Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
["Long I Thought That Knowledge Alone Would Suffice"] (1860)
Author:
Kozlowski, Alan
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This twelve-line poem appeared only in the 1860 Leaves of Grass "Calamus" cluster as number 8 and was excluded from the subsequent 1867 edition. Previously, it was number 5 in the unpublished "Live Oak with Moss" cluster, ostensibly chronicling an unhappy love affair with a man. The conflict this elegiac poem dramatizes is that between the speaker's desire to be America's poet and his proscribed desires. The conflict's resolution in the poem is that the speaker "can be [the country's] singer of songs no longer . . . I will go with him I love." The poem addresses what Alan Helms calls the intrusions of the "capitol," the claims of which conflict with the claims of the lover (189). In the first four lines of the poem, the speaker recounts his previous poetic obsessions with knowledge, the land, and heroes, and his desire to sing about them all. Lines 5–10 are a warning to "The States" that the speaker will cease singing for them, with the reason given in the last two lines, that the speaker may be with his lover. Admittedly, the language of the poem parallels that of contemporary male-male friendship, but in it the poet rejects a heterosexual male ideal of productivity.

Sculley Bradley and Harold Blodgett link this poem with "Once I Pass'd through a Populous City"; both in manuscript form refer to the beloved as a man, though "Once I Pass'd" was revised to refer to a woman. It is also linked to two other excised "Calamus" poems, ["Who Is Now Reading This?"] (number 16), and ["Hours Continuing Long"] (number 9), each of which is linked to confusion over sexual difference. Various reasons have been given for this poem's exclusion from Leaves. M. Jimmie Killingsworth argues that these poems, with their awareness of an unconventional same-sex relationship, clashed with "Drum-Taps," in which Whitman strategically deployed the "soldier-comrade" as a veiled strategy of homosexual self-disclosure. He argues that if the three "Calamus" poems had appeared in the 1867 edition they would have betrayed the hidden underpinnings of "Drum-Taps." Kerry Larson, seeing the lover as a mere pretext for Whitman's proposed withdrawal from poetry, argues that the poem concerns Whitman's realization that his poetry has not facilitated national consensus. Considering the other excised poems this poem keeps company with, the argument that this poem's homoeroticism is incompatible with "Drum-Taps" is most plausible.

Because Whitman excised this poem early on, it has received little attention and has not been part of the canon. Additionally, some critics have found it flawed in its confused address between the public and the private and therefore its loss no misfortune. But its removal does provide a fascinating study of motives.

Bibliography

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

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. Whitman's Poetry of the Body: Sexuality, Politics, and the Text. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.

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

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

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


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