November 9, 2013

Garland and Whitman: endlessly rocking

Hamlin Garland had disobeyed doctor's orders — not his doctor, but that of Walt Whitman. When Garland visited the aging poet at his home in New Jersey, his health was so poor that Garland was asked to stay no more than two minutes. But the Wisconsin-born author and educator, who was then living in Massachusetts, stayed for a half an hour.

Garland was enamored with Whitman and his work. Back in Waltham, Massachusetts, he started a series of classes on Whitman attended by 40 ladies. On November 9, 1888, he wrote of that class to the poet:

I talked last night to my Waltham class (of forty ladies) about your work and read to them. I wish you could have seen how deeply attentive they were and how moved by "Out of the Cradle" "To Think of Time" "Sparkles from the Wheel" and others. Many of them will now read your works carefully and understandingly.

Garland, a poet himself, particularly recommended that readers start with Specimen Days because reading his prose, he said, would prepare them to "sympathize" with his poetic views. Garland also noted he intended to write a review of November Boughs. True to his word, Garland's review was published in the Boston Evening Transcript only a week after his letter. Of course, Garland remembered Whitman's poor health and, as such, he concluded his letter with concern:  "It rejoices me to hear you are gaining [e.g. recovering]. I hope the winter will not be too severe for you — though I believe you stand the cold better than the heat." From the first poem Garland mentioned his students loved:

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird's throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander'd alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower'd halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous'd words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.

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