Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Respondez!" (1856)
Author:
Baldwin, David B.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

This poem was first published in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass under the title "Poem of the Propositions of Nakedness," the word "nakedness" used as a figure for stripping or unmasking corruptions, pretensions, delusions, and hidden motives such as greed or arrogance. The title "Respondez!" suggests a more heated, personal attitude. Whitman excluded the poem from Leaves of Grass after 1876, probably because its negative tone was too insistent for the general thrust of the work.

The poem consists of sixty-eight lines, only eight of which do not begin with "Let," as in "Let murderers, bigots, fools, unclean persons, offer new propositions," a typical rhetorical line recommending the opposite of what he actually wants. Angry as he is, Whitman is not asking for a revolution of roles or a turning over of the status quo. Rather, his irony is used to affirm the true, natural order of the world and to warn against the chaos that would result from disrupting this order: "Let the worst men beget children out of the worst women!" and "Let marriage slip down among fools, and be for none but fools!"

The effect of the anaphoric and ironic rhetorical mode is powerful. Rarely in Leaves of Grass is Whitman so relentlessly worked up over such a long list of evils or potential evils. It is not possible to locate the particular stimulus for his outburst, if there was one. But there is a thematic pattern through the poem: that firsthand reality is preferable to second ("O seeming! seeming! seeming!"); that competence and order are to be preferred over their opposites; that faith in the scheme of things and in God, is absolutely vital; and that happiness is to be found within oneself.

Occasionally he mars the rhetorical consistency, as if amused by his own angry stance. Near the beginning he announces, "Let me bring this to this a close," and later he mocks, "Let him who is without my poems be assassinated!"

The final lines, addressing the reader directly, widen out to embrace the issue of how anyone should approach life, and reinforce the implication all through that Whitman is not attacking the political or cultural condition of America but is simply shaking up unexamined assumptions of any reader: "(What real happiness have you had one single hour through your whole life?) / Let the limited years of life do nothing for the limitless years of death! (What do you suppose death will do, then?)."

Other poems in a similar tone of sustained anger or dismay, though entirely different in treatment, are "I Sit and Look Out" and "Are You the New Person Drawn toward Me?"

Bibliography

Berger, James A. "Whitman's Rejection of 'Respondez!'" Essays in Literature 19 (1992): 221–230.

Golden, Arthur. "Whitman's 'Respondez!,' 'A Rounded Catalogue Divine Complete,' and Emerson." Études Anglaises 48 (1995): 319–327.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.


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