June 26, 2012

Lo! the immortal idea!

Walt Whitman's fame waxed and waned throughout his life and career, and his writing remained controversial in many circles. However, one of the highest points came when Dartmouth College in New Hampshire invited Whitman to deliver a poem at their commencement on June 26, 1872. In fact, the invitation came from the graduating students, without the explicit approval of faculty or administration.

Whitman was certainly a strange choice for Dartmouth, such that scholar Bliss Perry later speculated that the invitation had been a prank. Nevertheless, for his reading on that rainy day, Whitman was paid $35. Accounts differ on the level of success: one report said the poet spoke in monotone and could not be heard well, while another referred to his "clearness of enunciation." The poem he read was "As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free," which begins:

As a strong bird, on pinions free,
Joyous, the amplest spaces heavenward cleaving,
Such be the thought I'd think to-day of thee, America;
Such be the recitative I'd bring to-day for thee.

The conceits of the poets of other lands I bring thee not,
Nor the compliments that have served their turn so long,
Nor rhyme — nor the classics — nor perfume of foreign court or indoor library;
But an odor I'd bring to-day as from forests of pine in the north, in Maine—or breath of an Illinois prairie,
With open airs of Virginia, or Georgia or Tennessee — or from Texas uplands or Florida's glades;
With presentment of Yellowstone's scenes or Yosemite;
And murmuring under, pervading all, I'd bring the restling sea sound,
That endlessly sounds from the two great seas of the world.

And for thy subtler sense, subtler refrains, O Union!
Preludes of intellect tallying these and thee — mind-formulas fitted for thee — real and sane and large as these and thee;
Thou, mounting higher, diving deeper than we knew — thou transcendental Union!
By thee Fact to be justified—blended with Thought;
Thought of Man justified — blended with God:
Through thy Idea — lo! the immortal Reality!
Through thy Reality — lo! the immortal idea!

*My introduction to this event came from Jerome Loving's biography Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself.

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