Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Inscriptions" (1871)
Author:
Johnstone, Robert
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Inscriptions" is the name given to the first cluster in Leaves of Grass, beginning with the 1871 edition. A single poem called "Inscription" leads off the 1867 edition. By 1871 this poem appears as "One's-Self I Sing" and is one of nine in the "Inscriptions" cluster. ("One's-Self I Sing" remains the inaugural poem in all the later editions.) In the 1881 and Deathbed editions, "Inscriptions" expands to twenty-four poems. "As I Ponder'd in Silence" and "In Cabin'd Ships at Sea" debut in 1871; the vapid and unnecessary "Thou Reader" is the only new poem in 1881. Best known are "One's-Self I Sing," "When I Read the Book," "Me Imperturbe," "I Hear America Singing," and "Poets to Come."

Less coherent than other clusters in Leaves of Grass and consisting in great part of edited and transposed versions of earlier works, "Inscriptions" is an extreme but illustrative product of Whitman's habitual shuffling of his verse. The poems run from two lines ("Thou Reader") to eighty-four ("Eidólons") and range widely in quality and tone. Important themes such as war and voyaging seem obliquely related at best. As an overture, the cluster sounds many motifs but fails to establish a dominant mood. As an entryway to a man's life work, the section's arrangement is, as Gay Wilson Allen notes, vague and unsystematic. Not surprisingly, the poems have more often been quoted singly than interpreted as a group.

"Inscriptions" nevertheless represents Whitman's last answer to a problem that had tormented him since the 1855 edition and the drastic revisions of 1856—how to introduce to the general reader a verse form and content so unfamiliar and revolutionary. Also, whenever Whitman seems egregiously multiple and inconsistent, it is wise to inquire after his motives. Serious, detailed consideration of this introductory motion remains one of the unfulfilled tasks of Whitman criticism. Patterns are visible in "Inscriptions." Sometimes the poems follow a point-counterpoint ordering. The celebratory Self of the first poem elicits the haunting, accusatory Other of the second ("As I Ponder'd in Silence"). The joyous and Arcadian "I Hear America Singing" yields to the war imagery of "What Place is Besieg'd?"; then the pendulum swings back with "Still though the One I Sing," the title acknowledging its place in sequence. "One, yet of contradictions made" is what he truly forms, sings the second line. It is a felicitous image, soon to be repeated; Whitman's self, his leaves, and especially his "Inscriptions," contain multitudes and contradictions.

When Whitman speaks of the transmutation of many materials, "changing, crumbling, re-cohering" ("Eidólons"), he describes his work process and the undirected, nonlinear, and creative reading experience Leaves of Grass offers. Whitman's One is always fractious, seething, combinatory. The totalities of man and book are conjectural, never fixed; the whole cannot be known in any complete or homogenous way while it lives, necessarily, in the flux of its parts. In "When I Read the Book" the dispute with the axioms of traditional biography is telling. Whitman cannot convey any hard truth of his being, only "diffused faint clews and indirections." "Inscriptions" does the same for Leaves of Grass. Where a standard introduction would give directions to what comes next, "Inscriptions" faithfully gives many "indirections," from Whitman's many aspects, for the readers' many aspects, to the many paths through the subsequent leaves. The book may be a biography in one mood, "the history of the future" in another, a substantial reality to this reader, an eidólon to that.

Thus the structure of "Inscriptions" indicates the manifold, closure-resistant sense of possibility at the heart of Leaves of Grass by embodying it formally. One inscription could imply a single, authorized line of sight into the prospect of the text. A governing sentiment might petrify the many leaves into a monolithic monument, its univocal significance captured in an epigraph that is also, inconsolably, an epitaph. But a series of disparate declarations does the courteous work of opening one door after another, and letting the reader choose. "Inscriptions" incarnates and glosses Whitman's sense of freedom, openness, and respect. (Today's diminished language for this "interactivity" would come from the world of information technology: at its initial interface Leaves of Grass offers a spread of hypertextual alternatives, with more promised.) "Inscriptions" also foreshadows the experience of Whitman's longer poems, with their variety of stanza and rhythm, and their labyrinthine relations of thematic development, digression, and multiple listing.

There are timidities; certain topics and intensities are not forthrightly introduced. Neither the heated physicality nor the spiritual agonizing so central to Leaves of Grass is presaged in "Inscriptions." Whitman wants his readers committed to the crossing before buffeting them midstream with destabilizing forces. And why twenty-four inscriptions? It is happenstance, most likely, though the number evokes the diurnal round through daylight, darkness, dawn. Whitman usually avoids symmetrical and simplistic organizational schemes, but hinting that Leaves of Grass could be experienced as a latter Book of Hours, a modern and secular cycle of chant, meditation, and prayer, has a certain Whitmanian flair. "As a wheel on its axis turns, this book unwitting to itself, / Around the idea of thee," he inscribes in "To Thee Old Cause." The old cause, in the beginnings of the book as in its ends, is ever the progressive illumination of Self and Humanity.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. The New Walt Whitman Handbook. 1975. New York: New York UP, 1986.

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman: The Creation of a Book. Trans. Roger Asselineau and Burton L. Cooper. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1962.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.

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


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