Today is the birthday of our great American poet, Walt Whitman.
Several years ago, his poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” was used in an episode of the hit television series, Breaking Bad. Since that time, there has been a resurgence of interest in Whitman.
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air,…
This is a Whitman poem of youth, a declaration of disillusionment with convention, of emerging from the passive seat of the student and propelling oneself into the world to participate and engage with it. This is Whitman at his best. We hear his soaring cadence, desire for perfection in his creation, his pleasure in the written and spoken word. Read this passage out loud and it is spectacular!
So I got to thinking, what does Whitman have to say about aging and even death? We all know (from our high school English classes) that Whitman was a humanist, spanning the transition in American literature between transcendentalism and realism. He was the “father of free verse” and some say the great-grandfather of beat poetry. His work was controversial in his time and he was forced to self-publish his masterpiece “Leaves of Grass”.
But Whitman’s writing on aging evolved dramatically over time. Early in his career, he was famously quoted as saying her feared the impact of aging on his creative process. But later in life he embraced the concept of himself as the “good, gray poet”. He explored the relationship of the aging self to nature and the universe. He discussed the role of memory and continuity in a rapidly changing world. His outlook ultimately feels both timeless and modern.
Youth, large, lusty, loving–youth full of grace, force, fascination,
Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace, force, fascination?
Day full-blown and splendid–day of the immense sun, action, ambition, laughter,
The Night follows close with millions of suns, and sleep and restoring darkness.
And a final passage:
Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breadth of the universe, old age flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.