Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song of the Answerer" (1881)
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.

In preparing the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman formed "Song of the Answerer" by joining together two poems with long prehistories. What became in 1881 the first part of "Song of the Answerer" originated as an untitled section of the 1855 edition, became "Poem of the Poet" in the 1856 edition, "Leaves of Grass" number 3 in 1860, and "Now List to My Morning Romanza" (from the new opening line of the poem) in the 1867 and subsequent editions until the 1881 edition. The eventual second part of "Song of the Answerer" originated in some phrases in the Preface to the 1855 edition, took form as "Poem of The Singers and of The Words of Poems" in the 1856 edition, became "Leaves of Grass" number 6 in the 1860 edition, and appeared as "The Indications" in the 1867 and later editions, until it became part of "Song of the Answerer" in the 1881 edition. Both poems were from the beginning concerned with the role of the poet in the human community, and this thematic affinity perhaps explains why Whitman linked them together.

"Song of the Answerer" celebrates the poet as "the glory and extract thus far of things and of the human race" (section 2). In section 1, he takes on the mysterious name of the Answerer (always capitalized in the later editions) and becomes a kind of redeemer: "Him all wait for, him all yield up to, his word is decisive and final." The poet passes freely among all varieties of people, all of whom see themselves in him: "the mechanics take him for a mechanic, / And the soldiers suppose him to be a soldier." Everything the poet sees he "strangely transmutes," so that in him "[t]he insulter, the prostitute, the angry person, the beggar . . . are not vile any more, they hardly know themselves they are so grown." In section 2 the tone shifts somewhat, as Whitman develops an elaborate distinction between the poet and the mere "singer": "The singers do not beget, only the Poet begets." What the singer does is thus secondary to and derivative from the work of the poet. In the last two stanzas of section 2, however, Whitman returns to the larger themes of the first section, declaring that "[t]he words of true poems give you more than poems," inviting the reader "[t]o launch off with absolute faith, to sweep through the ceaseless rings, and never be quiet again."

There are, however, some ambiguities in "Song of the Answerer." In the 1855 Preface Whitman sees the poet as at once a unique, world-transforming figure as well as a common, ordinary man, not essentially different from any of the other citizens of a democracy. Traces of this same paradox also play through "Song of the Answerer." As the Answerer addresses his fellow citizens, they mutually immerse one another. There seems to be here, as Tenney Nathanson notes, a two-way process. Especially in section 1, the vision of the poet as an all-permeating divine force, something like Ralph Waldo Emerson's Brahma, serves to undercut the potentially egoist pretensions of the individual poet, Walt Whitman. Instead, the Answerer is anonymous, with no determinate identity. Early versions of what becomes section 1 also include a passage, excised when Whitman created "Song of the Answerer," that redefines poetry in broadly democratic terms: "But what are verses beyond the flowing character you could have? or beyond beautiful manners and behavior? / Or beyond one manly and affectionate deed of an apprentice-boy? or old woman? or man that has been in prison, or is likely to be in prison?" (1860 Leaves). If, as these lines suggest, poetry encompasses all human gesture and action, then Whitman's own poems become, not world-mastering imperialist acts, but rather simply his contribution to the universal choir.

Bibliography

Nathanson, Tenney. Whitman's Presence: Body, Voice, and Writing in "Leaves of Grass." New York: New York UP, 1992.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Facsimile Edition of the 1860 Text. Ed. Roy Harvey Pearce. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1961.


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