When the Bough Breaks...: Our children, our environment (Environmentalism and Politics Set)

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Curb Your Enthusiasm. When the sprays of blossom finally break open through the capital, their momentum is as forceful as floodwaters returning. During sakura , families and other groups, from workplaces or social clubs, assemble to celebrate a tradition known as hanami : flower-viewing picnics. These picnics first flourished in the Heian period, and are featured in the 11th-century courtly novel The Tale of Genji. Young women in short crinolines, chalk tights and dark Rococo-era dresses dart between the trees like insistent fairies. Junior wage-earners, sent to stake a patch for their superiors, set to dreaming in intimately vulnerable postures; their arms and legs flung out to indicate an intention to occupy more space.

Paired shoes in a row belong to no one nearby. Why talk of these common and decorative trees, when icebergs, polar bears, a dozen small types of amphibian and old-growth forests face the real possibility of extinction? As the sun sets, the mood of enchantment reveals other themes: metamorphosis and attraction. Flash cameras twig at the edge of perception all through the night. The shots later come to colonise social media — sakura , stark and fibrous against the black sky.

The flowers are extended electronically, long after they have withered, dropped, and ceased to be. Gazing into the throats of flowers is surely one of the most trite, and universal, acts of environmental appreciation. From hand-picked posies displayed on a mantelpiece to the questing of the German Romantics for the impossible blue flower — a symbol of inspiration for the 18th-century poet Novalis — flowers induce an apparently effortless contemplation of aesthetic beauty in nature.

Yet, for all the stock wonder of cherries crowned in blossom, contemporary Western environmentalism has an uneasy relationship with notions of the beautiful. Political environmentalism has learnt to take a functional view of nature, turning a blind eye to cultural values such as beauty and to aesthetic practices such as hanami. Nature is viewed as systemic and quantifiable, neither mysterious nor resplendent. In an overburdened world, this is how we have come to debate the comparative significance of habitats and organisms: as ecosystem services.

Perhaps, for environmental thought to be accepted in the political mainstream, it was always necessary to discard the drippy spiritualism of a former age and embrace the numbers game. Yet, something important has been lost in the exchange. Sidelining the environmental imagination — particularly its manifold local variations in different cultures — has narrowed the green movement. Better science, accountancy and leadership might well be essential to confronting the realities of our current environmental crises, but without developing a way to talk about the un real aspects of our environmental relationships and our imagined attachments to natural phenomena, progress will only ever be tenuous.

Ancient as it is, the Japanese tradition of sakura offers germane insight into this very contemporary problem. T oday, many environmentalists feel squeamish about conservation campaigns that generate sympathy by using sublime imagery of ancient forests or charismatic animals such as pandas. There are good reasons for this turn. Mere aesthetics can no longer form the basis of a wide moral responsibility to the environment: beauty is too reliant on the cultural and historical values of human societies.

In the past, environmentalists have failed to appreciate the ecological significance of subjectively ugly, or simply less visible, life forms, processes and biospheres. Contemplation was once the foundation of conservation, which consisted largely of the perpetual, and often expensive, stewardship of wild and beautiful places. Now we recognise that the inhabitable future is much more likely to turn on invisible atmospheric climate change, intimately woven into human economic behaviour and the atmospheric chemistry of the globe.

The bouquet of cut flowers gives away nothing of the stooped labour required to cultivate it, nor the agrochemicals that prolong unblemished blooms, the emissions generated by transportation and refrigeration, or the species supplanted by commercial hothouses. The sublime landscape, emptied of people, does not tell of the evictions required to create a nature reserve. To equate the beautiful with the good is to disregard how beautiful things come to be. What grounds most modern, mainstream green movements is not an investment in environmental mythos, natural majesty or animistic re-enchantment with beautiful sites and life forms.

Instead, appeals are made to the ecological mindset — to the way that we think of ourselves as integrated in material systems of natural objects and habitats. The ethics of caring for a tree, then, does not rest on an idea of that tree as beautiful, singular, or symbolically charged with local meaning. But the mood of that remarkable earlier poem is far more welcoming to the modern ecological intelligence. There the earth, after the moment of alienation passes, appears to him as a great compost heap, its marvelous chemistry yielding miracles of rebirth.

Out of the putrid rot of death comes nourishment for the human body resources to be consumed and enjoyed , for the mind objects full of meaning and interest , and for the spirit objects full of beauty and models for creativity. LG —92, The poem depends upon the gestalt of the alternating trope. It can never be entirely one or the other without some form of self-deception or inflated rhetoric, usually a claim of total identity with the earth or a full transcendence of it, both of which signal an imposition of ideology, a transformation in which the earth is overwhelmed by the social and psychological needs of the poet or in which the social or psychological reality is denied and the illusion of a pure earth poetry is offered to the rightly skeptical reader.

No doubt Whitman remains firm in his commitment to be the poet of the body. Not only the quantity but also the character of the usage changes. Nowhere in the poems does Whitman use religion —a term usually associated with formal practices and institutions—to describe his own project as he does in In he more commonly mentions religion as something to be overcome or at best tolerated by the all-accepting personality, as in the following lines: We consider the bibles and religions divine.

In the final version, the most unsettling passage appears in Section On my way a moment I pause, Here for you! They become as insubstantial as breath. But unlike the ephemeral sounds of the wind and rain and the cries of animals in the forest, Indian breath has formed words that have attached to places and natural features such as rivers and mountains. The words retain a place in the new culture after Native peoples depart. The suggestion, then, is that unlike the departing redwoods, which depend upon the poet to hear them and give them voice, the souls of Indians remain in the places they have inhabited, living on in indigenous languages used as place names.

As for the living American Indians of his time, however, Whitman could see no future. In focusing on language, the naming power of the Native peoples, Whitman suggests a hierarchical chain of being. The vision here gives us the great American West, the buffalo and wigwam and backwoods villages left behind, transformed into a sprawling nineteenth-century version of New York City with its powerful technologies of transportation and communication, its shops and factories, its working people elevated to high offices and occupations, and of course its beloved poet enjoying the echoes of his songs in every corner of the transformed world.

The word that Whitman often used for inner conflict was perturbation.

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Among other biographers, Gay Wilson Allen has shown how by the s the poet associated the word particularly with the turmoil he felt over homosexual desires that occasionally threatened to boil to the surface in ways he must have deemed inappropriate Solitary Singer Whitman often represented perturbation as an unquenchable heat or inner fire and resorted particularly to the image of flame with its phallic suggestiveness.

He jotted down. And who but I should be the poet of comrades? We have already seen him transform the spider metaphor to eliminate the predatory aspect and censor the homoerotic element. For more on Calamus , see chapter 5. Many scholars influenced by New Criticism and Freudian psychoanalysis have proposed that Whitman achieved an admirable sublimation, an artistic achievement that transcended the passions tormenting him, as he became increasingly aware of his own consuming and exclusively homosexual passion. He says he will turn the flames that threaten to consume him outward, releasing them to the world as poetry.

In seeming defiance of the sublimation thesis, however, he does not deny the more direct outlet of love and sexual experience. If passion is a flame that burns within, spirituality is the flame of the world. It consumes materials as passion consumes people. The psychological and metaphysical trend of the poem, confused and incompletely articulated though it is, leans toward an interpretation of spiritual passion as a sublimation in which passion may switch from one object to another; it may start as erotic stimulation and end up as religion. Or it may go in the other direction; it may seem to be religious fervor and end up being expressed as love for another person.

Passion has many outlets and may shift from one stream to another in the process of flaming out. There is a good possibility that by the s Whitman had come to see his candid celebration of the body in direct language as a failure. His attempt to construct the new American bible could thus represent an effort to give his radical poetry of the body a more conventional garb—the language of spirituality. The hierarchy emerging in the s has disturbing ecological implications.

Set free in nature, spirit consumes the earth. It refines and purifies materials. The suggestion is that strong passions driven forth into the world free the individual but consume the earth. The earth becomes a burned sacrifice. The soul, rather than being the silk-spinning organ of a spider reaching out for connections, takes on the qualities of the internal combustion engine, transforming the world with the flames of its passion.

Indeed, according to the reading of his friend, the celebrated nature writer John Burroughs, Nature as such has little, if any, place in Leaves of Grass. But the word or phrase is always an electric one. In the Leaves , nature appears to be defined as the special character of a person or thing, that which makes it most itself, or as a synonym for the earth natura naturata. Nature defined as a godlike force moving within all creation, the mystical Other natura naturans , which Burroughs appears to take as the normative definition drawing probably upon Wordsworth and Emerson , does not begin to appear until both in new poems and in revisions of old ones a little earlier than Martin Doudna has suggested in his Whitman encyclopedia entry, which sets the line of demarcation at the Civil War.

The particularity of the imagery makes the abstraction appealing and credible, if largely superfluous. It is the means by which he realizes the sources of his self, both in his body and in external nature. Clearly the version of Nature retains from and the concern with integration and oneness with the earth. Here we have the foundation for a democratic conception of ecopoetics and human creativity that recalls the words of the Preface: The land and sea, the animals fishes and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests mountains and rivers, are not small themes.

Men and women perceive the beauty well enough. The passionate tenacity of hunters, woodmen, early risers, cultivators of gardens and orchards and fields, the love of healthy women for the manly form, sea-faring persons, drivers of horses, the passion for light and the open air, all is an old varied sign of the unfailing perception of beauty and of a residence of the poetic in outdoor people.

2016 Lecture 06 Maps of Meaning: Part I: The primordial narrative

They can never be assisted by poets to perceive. The poetic quality is not marshalled in rhyme or uniformity or abstract addresses to things nor in melancholy complaints or good precepts, but is the life of these and much else and is in the soul[. The fluency and ornaments of the finest poems or music or orations or recitations are not independent but dependent. All beauty comes from beautiful blood and a beautiful brain. If the greatnesses are in conjunction in a man or woman it is enough. Who troubles himself about his ornaments or fluency is lost.

LG , v The implication is that men and women who live close to the earth already enjoy a complete integration, a soulful life. Again, the metaphor of the poem as a web comes to mind, a light overlay of reality resonating with implied meaning and providing a higher, lighter perspective from which to view the earth. From these observations, Whitman finishes this extraordinary passage with advice to the would-be poet: This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work. He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed and manured. He shall go directly to the creation. His trust shall master the trust of everything he touches. The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. One key issue, which reaches deep in language and culture, concerns the conflict between the impulse to consume and the impulse to conserve.

Tropes of identity may be pressed into service of both. In the old fable, the grasshopper is a joyous child of the earth that eats and dances its way into the winter of its own oblivion; its counterpart, the ant, is a stern-minded child of the earth whose way is to preserve and persevere. The roots of the conflict may well reach to the difference between the older hunter-gatherer lifestyle and the more recent agricultural lifestyle devoted to careful planning and organizing and to the cultivation and preservation of food, producing through technology the kinds of surpluses, specialized crafts, and community hierarchies associated with modernity.

The Island Poet and the Sacred Shore. I resign myself to you [. This chapter offers a reading of four shoreline poems considered as two overlapping pairs, each framing a life crisis. At the seaside, marsh, swamp, or riverbank—the meeting place of land and water—the events narrated in these poems and others like them in Leaves of Grass occur with all the power of the primal scene as Freud envisioned it but stripped of the Victorian trappings of dimly remembered parlors, bedrooms, and nurseries.

Instead of nature being substituted for history, as in the model posed by the ideological critic, nature is for the psychoanalytical critic an empty shell filled with the fantasy life of the poet. The place of writing must be defined far more broadly than the virtual reality of memory, imagination, and desire. It must take account of the material contexts of both historical and physical reality, including the bioregion—the land defined not so much by social and political boundaries, the imposition of human will upon the landscape, but by long-standing cultural ties and the natural markers of waterways and other elements of physical geography—to which the author is born or is attached by choice or happenstance.

As Jim Dodge suggests, in acknowledging the way that place shapes character and consciousness through a sense of kinship and indwelling, bioregional thinking embraces renewal and resistance. It renews links to places of inhabitation or more often these days, reinhabitation , taking on an ecopoetical purpose in the search for beauty and meaning in local conditions. Robert L. Thayer Jr. Renewal through the questioning of our place on the earth involves resistance to the modern condition of homelessness. In dealing with nineteenth-century writers like Whitman, we can see that the transportation and communication technologies were having their globalizing effects well before the age of oil and the advent of computers.

He found new value in his attachment to the New York islands after a journey beyond his own region in the late s, when he sought career advancement through geographic mobility by briefly taking a job as a journalist in New Orleans.

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Later he would feel the recurrent need for renewal and return to his island home after forays in the big city of Manhattan and the power center of Washington, D. His poems of the late s and early s arise from his need for relief from the pressures of social and geographical mobility, of city life and mass communication, of homelessness in the bioregionalist sense. He had by that time entered upon a career as a high-profile national poet with claims of universality. At this point, he turned back to the land of his origins and again discovered his inspiration. On the theme of renewal, there can be no doubt; the theme of resistance, largely implicit in these poems, would rise to the surface in Calamus and Specimen Days discussed in chapters 5 and 6, respectively.

Such an approach to the seaside poems takes seriously the idea that, for Whitman, the shoreline, and particularly the shoreline of his native Long Island, amounts to a sacred place, a scene to which he ritualistically returns to revive his sense of beauty and meaning, a site to which his identity as poet and person is anchored. Whitman grew up on Long Island and later associated himself with Manhattan, which, though highly urbanized even in the mid-nineteenth century, also demands to be remembered as one of many sea islands on the Atlantic Coast.

And realized that the great City was after all a sea island, and a small one at that. SD — Of the three influences Whitman enumerates here—family, environment, and war—the biographers have made much of family and war and somewhat less of environment. But in fact geography plays a role in all three of the elements, each of which suggests a particular set of personal conflicts linked to the coordinates of land and sea.

First, the inherited qualities of the mother are set at odds with those of the father, and each is associated with a place of origin, the Netherlands and England the one country in need of constant redemption from the threatening sea, the other an island nation. In this drama of selfhood in situ, the island becomes a metaphorical crucible for identity, mixing the paternal and maternal, the introspective or introverted and the social or extroverted , childhood and adulthood, the empty wilderness and the teeming city.

The island becomes a metaphor for the full range of individuality. Its special character comes through its isolation from the continent and its emergence out of the sea, but the processes that form it give insights into the great continental masses and the flow of the mighty oceans. In this sense, the island is at once a unique individual and a microcosm.

Its relationship to the sea hints at the alternating cosmic processes of stability and flow, particle and wave, space and time, permanence and change. The history of the island metaphor is long and deep. In English poetics, it takes on a special meaning, for English is the language of an island people. The seventeenth-century master of the metaphysical conceit, John Donne, is rightly remembered for claiming this native space as a metaphor for individuality, albeit negatively.

In his Meditation XVII, in one of the most frequently quoted passages from English literature, Donne writes: No man is an Iland , intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent , a part of the maine ; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea , Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me , because I am involved in Mankinde ; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee. Seemingly separate, every island is grounded in the bedrock of the continental mass.

England has an essential connection to Europe, and the life, even the death, of every human being affects every other. Also, an idea found world-wide, of the earth, or cosmos even, sustained by a great turtle or serpent-of-eternity. A name: that we may see ourselves more accurately on this continent of watersheds and life-communities—plant zones, physiographic provinces, culture areas; following natural boundaries. The poems speak of place, and the energy-pathways that sustain life.

Anglos, Black people, Chicanos, and others beached up on these shores all share such views at the deepest levels of their old cultural traditions—African, Asian, or European. Hark again to those roots, to see our ancient solidarity, and then to the work of being together on Turtle Island. As with Donne, we see in Snyder a desire both to assert and to overcome insularity. The naming, or renaming, of North America as Turtle Island is the means of at once setting it apart as distinct from Europe and a tradition of naming that suggests colonization, empire, and exploitation of land and Native peoples and reconnecting it to the subsurface strata of common myth and mother earth.

And it was thought that the ancient and sacred creature carried the earth upon her back. Turtle was a deity, an ancestor creature, a symbol of long life. However, Turtle Island was taken from those who named her. And a thing was done that Native Americans have never fully understood: The sacred land was used, sold, bartered, bought and paid for with blood and money. In the end, The People had no part in it, and hardly any place in it. And Mother Earth, Turtle Island, was owned by people who did not seem to know who she was.

In The Song of the Dodo , the science journalist David Quammen tells the story of how island tropology came to prominence in the field of biogeography. Synecdoche and caricature allow bold patterns to stand forth clearly. In particular, the evolution of strange species on islands is a process that, once illuminated, casts light onto its dark double. It has come to the mainlands. The problem of habitat fragmentation, and of the animal and plant populations left marooned within the various fragments under circumstances that are untenable for the long term, has been showing up all over the land surface of the planet.

The story of island biogeography suggests that the question of origins that dominated all the talk about evolution in the era of Wallace, Darwin, and Whitman always contained questions about survival that predominate in our times. Imagine, then, an island poetics. Synecdoche becomes a key trope. It is the trope of representation, the part standing for the whole. It inhabits or possesses a place, a site, a segment that, while distinctive or even unique, exposes a pattern that reappears in other places, sites, segments.

While not reducible to one another, they are linked by shared attributes represented as common ground. When Gary Snyder discovers similar patterns in the cultural traditions of the various ethnic groups washed up on the shore of North America, he is practicing island poetics. What is synecdochic at the microlevel of the word or phrase may be mythic at the macrolevel of narrative.

Like metaphor, metonymy, and synecdoche, which work at the level of the phrase or sentence, myth is a linguistic means of identity formation. Metaphor forces an identification between two seemingly unlike objects: the poet is a spider; the man or no man is an island. Myth offers a story that stands for seemingly disparate experiences.

The extinction of the dodo stands for the possible extinction of every creature, including human beings. In addition to elements of form metaphor, synecdoche, myth , island poetics comprises issues of theme or content. It has to do with evolution and extinction, origins and survival. The sacred place is bound up with stories of heroic acts, miracles, or divine revelations. It is full of power and possibility. From an ecocritical point of view, he indulges heavily in anthropomorphism, personification, and the pathetic fallacy, imposing upon a scene of nature a mockingbird defending its territory at the seaside aspects of a personal crisis that the biographers tell us he suffered in the late s, probably a failed love affair with a man, or a psychological crisis the psychoanalytical critics tell us that had pursued him from childhood, probably the fear of losing the love and approval of his parents, as well as the worry over a national crisis involving the increasing tensions between North and South as the historical critics tell us.

It is the poet not the moon, bird, or ocean who feels imposed upon, possessed by the wild night scene, the demon bird, and the sea witch. The great poet of selfhood becomes the poet of self-abnegation, opening to the influences of the earth spirits. The poetic experience of the earth is thus synecdochic and elaborative.

The bird is an island unto itself. Pour down your warmth, great sun! While we bask, we two together. Two together! Winds blow south, or winds blow north, Day come white, or night come black, Home, or rivers and mountains from home, Singing all time, minding no time, While we two keep together. And once love is lost, the bird sees all of nature refracted through the lens of sorrow, in a classic instance of the pathetic fallacy—actually a double instance of the fallacy: the poet imposes his emotions upon the bird, and the bird imposes upon the moon: O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!

O troubled reflection in the sea! O throat! O throbbing heart! And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night. O past! O happy life!

When the Bough Breaks: Our Children, Our Environment

O songs of joy! In the air, in the woods, over fields, Loved! But my mate no more, no more with me! We two together no more. LG —92, The bird appears as a closed system of love and sorrow.

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By contrast, the boy-poet remains open. Turning from the demon bird, the poet invokes the greater power of the sea: O give me the clew! A word then, for I will conquer it, The word final, superior to all, Subtle, sent up—what is it? Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands? We might say that Whitman, in bringing to the poem his grief for his lost love and his anxiety over the troubled nation, began in the position of the mockingbird—forlorn, depressed, alienated, and compulsive—and found transcendence and survival by prostrating himself before the earth spirits on the sacred site of his origins.

In a pattern we will see again in Calamus see chapter 5 , the experience of romantic love involves an alienation from community and even from oneself. Survival outside the charmed circle depends upon a return to the elemental and a sacrificial gesture that opens outward. After retreating deep into the recesses of the island, the lover must risk the sea again, where the only word is death. The word out of the sea has a deeply ecopoetical significance. The threat and the promise of the earth is death.

The hysterical turning away from the earth—and from the body, that human island of clay, beset on every side by forces of dissolution—is a function of the human fear of death. The tide that brings nutrients to the shore returns to the sea with an equal measure reclaimed. The effort of environmentalists to tie the survival of the human race to the survival of nature as the source of life always runs up against this formidable psychological limit. The human will to power understood as the struggle against death can only countenance a parallel struggle against the earth.

The great Mother becomes the great Other, and reconciliation becomes the chief task of the poet as a sort of mystical ecologist. Earth endures; Stars abide— Shine down in the old sea; Old are the shores; But where are old men? I who have seen much, Such have I never seen. But the heritors? The lawyer, and the laws, And the kingdom, Clean swept from herefrom. Bryant treats this realization with stoic acceptance, Emerson with Romantic awe and irony.

Both participate in the pastoral tradition, the literature of agricultural people who lay claim to the earth only to be claimed by it. No wonder, then, that Lawrence Buell argues in The Environmental Imagination that the pastoral tradition is a powerful influence. His song engulfs the lament of the bird and the whispered word of the sea and grows larger with these offerings. Adding his own sense impressions and layering his song with many returns to the sacred place, his words swamp the schematic utterances of bird and ocean.

Without renewed contact with the endless rocking of the cradle, he becomes diminished. Renewal depends upon the return to the sacred site and all that it signifies. Nature is a god term or an actual god before which the Romantic poets bow, either in submission or awe, but keeping their own relatively stable identities intact. If Bryant and Emerson come off as deistic or Unitarian, Whitman appears as charismatic or shamanistic.

They change him, renew him, pull him out of the depression into which he has sunk, and restore his vital creativity. The suggestion is that the soul of the human being dwells in the earth and must be reintegrated with the living body and individual ego through ritual contact, preferably carried out in sacred sites. The ecopoetics suggested by this view subverts the Romantic categories of scale and hierarchy, the large and the small, the victim and the master, the god and the creature or even the mediating high priest , hinting instead toward a model of interactive flow, of fluids and bodies interpenetrating, the opening and closing of inlets and pores, mouths and ears, with islands whose shorelines are formed by the sea, whose mineral substance and fresh waters feed the sea in turn, and the shape of whose very being stands as a monument to the power and wonder of the ocean.

The meditative posture of the poet prostrate upon the sacred shore indicates a release of the willful control by which the individual ego attempts to carve out an artificial island of protected life. The joyful, though admittedly frightening, abandon at the end of the poem results from the release that the poet feels. But the attitude toward nature and toward death differs somewhat; the mood is more somber, the release less than joyful and not even complete. He sets up a virtual monument in the sacred places recast in the forge of memory and imagination.

And then there is the bird, the hermit thrush. I enter a swamp as a sacred place—a sanctum sanctorum. A town is saved, not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it. A township where one primitive forest waves above while another primitive forest rots below,—such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages. Though not a marsh or estuary , which opens to the sea and thereby signifies the indefinite margin where solid earth the father gives way to open sea the mother , the swamp a forested wetland represents a similar kind of nurturing margin.

It feeds the forest and builds the general profile and strength of the soil—and thereby the people—and thus suggests regeneration and renewal. It is related to the shoreline in the sense that it is the place where civilization ends and the earth does its work without the interference of humanity.

It is to the woodlands what the marsh is to the shoreline. Give me the ocean, the desert, or the wilderness! As the story begins, the flowers are blooming in the dooryard of an old farmhouse. The feeling imparted is that he is moving toward the sea. Yet even the dedication of the poetry, the lovely pictures, will not suffice. Finally, in Section 14 he begins to find his way out of the deadening cycle.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me, The gray-brown bird I know receiv'd us comrades three, And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love. From deep secluded recesses, From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still, Came the carol of the bird. And the charm of the carol rapt me, As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night, And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird. LG —92, 54 But in another sense, the bird reminds the poet of his faculty of openness. Death consumes all else before it. I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them, And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them, I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war, But I saw they were not as was thought, They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not, The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd, And the wife and the child and musing comrade suffer'd, And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.

LG —92, With the vision, the cycle of grief is redeemed if not broken. He stops in the swamp with the thrush and seeks therein sufficient resolution to return to the city. He seems to be reaching for something—an artistic effect, a consolation, a fullness that he never quite attains: the ocean.

Chances are that Whitman could never rest satisfied with any memorial to the death of Lincoln and the war itself. The effect upon him was simply too devastating. Things just get murkier and messier. Though drawn forth by the scent and freshness of the sea winds, the poet fails to reach any place that resembles the Long Island coast that he knew so well, the kind of clear place where liquid meets solid. So the fact that he chooses a swamp as the place to walk into with the thought of death and the knowledge of death is no accident.

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In a way, he does not want to be released from this place: he wants to stand knee-deep in decay. The swamp presents a dangerous ecology, because in effect it is the place where the great continental island is half-dissolved in the sea beneath the ground, so the generating tension between self and other, between individual and collective, between life and death is erased or held in suspension. And after the Civil War, there was a lot to decompose.

The swamp is no place for lilacs. The recourse to the personification of abstractions is especially telling, as is the metaphorical substitution of death for the ocean. Worn out from the war, Whitman was likely struggling to keep his inspiration alive. The struggle makes for moving poetry, no doubt, a poetry that has a special resonance to twenty-first-century readers in an America beset by the threat of violence from within and without.

He no longer seems able to connect in the old way. The war consumed him and ate away at his inspiration, already damaged by the crisis of the late s. The word electric did not appear in the version of that poem either but came later, in In both poems, it seems to suggest an openness, like the valence of a molecular bond, a willingness to engage. The electric self, then, is the self possessed fully by the soul. The poet is alone, and like the noiseless patient spider, he opens outward but is unable to find a place for the creative filament to attach.

Such are among the saddest moments in Leaves of Grass , the soul engaged, charged up, but without a connection by which to release the charge. In Section 2, he gives full vent to his discontent. I throw myself upon your breast my father, I cling to you so that you cannot unloose me, I hold you so firm till you answer me something. The image suggests the poet prostrate on the land beseeching the father just as the tide begins to turn, the water reaching up to his feet.

The end of the poem offers only the slightest lift of spirits, the poet saved like a drowning man who has thrown himself in desperation on the shore, but barely alive. To some extent, the familial group represents an alternative to the idea of the land as lover or victim of acquisitive passion , and it resonates with the Native American mythology of mother earth, father sky, and filial animals—brother fox and brother bear—as well as Brer Rabbit and his fellow creatures in the stories of Joel Chandler Harris, who drew upon the Gullah traditions of storytelling from the southeastern sea islands.