The Spike or Victoria College Review 1942
Walt Whitman against Fascism
Walt Whitman against Fascism
Courage yet, my brother or my sister!
Keep on—Liberty is to be subserv'd whatever occurs.
It is Fifty years now since Walt Whitman died. And yet now for the first time we are really beginning to understand him. This is because ours is the generation he wrote for. It has been reserved for us to appreciate him against the background which he himself would have wished most, a background in which Democracy is beginning to assume a meaning. The context in which Whitman speaks to us now is the context of Democracy struggling for its life. We can understand what he was getting at because we are living what he was getting at. Whitman has many meanings for many men but he is chiefly the great bard of Democracy, on a deeper reading—and to those who loved him before us it does not seem to me History permitted that depth—all the time the poet of Democracy.
How fresh he is today. How very much more contemporary than any of our contemporaries. Look for instance at his "O Star of France," again not particularly well-known, a poem that is not found in the anthologies. Doesn't the parallel strike you straight away that it's more than the France of 1870 he's writing about?
Star crucified—by traitors sold,
Star pantingder a land of death, heroic land,
Strange, passionate, mocking, frivolous land.
But there is another France we know of, and which Whitman knew of, the real France of Voltaire, and Marat, of the Communards and the Fighting French of De Gaulle and of Gabrielle Peri, the France which he and we find sacred because
In that amid thy many faults thou ever aimedst highly,
In that thou wouldst not really sell thyself however great the price,
In that thou surely wakedst weeping from thy drugged sleep.
In his "Song of Myself" Whitman said
I am for those that have never been mastered
For men and women whose tempers have never been mastered.
Is not the one lesson, the one certainty in these distracted and uncertain years this? That men and women can never be mastered. Isn't this what Mikhailovich has taught us, and the Czech students, and the Norwegian school-teachers, and the French hostages, and the Polish saboteurs, and the Red Army, and Rhineland priests and our own New Zealand mates (some of them still unsurrendered even now in the hills of Crete) and the ragged dogged partisan bands of three-quarters of the earth?
For all these, for all the torn and beaten people who will not be still, Whitman wrote their tremendous justification—"To a Foil'd European Revolutionaire.' How magnificently it goes
When there are no more memories of heroes and martyrs,
And when all life and all the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth,
Then only shall liberty or the idea of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth,
And the infidel come into full possession.
Then courage European revolter, revoltress!
For till all ceases neither must you cease.
Why is it that after ninety years Whitman seems to be writing here now? In what does this remarkable immediacy of his lie, the feeling that he's leaped from the page and marching alongside us? Why understanding Whitman do we understand our times? The reason is of course that page 14 Whitman had the open secret of immortal verse making. He shared with Milton, Blake, Burns, and Shelley the conception (how vulgar it must seem to our present day poetlings) that "the true attitude of a great poet is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots." There is only one permanent theme in literature, a theme as lively as life itself because it is life, the theme of men struggling to be free. Whitman rarely has any other note; he never felt that any other was needed. To him Democracy itself is struggle, nothing finished, rounded, complete. Unlike the Editor of "The Dominion" he finds himself unable to define it. We have frequently printed the word," he says, "yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened, notwithstanding the resonance and the many angry tempests out of which its syllables have come, from pen or tongue. It is a great word whose history, I suppose, remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted."
Yes, though he may have been as Thoreau thought apparently the greatest Democrat the world has seen" he couldn't say what Democracy was. But he knew very well what it wasn't. It wasn't class society. His picture of the new "City of Friends" is the closest he got to explaining the sine qua non of his Democracy.
Where the slave ceases and the master of slaves ceases;
Where the populace arise at once against the never ending audacity of elected persons;
Where fierce men and women pour forth, as the sea to the whistle of death pours its sweeping and unript waves;
Where outside authority enters always after the precedence of inside authority
Where the citizen is always the head and the ideal—and President Mayor Governor and what not, are agents for pay;
Where children are taught to be laws to themselves, and to depend on themselves;
Where equanimity is illustrated in affairs;
Where women walk in public processions in the streets the same as men
Where they enter the public assembly and take places the same as men There, he says, the great city stands. Is it surprising that in the world's first classless republic Whitman should be held in high esteem? Mind you Whitman promises no new world orders. He lays down no blueprints for the coming Society. Though so intelligent a critic as van Wyck Brooks can remark that his Utopia is very inferior to William Morris's he rejects Utopianism as devisively as Marx did. He makes himself plain enough.
Have the past struggles succeeded?
What has succeeded? yourself? your nation? Nature?
Now understand me well—it is provided in the essence of things that from any fruition of success no matter what, shall come forth something to make a greater struggle necessary.
Vice-President Henry Wallace in what is perhaps the finest address of the War criticised those who had described this century as "the American Century." "This century," he said, "is the Century of the Common man." And it is because he is the poet of the common man that Whitman is the poet of the Twentieth Century. He knew us better perhaps than we know ourselves.
I see this day the People beginning their landmarks (all other give way)
Never were such sharp questions asked as this day;
Never was average man his soul more energetic, more like a God.
Years of the modern! Years of the unperform'd.
Your horizon rises—I see it parting away for more august dramas;
I see not America only—I see not only Liberty's nation, but other nations preparing,
I see tremendous entrances and exits—see new combinations—I see the solidarity of races.
Stalin has said "only the people are immortal, everything else is transient." Because he was out of the common people, because he stayed with the common people, because he determined "without yielding an inch the working men and women were to be in my pages from first to last," Whitman put immortality into his pages.page break page break page 15
What is the test of a poet? Surely this, that the real poet speaks to us from the grave. The greatest poets help us from the grave. Old Walt is giving us a hand along to-day. Everything in Whitman is battle cry against Fascisn. Every line he has is a slogan of resistance. Until the indomitableness that breathes through them breathes through the Democracies, until New Zealand feels as intensely as he did, that
Whoever degrades another degrades me we shall not win the War.