Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"The most renowned poems would be ashes": Song for Occupations

Disclaimer: I have a knack for underestimating how long it takes me to write these posts, so the following is incomplete, but submitted in the interest of participation. I will complete it as soon as possible.

With its proclamations of equality and inventory of glorified everyday activities, "Song for Occupations" often seems as if it belongs within "Song of Myself." Whitman elaborates on the centrality of nature in understanding our lives, and on the divinity revealed through humankind's mere existence. Here are some lines that particularly stood out to me:

Have you reckoned the landscape took substance and form that it might be painted
     in a picture?
Or men and women that they might be written of, and songs sung?
Or the attraction of gravity and the great laws and harmonious combinations and
     the fluids of the air as subjects for the savans?
Or the brown land and the blue sea for maps and charts?
Or the stars to be put in constellations and named fancy names?
Or that the growth of seeds is for agricultural tables or agriculture itself?

Old institutions....these arts libraries legends collections--and the practice
     handed along in manufactures....will we rate them so high?
Will we rate our prudence and business so high?....I have no objection,
I rate them as high as the highest....but a child born of a woman and man I rate
     beyond all rate.


We consider the bibles and religions divine....I do not say they are not divine,
I say they have all grown out of you and may grow out of you still,
It is not they who give the is you who give the life;
Leaves are not more shed from the trees or trees from the earth than they are shed
     out of you.


All doctrines, all politics and civilization exurge from you,
All sculpture and monuments and anything inscribed anywhere are tallied in you,
The gist of histories and statistics as far back as the records reach is in you this
     hour--and myths and tales the same;
If you were not breathing and walking here where would they all be?
The most renowned poems would be ashes....orations and plays would be


When the psalm sings instead of the singer,
When the script preaches instead of the preacher,
When the pulpit descends and goes instead of the carver that carved the supporting
When the sacred vessels or the bits of the eucharist, or the lath and plast, procreate
     as effectually as the young silversmiths or bakers, or the masons in their
When a university course convinces like a slumbering woman and child convince,
When the minted gold in the vault smiles like the nightwatchman's daughter,
When warrantee deeds loafe in chairs opposite and are my friendly companions,
I intend to reach them my hand and make as much of them as I do of men and

"Poem Of The Daily Work Of The Workmen And Workwomen Of These States"
For the second edition of this poem, Whitman changes the title to reflect a simultaneously more personal and patriotic perspective on work, just as he did with the change in title from "Song of Myself" to "Poem Of Walt Whitman, An American." (Aside: I just noticed that Whitman has enforced equality in the capitalization of the words in his titles, with "of" and "and" receiving as much emphasis as the subjects). The title no longer calls to mind some vaguely official jobs but the people who do the work--our people. This seems appropriate for Whitman's emphasis on the people doing the work over the importance of the work itself, but the replacement of the word "song" with "poem" is more official-sounding, and the previous continuity between "Song of Myself" and "Song of Occupations" is interrupted by the "Poem of Women" and "Poem of Salutation." New lines include "When I can touch the body of books, by night or / by day, and when they touch my body back / again."

"Chants Democratic. 3"
The poem is now subsumed within a larger group of "Chants Democratic," of which it is only one number out of many. Perhaps I should say "out of many, one," given the American democratic context. Whitman adds the exclamations "Male and Female," "American masses," and "Workmen and Workwomen" to the first few stanzas, increasing the specificity of his address. The lines beginning with "Coins and medals" are removed and "Saturday night" is changed to "Seventh Day night." The lines "In them realities for you and me--in them poems for / you and me" are added, and also "O you robust, sacred! / I cannot tell you how I love you; / All I love America for, is contained in men and / women like you."

"To Workingmen"
I must admit I was surprised to not see "Workingwomen" added to "Workingmen" in the title, since he has been rather consistent about this addition elsewhere. He adds the old reference to occupations: "This is the poem of occupations; / In the labor of engines and trades, and the labor of / fields, I find the developments, / And find the eternal meanings." Whitman edits out quite a few lines in this edition, including "I see not merely that you are polite or white-faced, / married, single, citizens of old States, citizens of / new states..." and "the naive, the simple and hardy, he going to the / polls to vote..." and he inserts the last stanza into the middle.

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