Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"By the Roadside" (1881)
Author:
Rachman, Stephen
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Sandwiched between the astonishing poems of ebbing in "Sea-Drift" and the bloody battle poetry of "Drum-Taps," the twenty-nine poems grouped in "By the Roadside" have an interstitial and miscellaneous quality. They first appeared as a cluster in the sixth edition of Leaves of Grass (1881–1882), bringing together three new poems with two from the 1855 edition, sixteen from the 1860 edition, five from Drum-Taps (1865), one from the 1867 edition, and two from Passage to India (1871). The grouping is not often discussed as a whole; Gay Wilson Allen, Sculley Bradley, and Harold W. Blodgett see little more connecting the poems than the poet's experience as a roadside observer.

In part this response is prompted by the varied subject matter and the way many of the poems gathered here matter-of-factly take place by roads, such as "The Dalliance of the Eagles" (1880), "The Runner" (1867), or the parade in "A Boston Ballad (1854)" (1855). Perhaps more important, if "Roadside" has appeared minor and fugitive to scholars it is because Whitman quite deliberately offers contrapuntal relief to the epochal groupings it lies between. In his periodic rearrangements and orchestrations of the poetic movements of Leaves of Grass, Whitman settled on hiatal moments of frustrated rebellion and social complaint to give "Roadside" its most abiding theme. The first two poems in the sequence, "A Boston Ballad (1854)" and "Europe, The 72d and 73d Years of These States" (1850) (originally titled "Resurgemus"), respond with overtly political comment to, in the case of the former, the 1854 Fugitive Slave Law controversy and, in the case of the latter, the revolutionary turmoil which swept Europe in 1848. "Liberty," he writes in "Europe," "let others despair of you—I never despair of you." The rest of the cluster is largely comprised of brief lyric "Thoughts" and imagistic snapshots such as "A Farm Picture" (a poem which anticipates William Carlos Williams's "The Red Wheelbarrow" in its photographic minimalism), which emphasize the observing, spectatorial quality of Whitman's perspective. But the sequence is punctuated by two political poems, "To a President" (1860) and "To the States, To Identify the 16th, 17th, or 18th Presidentiad" (1860), which refer scornfully to the administrations of Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan. Returning to the motif of failed rebellion, "Roadside," as a retrospective organization of Whitman's poetic history, subtly invokes the aura of ineffectual struggles and mediocre, one-term administrations.

In this context, the briefer, more personal poems in the cluster, such as "O Me! O Life!" (1865) and "I Sit and Look Out" (1860), emphasize the frustrations of the poet in his struggle to realize what might be termed a socially efficacious poetic rebellion ("all the meanness and agony without end I sitting look out upon, / See, hear, and am silent") and the abiding quality of his commitment to that struggle in spite of setback ("the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse"). The road in this cluster helps Whitman to claim for his Leaves continuity between his political and poetic struggles while traveling between the great movements of his poetic career. The roadside is a figure for the site where, as Kenneth Burke and Alan Trachtenberg have suggested, Whitman translates the political into the experiential, and "Roadside" records the tribulations of that translation. The late poems that Whitman added to the group, such as "Roaming in Thought (After reading Hegel)" (1881), stress the continuity of that translation and indicate how Whitman's growing Hegelian idealism throughout the latter stages of his career served to help him fashion unities from the disparate movements of his verse.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. New York: New York UP, 1975.

____. The Solitary Singer: A Critical Biography of Walt Whitman. 1955. Rev. ed. 1967. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1985.

Burke, Kenneth. "Policy Made Personal: Whitman's Verse and Prose—Salient Traits." "Leaves of Grass" One Hundred Years After. Ed. Milton Hindus. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1955. 74–108.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

Trachtenberg, Alan. "Whitman's Visionary Politics." Walt Whitman of Mickle Street: A Centennial Collection. Ed. Geoffery M. Sill. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1994. 94–108.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. Ed. Sculley Bradley and Harold W. Blodgett. Norton Critical Edition. New York: Norton, 1973.


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