Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"To the States" (1860)
Author:
Dacey, Philip
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Titled "Walt Whitman's Caution" in 1860, on its first appearance in Leaves of Grass as one of the "Messenger Leaves," and also in 1871 and 1876 as one of the "Songs of Insurrection," "To the States" acquired its final title in 1881 when it appeared in "Inscriptions."

This three-line poem is important beyond its size, less for any reasons of poetic form than for its illumination of political conditions around the time of the Civil War in the United States, when challenges to federal authority—perceived as the enemy within—prefigured the post-Cold War 1990s.

Repetitions connect the three lines—obey/obedience, enslaved/enslaved—and this connectedness reflects the logical structure of the cautionary miniature. The opening line's injunction is explained and justified by lines 2 and 3, which have a syllogistic force: unquestioning obedience leads to enslavement, and enslavement leads to permanent loss of liberty. The causal progression in lines 2 and 3 is echoed by the gradual limiting of the opening line's address from plural states to one state and then finally to one city within that state.

"States" in line 1 is not a shorthand for a radically unified and single-willed United States of America but represents the plurality of states with their own independent rights. Presumably "any city" is being enjoined to resist its own state. By calling on all smaller units to resist the larger units in which they find themselves, Whitman is implicitly extending his call to the individual, who must likewise resist conformity to the group. In fact, in an 1856 political tract not published until after his death—"The Eighteenth Presidency!"—Whitman asserts that "the rights of individuals" are "signified by the impregnable rights of The States, the substratum of this Union" (Whitman 1321).

In its historical context, the poem's ultimate complication is revealed; the poet who took as his hero Abraham Lincoln, the savior of the Union, here takes a stand seemingly seditious. It is important to remember, however, that the forces of the North, meant to quell rebellion by secessionists, were organized throughout the Civil War into units designated by each soldier's state of origin.

The popularity of the imperative "Resist much, obey little" is clear from its being co-opted for commercial use by a footwear firm in the November 1992 issue of Glamour (with credit to Whitman).

Bibliography

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

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982.


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