we are ready for him. As I said, some of his reputation, like that of the young dandy Oscar Wilde, whom he coached, was a bit of self-promotional-wizardry on his part. But while the lines between myth and history may be a little blurred, you certainly can find a lot of juicy, manly, romantic info out there about old Walt if you do just a bit of digging.
Happy Valentine’s Day from Uncle (or should I say Daddy?) Walt and I to you!
By Walt Whitman
A glimpse through an interstice caught,
Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the stove late of a winter night, and I unremark’d seated in a corner,
Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approaching and seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand,
A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drinking and oath and smutty jest,
There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking little, perhaps not a word.
“Are you the new person drawn toward me?”
by Walt Whitman
Are you the new person drawn toward me?
To begin with, take warning, I am surely far different from what you suppose;
Do you suppose you will find in me your ideal?
Do you think it so easy to have me become your lover?
Do you think the friendship of me would be unalloy’d satisfaction?
Do you think I am trusty and faithful?
Do you see no further than this façade, this smooth and tolerant manner of me?
Do you suppose yourself advancing on real ground toward a real heroic man?
Have you no thought, O dreamer, that it may be all maya, illusion?