Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Thou Mother with Thy Equal Brood" (1872)
Author:
Losey, Jay
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Appearing as the title poem in As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free (1872), "Thou Mother" subsequently appeared as a supplement to the 1876 Leaves of Grass; the poem was finally placed in Leaves of Grass in 1881. Generally reviled as one of Whitman's worst poems, "Thou Mother" has elicited a wide range of critical responses. Most treat the poem's prophetic nature, but some isolate unusual features, indicating that the poem, despite its hyperbole and structural flaws, has vibrancy. As Gay Wilson Allen notes, the poem is derivative, repeating ideas and moods presented in Democratic Vistas. Still, this poem reveals a facet of Whitman that has been gaining much recent currency: his internationalism.

Most critics acknowledge Whitman's artificial scripting of nature while praising his unblinking gaze at America's potential for "moral consumption" (section 6). Cast as an epic, "Thou Mother" contains a bard singing, which, according to Thomas Crawley, intensifies the poem's internationalism. Like Crawley, James E. Miller, Jr., views the poem as Whitman's final statement on nationalism, on national destiny. America's destiny, in Whitman's rendering, affects international destiny. This international scope gives vibrancy to the poem.

Yet the inevitability of corruption and rhetorical excess make the poem less a visionary utterance than a prosaic assertion. Hurriedly composed for the Dartmouth College commencement in 1872, the poem, according to M. Wynn Thomas, reveals Whitman's postwar tendency to use rhetorical excess to overcome doubts. Thomas gives the most persuasive of all critical readings, arguing that America has no permanency except for the permanency Whitman authorizes in his poem. Thomas presents a tragic Whitman, whose crises cause him to rely on "leaves" (paper) and "chants" (poetic utterances).

The most intriguing responses to the poem deal with its political and religious meaning. Betsy Erkkila stresses Whitman's political aims, arguing that he scripts both a democratic self and a national self. She stresses the conflation of male and female in the poet's assertion "I merely thee ejaculate" (section 5). By extension, the nation is a construct because it has been scripted by a poet like Whitman. (See also Longfellow's "Building of the Ship," which, for Kenneth Price, reveals Whitman's borrowing without acknowledgment.) For V.K. Chari, "Thou Mother" reveals a religious-spiritual dimension in Whitman. He argues that while the self is real for Whitman, substances are unreal. The self, grounded in nature, must interpret phenomena, a view that W.B. Yeats affirms in poems like "A Dialogue of Self and Soul." However, the unseen soul, the "real real," corresponds to the Upanishadic view that Brahma is the "real of the real." The poem may be a failed visionary utterance, but Whitman strove to make it visionary.

Clearly, Whitman composed too rapidly, striving to meet the commencement deadline. As C. Carroll Hollis persuasively notes, the poem's vagueness may have resulted from Whitman's desire to be an oracular poet; but Whitman was a poet, not a prophet. Whitman may have despaired over ending his Leaves of Grass project. A poem like "Passage to India" indicates he wanted to widen his national vision, but "Thou Mother" remains one of a handful of poems that treat in sustained measure the international theme Whitman hoped to stress in his next volume.

Bibliography

Allen, Gay Wilson. Walt Whitman Handbook. 1946. New York: Hendricks House, 1962.

Chari, V.K. Whitman in the Light of Vedantic Mysticism. 1964. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1969.

Crawley, Thomas Edward. The Structure of "Leaves of Grass." Austin: U of Texas P, 1970.

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

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

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

Price, Kenneth M. Whitman and Tradition: The Poet in his Century. New Haven: Yale UP, 1990.

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

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: A Textual Variorum of the Printed Poems. Ed. Sculley Bradley, Harold W. Blodgett, Arthur Golden, and William White. Vol. 3. New York: New York UP, 1980.


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