Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Salut au Monde!"(1856)
Author:
Zapata-Whelan, Carol M.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"Salut au Monde!," first published as the third poem of the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, was originally entitled "Poem of Salutation." Receiving its present title in 1860, the piece underwent minor revisions throughout the different editions of Leaves of Grass. In the interest of aesthetic and thematic unity, Whitman dropped the American "genre painting" scene of section 8 from the thirteen sections in 1881 and reprinted it as a separate poem, "A Paumanok Picture." Though Whitman may have begun work on the poem before 1855, there are preliminary fragments of some of its lines in an 1855–1856 notebook, along with a jotting which would appear to make plans for the piece: "Poem—comprehending the / sentiment of / saluting Helo!" (Notebook 17). This poem of democratic salutation is influenced by the vision of international harmony of Constantin Volney's Ruins (1802).

"Salut au Monde!" is Whitman's calling card to the world, as well as one of his most successful compositions. With its close-ups and panoramic visions of the earth, the poem extends and internationalizes the outward progression of the first person seer in "Song of Myself." It begins the journey motif in what James E. Miller has classified as the "Song Section" ("Song of the Open Road," "Song of the Rolling Earth," etc.) of Leaves of Grass. As one of the twenty new poems of the second edition of Leaves of Grass, "Salut au Monde!" typifies Whitman's early optimism and exuberant engagement in the world. While the poem initially included American scenes, the poet deleted these by 1881, unifying "Salut au Monde!" as an international vision reaching beyond America to a universal ensemble.

From American brotherhood to a universal unity, Whitman's ongoing poetic aspiration is toward an "internationality of poems and poets, binding the lands of the earth closer than all treaties and diplomacy" (Prose Works 2:512). This "solidarity of the world," as Whitman called it in 1884 (Correspondence 3:369), is a manifestation of the poet's emphasis on "sympathy," the outward movement of self and nation, counterbalancing the "pride" of individualism and nationalism.

Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges notes Whitman's dialogue technique in "Salut au Monde!," as seen in the line "What do you see, Walt Whitman?" (section 4), suggesting that the poet incorporates the reader (or perhaps the world) as questioner in his poem. The questions are answered in sounds and visions encompassing what Allen and Folsom list as Whitman's central concerns in his own nation: religion, politics, art, and sexuality. In typical Whitmanic fashion, the poet addresses these categories in wide-panning vistas and short strokes of detail. Along with historical summaries and sky-view grids of railroads and rivers, he records the Cossack's cry, Spanish dancing, and Hebrew prayer.

It is important to note that the poet who embraces the world in his song of foreign songs is also the critic who states that, as for national expression, "I know not a land except ours that has not, to some extent . . . made its title clear" (Prose Works 2:413). "Salut au Monde!" exhibits not only international good will but also the national pride of an American bard attempting a "New World" art in which "the other continents arrive as contributions" ("Preface 1855" 711). Ironically, such a declaration may illustrate a recent problematic in Whitman studies, one in which a cordial nationalism would be found to accompany an imperialist chauvinism (see González de la Garza and Martin). The bard reaching out to the world in America's name would also support the expansionism of Manifest Destiny. This contradiction is examined by Roger Asselineau, who finds in Whitman an ingenuous belief in America as prime vehicle of democracy. And while an insistence on American identity has also left the bard of brotherhood open to accusations of xenophobia, it is important to note that "Salut au Monde!" reflects an earnest bid for international solidarity, just as it asserts an autonomous American identity—an identity Whitman found stunted not only by a national dependence on foreign cultural models but by the deep divisions caused by slavery, materialism, and surging immigration (see Erkkila and Reynolds).

In the free verse of "Salut au Monde!," Whitman's characteristic use of anaphora ("I hear . . . I hear . . ."), parallelism, and enthusiastic enumeration, create not only a sense of conviction and plenitude, diversity and unity, but insistently stake a claim: in his international inventory of visions and songs, Whitman as New World poet does not imitate; he appropriates. His relentless "I" with its roll call to the world (e.g., "You Spaniard, You Norwegian") takes the seer's journey while remaining on an American soil that underlines the raised "perpendicular hand" (added in 1860). It is this extended hand of lineal relation that intersects with and assumes the world. This intersection is emphasized in the choice of the French for a title. As Betsy Erkkila has observed, throughout Leaves of Grass French is the language of bonding and unity ("ensemble," "en masse," "rapport," "mélange") (86).

The ardent Whitmanic intersection that celebrates and penetrates difference in "Salut au Monde!" represents, with international accent, the "pride" and "sympathy" of Leaves of Grass, a work received around the world mainly in the spirit in which it was sent. Folsom and Allen note the prophetic nature of "Salut au Monde!," with its climactic declaration: "I have look'd for equals and lovers and found them ready for me in all lands" (section 13). In effect, no American writer has found "equals and lovers" in more lands than Whitman, who has, most noticeably through "Salut au Monde!," provoked a response in the tongues of all the continents he salutes. In their response to Whitman, these other lands, in turn, help America to understand its own identity. Whitman, in his own all-assuming identity, with dilating internal atlas ("Within me latitude widens, longitude lengthens" [section 2]), transcending self and nation to shape the world, is the international American poet who celebrates not only cultural difference, but the essential and universal songs of the soul.

Bibliography

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

Asselineau, Roger. The Evolution of Walt Whitman. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1960, 1962.

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

Folsom, Ed, and Gay Wilson Allen. "Introduction: 'Salut au Monde!'" Walt Whitman & the World. Ed. Allen and Folsom. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1995. 1–10.

González de la Garza, Mauricio. Walt Whitman: Racista, Imperialista, Anti-mexicano. México: Colección Málaga, 1971.

Martin, Robert K., ed. The Continuing Presence of Walt Whitman. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1992.

Miller, James E., Jr. A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957.

Perlman, Jim, Ed Folsom, and Dan Campion, eds. Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song. Minneapolis: Holy Cow!, 1981.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. The Correspondence. Ed. Edwin Haviland Miller. 6 vols. New York UP: New York, 1961–1977.

____. "Preface 1855—Leaves of Grass, First Edition." Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965. 709–729.

____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963–1964.

____. Walt Whitman: An 1855–56 Notebook Toward the Second Edition of "Leaves of Grass." Ed. Harold Blodgett. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1959.


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