Tag: walt whitman

Walt Whitman, “Pioneers! O Pioneers!”


As used in the ridiculously epic Levi’s ad now on the airwaves. Hearing the commercial the first time I was a bit startled, thinking wow, this sounds a lot like Whitman…well. The idea of finding great artistic merit in a commercial is still a bit strange to me, and although it is weird to hear Mr Whitman used to hawk jeans (one could argue though that this ad has little do do with jeans, except people are wearing them), I have to give props for bringing a rather old-fashioned – and rather awesome – poem into the modern context. Manifest Destiny – sexy again I guess?

Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental
blood intervein’d,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress,
(bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang’d and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon’d mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill’d,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill’d.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life’s involv’d and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day’s procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock’d and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding
on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call–hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!–swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Walt Whitman, “I Hear America Singing”


I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or
at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of
the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day–at night the party of young fellows,
robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Walt Whitman


A Noiseless Patient Spider

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

– – –

Whitman is often seen, and rightly so, as the founder of modern American poetry. He is, as I noted in the entry on Carl Sandburg, a populist. He is in love with America. More to the point, he is in love with the American people. As a Long Islander by birth he was a lifelong New Yorker – a city which is a microcosm of America, especially in the 1800s, when you could go to both the “countryside” in Harlem and the financial district downtown. But he traveled extensively, both across the country and the world. In the Civil War he was a nurse, and his war poems express a deep love of love and human life.

He writes in a distinct style, one that was quite unique at the time. It’s harder to see in his shorter works but his longer poems, such as “Song of Myself” or “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” lack any real prosody (that is, formal rhyme and meter), instead coming out as a strange prose/poetry hybrid, gangly, long-limbed. His books are thick, dense tangles of adjectives and exclamations, like walking through a forest or a crowd. It’s rare that one gets a palpable sense of a poet just by looking at the layout of his books, but in the case of Whitman it is so. On the surface his word choice seems anchored in the vernacular, the conversational – but in reality his sensibility is highly refined. You don’t hear “filament” and “gossamer” bandied about every day. But his lack of formality and his apparent tone make his poetry approachable to “the masses,” whose who would not normally read poetry. And this approachability seems to be a defining American trait – at least we wish it to be. Whitman wanted to be read by those he wrote about. And he was – by the time of his death he had quite a following.

What’s most memorable about Whitman is his boundless love and emotion. Think of the famous “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman wailed on the death Abraham Lincoln. His poems reveal a huge arc of emotion, written plainly, with frank language. Fear, joy, lust, love in all its forms, sadness, envy, and most controversially, homoeroticism. He relishes living these emotions – he indulges in them equally – and he appreciates the necessity of emotion and pain more than any other poet. As I said before his works are filled with adjectives and adverbs and other modes of description. Whitman was a walking thesaurus, a true master of words, and he was never hesitant to show it. He uses exclamations (“O my soul!”), repetition, and anaphora (the repetition of a single word or phrase to begin a series of lines) to heighten emotion. Whitman is boasting about himself and his subjects – the boast being another American trait. Being both boastful and approachably humble is the essential paradox of Americanness, and it’s within this paradox that Whitman thrives.