Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"I Hear It was Charged against Me" (1860)
Author:
Oates, David
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem appeared first as number 24 in the 1860 "Calamus" cluster. In later editions it remained in essentially the same position, with just one word changed ("was" replacing "is" in the first line in 1867).

The first three lines state a criticism (that Whitman opposes and undermines society) and answer it by categorically denying the charge's validity (he has nothing whatever to do with society's institutions). The last four lines then go beyond the negative by declaring what, in fact, the poet aims at: "the institution of the dear love of comrades." Versions of this theme appear throughout "Calamus": that love of comrades is more real, essential, or precious than anything else. In particular, the similarly-titled "When I Heard at the Close of the Day" mirrors this poem, for it responds to the opposite situation ("plaudits in the capitol") with the same answer. Whether praise or blame is offered, nothing compares to the love of comrades.

Structurally the poem relies on prepositions. The poet is neither "for" nor "against" existing institutions, but will establish the love of comrades "in" (repeated) and "above" and "without" (i.e., outside) them. In a familiar Whitman pattern, elaborated prepositional phrases delay expected sentence completion until the last line of the poem, giving it climactic emphasis.

The poem might be read as a dialectic: thesis (the charge) and antithesis (its denial) are followed by synthesis (love of comrades as a wholly different kind of "institution" he will "establish"). Critics have explored this concluding non-institutional institution as a dramatic tension, a paradox, a self-contradiction, etc. It seems clear that the poem derives vitality from both denying and confirming the "charge" made. In the end, Whitman's floating comradely love-feast is probably far more radical and threatening to established mores than anything charged by his detractors. At the same time, Whitman conceives this radically unsettling love as the invisible bond that will cement the new world democracy into a unity. The democratic uses of brotherhood hinted at in this poem are expanded elsewhere, for instance in the "Calamus" poem "For You O Democracy."

Bibliography

Cady, Joseph. "Not Happy in the Capitol: Homosexuality in the 'Calamus' Poems." American Studies 19.2 (1978): 5–22.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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