Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Damp of the Night

"Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul."

Choosing a favorite couple of lines from "Song of Myself" is difficult; there's so much there in both ideas and presentation that I am forced to choose one of at least six favorites to share. These two lines aren't particularly impressive to me in terms of their language, especially compared to others I might have shared, but what I took to be their meaning really resonated with me.

I see in these lines the clash of powerful institutions, people, and ideas against the convictions of commoners during quiet moments alone--the ways we come to understand the world through experience as opposed to theory. There are important, contentious issues being investigated through science, religion, and various social and political movements, and it is easy to think that if others could be convinced of the rightness of any one approach an individual embraces, that we could finally make some progress together. Logic and sermons can help us make sense of the world and can inspire us, but at the end of the day we still have those damp nights to contend with on our own. We still have physical agonies and feelings of despair that persist in spite of the perspective we try to bring to them. Logic and sermons have their place but are ultimately inadequate to explain or address the power of the difficulties that can overwhelm us.


  1. Rachelle, I loved those lines, too! I'm so glad that you commented on them!

    Throughout "Song of Myself" Whitman constantly references both the body and the soul, the physical and the spiritual, the tangible and the intangible.

    Those two lines resonate so deeply for me because I felt the same way as a child growing up going to church. I might have made some mental assents, but if God was just a bunch of verses to memorize or rules to follow I didn't want any part of that. Later on, I felt more of an appeal to, or at least an acknowledgement of, my soul and my emotions that has made me feel more at east.

    Few people would think it healthy to devour books and abstain from food, to feed the mind and not the body. In the same way, it would also be just as unhealthy to gorge oneself and abstain from learning and exercising one's "mental faculties", to feed the body and not the mind. Gotta love Whitman's sense of balance, right?

  2. Thanks, Iona! I was exposed to a rather legalistic framework at times, too (well, I don't know that that was exactly what you experienced, but I'm comparing my experience to what you said about memorization and rules, which I definitely identify with). I have also enjoyed Whitman's appreciation of multiple ways of knowing, body and soul. I think we have to collect all of our resources together to make sense of and to overcome our personal "damp of the night" moments, which defy our organized understandings of the world and force us to recognize that they do.

  3. Excellent! I agree: experience is the whetstone of theory in Whitman. It's not so much that one is better than the other - -but that they must be in some kind of "dialectical" relationship - -constantly in dialogue with each other.