Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Song of the Rolling Earth, A" (1856)
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.

The poem that eventually became "A Song of the Rolling Earth" was first included in the 1856 edition of Leaves of Grass, under the title "Poem of The Sayers of The Words of The Earth." It later became "To the Sayers of Words" (in the 1860 and 1867 editions) and "Carol of Words" (in the 1871 and 1876 editions), before acquiring its final title in the 1881 edition. Internal revisions in the poem are fairly minor, except for the excision of the original opening lines:


Earth, round, rolling, compact— suns, moons, animals— all these are words to be said,
Watery, vegetable, sauroid advances— beings, premonitions, lispings of the future,
Behold, these are vast words to be said.

(1860 Leaves)

These lines, dropped by Whitman in the 1881 edition, emphasize that the central concern of this poem is the relationship between the earth and words. Among all of Whitman's poems, Tenney Nathanson argues, "'A Song of the Rolling Earth' gives most sustained attention to linguistic issues" (175). But Whitman's decision to drop these lines, as well as the changes in the title of the poem, suggest some ambivalence on Whitman's part concerning the relationship between the earth and words.

The first part of this poem emphasizes primarily the superiority of "substantial words"—things themselves, "air, soil, water, fire"—to mere artificial words—"those upright lines . . . those curves, angles, dots." The "inaudible words of the earth" speak truth, in contrast to ordinary human discourse: "The earth does not argue . . . Does not scream, haste, persuade, threaten, promise. . . ." The "masters"—i.e., the true poets—"know the earth's words and use them more than audible words" (section 1). In his desire to find an authentic speech, Whitman thus collapses the distinction between signifier and signified, declaring that the true word is the thing itself. But if so, then the thing itself also becomes a word: the equation of the two opens up the possibility of an authentic speech, but it also defines reality itself as essentially linguistic. The result is a fundamental instability, which this poem elaborates without resolving. This instability may in part explain the extraordinary proliferation of negative grammatical constructions in the poem. And a fundamental problem emerges immediately: if the true words are "inaudible"—and, as Whitman later adds, "untransmissible by print" (section 1)—then what happens when the poet actually speaks or writes? Do the words become, at that moment, false?

Impelled forward by these unanswerable questions, Whitman shifts his attention from language toward the earth itself, which he envisions dancing through space in a grand cotillion, accompanied by the twenty-four hours of the day and the 365 days of the year. This image of the "divine ship sail[ing] the divine sea" (section 2) may seem unequivocally positive. But the passage pivots on a description of the earth as a woman, "her ample back towards every beholder" (section 1) staring into a mirror—this mirror is, James Griffin suggests, the moon. Thus translated into visual terms, the "eloquent dumb great mother" (section 1) begins to seem oddly narcissistic and self-involved. And in the second section of the poem, when Whitman urges us to emulate the grand self-sufficiency of the earth, the end result seems to be a fundamental breakdown in communicative interchange:


The song is to the singer, and comes back most to him,
The teaching is to the teacher, and comes back most to him,
The murder is to the murderer, and comes back most to him. . . .

(section 2)

Although Whitman here seems to be addressing us in Orphic tonalities, a world in which all speech turns back on the speaker without reaching any sort of audience is deeply antithetical to Whitman's own ideal of the democratic community.

In section 3, Whitman returns to the issue of language, but now the emphasis shifts from the superior authenticity of "substantial words" to the inadequacy of human speech, including the words of the poet. It is better to "leave the best untold," he realizes, because when he attempts to "tell the best," he finds that he cannot:


My tongue is ineffectual on its pivots,
My breath will not be obedient to its organs,
I become a dumb man.

We may, with Griffin, read these lines as implying a union of the poet with the "eloquent dumb great mother": "if Whitman can emulate the earth's dumb-greatness, then in fact, he may inherit as well its fecundity and expressiveness" (7). But as Mark Bauerlein argues, when a poet goes dumb, something has gone wrong: "The Orphic mastery he had affirmed in 'Song of Myself' . . . has lapsed into a stifling impotence" (116). Depending upon which of these two readings we accept, the final section ("Say on, sayers! sing on, singers! / Delve! mould! pile the words of the earth" [section 4]) may seem a triumphant resolution or a last, desperate attempt to conceal the irresolvable paradoxes of this poem.

Bibliography

Bauerlein, Mark. Whitman and the American Idiom. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1991.

Griffin, James D. "The Pregnant Muse: Language and Birth in 'A Song of the Rolling Earth.'" Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 1.1 (1983): 1–8.

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

Larson, Kerry C. Whitman's Drama of Consensus. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

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. by Roy Harvey Pearce. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell UP, 1961.


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