Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Live Oak with Moss" (1953–1954)
Author:
Helms, Alan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

According to Fredson Bowers, this important sequence of twelve love poems was probably composed shortly before the spring of 1859. Whitman included all twelve poems in the first publication of "Calamus" in the 1860 Leaves of Grass, but he rearranged and absorbed them into the longer sequence, thereby obliterating their identity as a discreet work. (In published form, the twelve poems became "Calamus" numbers 14, 20, 11, 23, 8, 32, 10, 9, 34, 43, 36, and 42.) Whitman never published "Live Oak with Moss," and no one even knew of its existence until Bowers discovered it in the early 1950s while working on the Valentine-Barrett manuscripts now at the University of Virginia (Whitman's holographs for most of the new poems in the 1860 edition). Bowers found that twelve poems among the manuscripts, clearly fair copies of lost originals, had originally comprised a little notebook; the poems were written on identical paper and numbered in consecutive Roman numerals, and they formed a coherent narrative of a love affair with a man. Bowers published his discovery almost a century after Whitman composed the sequence.

"Live Oak" tells the story of the speaker's infatuation with a male lover, his abandonment, and his accommodation to his loss. The first poem is an ecstatic declaration of love, followed by "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," the poem that provides the title of the sequence. The lovers are united in the third poem, "When I Heard at the Close of the Day." In the fifth poem, the speaker announces that he can no longer sing "the songs of the New World," for his lover "withdraws me from all but love." In the seventh he asks "bards of ages hence" to remember him not as a poet, but as "the tenderest lover," who was proud only of "the measureless ocean of love within him." In the next poem, one of the most despairing Whitman ever wrote, the speaker has been abandoned, and the remaining four poems recount his accommodation to his loss. The sequence concludes with an address to "the young man" who would become "eleve of mine," presumably learning from the speaker what he himself has learned from his unhappy experience. Having begun the sequence as an ardent lover, he ends it as a paternal teacher, rather like the Good Gray Poet that Whitman was soon to become.

"Live Oak" appears to be Whitman's attempt at a sonnet sequence, and in fact he refers to "A Cluster of Poems, Sonnets" on the back of a separate manuscript of the title poem. Although several of the poems approach the sonnet's length and employ its formal "turn," they are sonnets only in the loosest sense of the word. Whitman's principal influence is Shakespeare, since Shakespeare provided him not only with a model for writing a sonnet sequence but also sanction for writing about homosexual love. In "Live Oak" number 8 Whitman echoes Shakespeare's Sonnet 121 ("I am that I am") when he writes "I am what I am."

That "Live Oak" had a special significance for Whitman is proved by his having copied the poems in the little notebook that Bowers discovered, but why he never published them or even mentioned them remains a mystery. He may have felt that the subject of the sequence was too sensitive, or that the sequence was too autobiographically revealing. (Charley Shively has identified the lover of "Live Oak" and "Calamus" as Fred Vaughan, a young man who lived with Whitman and his family in Brooklyn in the late 1850s.) In any case the sequence contains some of Whitman's best writing in the short lyric, including the title poem and "When I Heard at the Close of the Day," often called one of the most beautiful love poems in English. Among the most personally revealing of the poems, numbers 5 and 8 also show Whitman's talents to advantage, but they are less well-known than they deserve to be since Whitman suppressed them after 1860; they therefore do not appear in most indexes of his poetry. (The interested reader should consult the 1860 edition, where these poems appear as "Calamus" numbers 8 and 9.)

It is hard to overestimate the importance of "Live Oak," both as a discrete sequence and as a central document in Whitman's life and work. For one thing, it gives us the most extended treatment of male homosexual love in all of his poetry; for another, insofar as it appears to be autobiographical, it shows Whitman's dawning awareness of the cost of expressing his homosexuality, and it may thus explain why he avoids the subjects of personal love and sexuality after the 1860 edition. It formed the nucleus of "Calamus," and it gave Whitman the idea of the "cluster," a formal feature that plays an essential role in his arrangement of all subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. It also helps explain the depression attended by self-doubt and self-loathing that Whitman experienced in the late 1850s (his "slough") and that features prominently in "As I Ebb'd with the Ocean of Life" and other poems first published in 1860. That such a central work has been so little discussed is probably a result of the homophobia that until recently characterized the scholarly and critical response to Whitman's work.

Bibliography

Bowers, Fredson. "Whitman's Manuscripts for the Original 'Calamus' Poems." Studies in Bibliography 6 (1953): 257–265.

Helms, Alan. "Whitman's 'Live Oak with Moss.'" The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Ed. Robert K. Martin. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992. 185–205.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Kearney, Martin F. "Whitman's 'Live Oak with Moss': Stepping Back to Sere." Innisfre 7 (1987): 40–49.

Shively, Charley. Calamus Lovers: Walt Whitman's Working Class Camerados. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine, 1987.

Whitman, Walt. Whitman's Manuscripts: "Leaves of Grass" (1860). Ed. Fredson Bowers. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1955.

Zweig, Paul. Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet. New York: Basic Books, 1984.


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