Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Our Old Feuillage" (1860)
Author:
Hatlen, Burton
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Our Old Feuillage" was apparently written at least in part in 1856, for a version of the poem in the Valentine-Barrett manuscript speaks of the "Eightieth year of These States" (1776 to 1856 would be eighty years), a phrase that Whitman changed to "eighty-third year of these States" in the 1860 and all subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. Thus he was evidently revising the poem in 1859, when the secession crisis was rapidly coming to a head. The poem was first printed as number 4 of the "Chants Democratic," in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass, an edition that some critics see as an attempt on Whitman's part to hold the Union together by sheer force of rhetoric. "Our Old Feuillage," with its celebration of the infinite heterogeneity of "These States," supports such a reading. In subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman cut a few lines from this poem but made no major changes. The poem acquired its final title in the 1881 edition.

"Our Old Feuillage" is largely given over to one of the longest single catalogues in all of Leaves of Grass. The catalogue begins with a bird's eye perspective of the North American continent. From geography we move to demography, as Whitman lays out some census statistics designed to suggest the enormous scope and the "free range and diversity" of the "continent of Democracy." But then the camera eye swoops down to focus in on some specifics, and we find ourselves walking with the poet "[t]hrough Mannahatta's streets . . . these things gathering." Once we arrive at the level of the concrete particular, however, we (and the poet) soon leave Manhattan. Instead we leap from one region to another of "These States," in a series of strikingly concrete images of daily life in various regions of the nation—South, North, and West.

This series of images seeks to resolve itself in a declaration of the absolute unity of the nation. But implicitly Whitman seems to realize that merely announcing the unity of the states will not necessarily make them one, and midway through the poem he uneasily veers back from the political toward the personal. Again we find ourselves walking with the poet, but in the country this time, "rambling in lanes and country fields, Paumanok's fields." He returns to the political for a few lines describing an orator at work, but then he tries to resolve the tension between the universal and the particular in a metaphor, as the "I" of the poem becomes first a seagull and then a whole series of birds. And finally, Whitman concludes his poem with a passage—absent from the Valentine-Barrett manuscript and thus evidently added in late 1859 or early 1860—which includes a desperate declaration, shouted out in block capital letters, that the nation is indissolubly bound together into "ONE IDENTITY." This phrase hints at both his hopes and his fears, as he watched the Union break in two.

Bibliography

Hatlen, Burton. "The Many and/or the One: Poetics versus Ideology in Whitman's 'Our Old Feuillage' and 'Song of the Banner at Daybreak.'" American Transcendentalist Quarterly ns 6 (1992): 189–211.

Thomas, M. Wynn. The Lunar Light of Whitman's Poetry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1987.

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


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