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Title: Introduction to Walt Whitman, Poemas, by Álvaro Armando Vasseur

Authors: Matt Cohen and Rachel Price

Publication information: Written for the Walt Whitman Archive. First published on the Archive in 2006.

Whitman Archive ID: anc.00158

In Memoriam
Fernando Alegría
1918 (Santiago, Chile) – 2005 (Walnut Creek, California, U.S.A.)

As Americanist scholarship increasingly incorporates work on literatures of the Americas, publishers are re-editing or translating for the first time important Latin American authors long-neglected by U.S. readers and scholars. Joint consideration of the Americas, North and South, has elucidated connections and divergences between the two continents' literatures. Less common has been scholarly attention to the criticism of English-language literatures by scholars based in Latin America and writing in other languages, principally Spanish. Yet surveys of scholarship on Walt Whitman produced outside the United States have long identified Latin American critics as among the more astute readers of the Good Gray Poet.1

This digital edition of Álvaro Armando Vasseur's 1912 selection and translation of Leaves of Grass seeks to make widely available not a book of criticism about Whitman but a nonetheless extremely influential text for Latin American readers—the first substantial collection of Whitman poems in Spanish. Scholars have identified Vasseur's translation as instrumental in accelerating Latin American poetry's shedding of its "modernista" tendencies (modernismo was less like Anglo-American modernism than something approximating French symbolism) in favor of franker, less precious, and often more explicitly socially and politically engaged verse.2

Access to this seminal Spanish-language volume of selections from Leaves of Grass will aid in understanding Whitman's reception and influence in the Spanish-speaking world. "Every society brings to literature its own form of expression, and the history of the nations can be told with greater truth by the stages of literature than by chronicles and decades," wrote the Cuban poet, journalist, and revolutionary José Martí in his 1887 homage to Whitman. Martí's was the first known piece published in Spanish on the North American poet, written after Martí had heard Whitman deliver his lecture on Abraham Lincoln in New York.3 Martí thus argued to his Latin American readers that insight into nineteenth-century U.S. culture was to be gleaned from reading Whitman. We hope that this digital edition of Vasseur's translation may similarly provide insight not only into Whitman's treatment in Latin American and Spanish letters, but also into an important moment in Latin American and Spanish literary history.


Whitman remained all but untranslated into Spanish until Vasseur's 1912 edition, even though his work had long been known to Spanish-language critics who encountered it in the U.S. (as was the case for Martí) or in translation into other European languages (as was the case for the Guatemalan writer Enrique Goméz Carillo, who read Whitman in French and wrote about him in 1895). In attempting to convey Whitman's import for U.S. literature and culture, Martí had rhetorically queried his readers, "[b]ut what can give you an idea of his vast and fiercely burning love?"4 A translation might clearly have accomplished this. Yet, despite his own vocation as poet, critic, and translator of, among others, Emerson, Longfellow, and Poe, Martí did not translate any Whitman. (When he died it was discovered that he had planned a book on Whitman and other American poets.)5 Following Martí's piece, Rubén Darío, the famous Nicaraguan modernista who would later write an anti-imperialist ode "To Roosevelt," dedicated a glowing sonnet to Whitman in his 1888 book Azul. Yet similarly, Darío did not attempt a translation. A Mexican, Balbino Dávalos, translated only a few of Whitman's poems on the occasion of the second American International Congress held in Mexico City in 1901.6

Spanish author Miguel de Unamuno translated a few poems in 1906.7 In 1909, three years before Vasseur's edition, a Peninsular translation of twenty-four of Whitman's poems was published—but in Catalan, by Cebrià Montoliu, who was himself following upon J. Pérez Jorba's 1900 Catalan study of Whitman. (It is striking that Pérez Jorba's study had proposed that the American poet displayed the "philosophical sensibility of Nietzsche," an aspect Vasseur too would highlight in the preface and footnotes to his translation.)8

In 1910 a Spanish journalist under the pseudonym "Angel Guerra" published a short article in the journal La Ilustración Española y Americana on "Walt Whitman's Lyric." Guerra would go on to write an enthusiastic preface to the 1939 edition of Vasseur's translation. In the 1910 article, occasioned by the publication of both the Italian translation of Leaves of Grass and a study by famous French Whitman commentator León Bazalgette, Guerra lamented the lack of curiosity in Spain about the American author. Only with Vasseur's subsequent 1912 translation did Whitman become available and important to generations of Latin American poets, from the residual modernistas to the region's major twentieth-century figures, including Peruvian vanguardist César Vallejo, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and the Argentine Jorge Luís Borges.9 Following Vasseur's edition, selected poems by Whitman continued to be translated anew by writers such as the Cuban poet José de Armas y Cárdenas and Chilean author and critic Arturo Torres-Rioseco. Complete translations of Leaves of Grass into Spanish followed in the post-war era, beginning with Concha Zardoya's 1946 full translation with additional selections of Whitman's prose, entitled Obras Escogidas.10


Vasseur was born in 1878 to French immigrants in Montevideo, Uruguay. He grew up in the small town of Santa Lucía, Canelones, about thirty miles outside of the capital, and left at the age of twenty for Buenos Aires, Argentina. There he mingled with prominent modernista writers Rubén Darío and Leopoldo Lugones, and greatly admired the Argentine poet "Almafuerte" (Pedro Bonifacio Palacios), with whom, however, Vasseur would later have a violent falling out. During this period Vasseur is said to have translated some Oscar Wilde and, writing under the portentous pseudonym "Americo Llanos" (the name defies exact translation but suggests "American Plains"), to have composed poetry that oddly mixed modernista aestheticism with what was called "social" verse—a poetry concerned with what U.S. writers of the same period might have called "the social question." While in Buenos Aires, Vasseur grew increasingly interested in Nietzsche, Marx, and scientific materialism, the latter of which provided him with the tools to combat what he later called, witheringly, the "sentimental socialism" he had previously known (Infancia y juventud, 59).

In 1901 Vasseur returned to Montevideo, dropped his pseudonym, and threw himself into a host of projects. He took up journalism for newspapers such as the Montevideo-based El Tiempo, oversaw the Constitutional Manifesto of the Uruguayan Socialist Party, and gave lectures in favor of divorce. He also soon published several books of poetry, including Cantos Augurales (1904), Cantos del Nuevo Mundo, and A Flor de Alma (both 1907). As Uruguayan critic Hugo Achugar points out, Cantos del Nuevo Mundo exhibits a paradoxical kind of regionalist universalism typical of the period, and exalts a pan-Americanist utopia of Progress. In this, then, Cantos del Nuevo Mundo was already perhaps a bit Whitmanesque; indeed, the book included lines of Whitman verse taken from an Italian translation as prefaces to Vasseur's own poems (Poesía y sociedad, 153).

In 1901 Vasseur was also involved in a rather sordid exchange of calumny with his contemporary and author Roberto de las Carreras, a notorious exponent of free love. On June 1, 1901, in the newspaper El Tiempo, Vasseur called de las Carreras' sensibility "exaggerated like that of an androgynous decadent" and accused him of sharing, with Enrique Gómez Carillo (ironically, the early commentator on Whitman noted above) a "cosmic vanity and feminine ill-will." De las Carreras responded in kind, flinging some thirty slurs at Vasseur, calling him everything from a "rube" to the "miserable product of a stale marriage, in whose stupefied features is etched the slight yawn with which he was conceived."11 Such literary gossip allows us to glimpse Vasseur's anxious relationship to gender and sexuality. If in some ways it was unremarkable for the time, in the self-consciously liberal environment in which de las Carreras and Vasseur moved, it was notably reactionary. It may also offer insight into Vasseur's later decisions to "straighten" some of Whitman's sexual language in Leaves of Grass.

Petty disputes like that of 1901 were the more trivial side of a lively intellectual climate in Uruguay in the late nineteenth century, which was first centered about Montevideo's Ateneo, a liberal cultural and educational center and the seat of the nation's Academic and Romantic authors. With fin-de-siècle socio-political ferment and the turn towards both socialism and modernismo, the scene moved to a series of more informal watering holes such as the Polo Bamba café, the Café Moka, the "Carlos Marx" and "Emilio Zolá" Clubs, and the International Center for Social Studies, this last founded in 1898 by a group of workers and artisans to foster intellectual and political activity through courses and lectures.12

At the turn of the century neo-Romanticism and criollismo (local color) reigned in River Plate literature, giving way to modernismo (again, a sort of aestheticism) and eventually to more "social" poetry. It is not surprising, given the character of both the Ateneo—whose members included ministers, senators, diplomats, and Presidents of the Republic—and the syndicalist International Center for Social Studies, that the poetry issuing from both would be of a more "political" nature. Vasseur, emerging from such a climate, found Whitman's rhetoric of democracy consonant with the overlap between politics, civic culture and art historically more typical of Latin- than of North American letters. It is significant, then, but not incongruent, that the press responsible for the diffusion of European revolutionary thinkers such as Max Stirner, Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Georg Büchner and Friedrich Nietzsche would be the press to publish Vasseur's translation of Whitman: the editorial house Sempere, based in Valencia, Spain.13


In 1907, at age 29, Vasseur was named a consul to San Sebastián, Spain by Uruguayan president José Batlle Ordoñez. Five years later Vasseur published his Spanish translation of selections from Whitman's Leaves of Grass, entitled Poemas. Much later, in a preface written for the book's sixth edition, Vasseur would recall that he had first encountered Whitman when he was still living in Uruguay, through Italian translator Luigi Gamberale's selections from Leaves of Grass.14 It has been assumed that Gamberale's complete translation Foglie di Erba (1900; 1907), rather than the English original, served as Vasseur's source text.15

Whitman's route into Spanish was even more circuitous than this, however. It had been French critics who initially brought Whitman to the attention of Italian writers. One of those writers was Girolamo Ragusa-Moleti, a Sicilian who encountered Whitman's work in 1872. Ragusa-Moleti encouraged his friends to write about the American poet; one friend, Enrico Nencioni, obliged with a piece on Whitman in 1879. Another friend was Luigi Gamberale, whose 1887 and 1890 selected translations from Leaves of Grass were followed by a complete translation in 1900, a reprint in 1907, and a revision in 1923.16

Gamberale based his translation on two different Whitman editions: the poems translated before 1885 used Wilson and McCormick's 1884 Glasgow edition, while poems translated later were based upon the 1890 Small, Maynard edition of Leaves of Grass. Gamberale's complete 1900 edition was based on David McKay's 1892 so-called "deathbed" edition.17 Vasseur's edition, though not a complete translation, thus is based indirectly on Whitman's of 1892.

In an essay entitled "The Accidental Tourist: Walt Whitman in Latin America," Enrico Mario Santí begins the work of documenting the complex history of the Vasseur translation. In tracing its genealogy, Santí picks up on Vasseur's admission, in his preface to the sixth edition of Poemas, that the Uruguayan translator "was never able to take in 'Anglo-Saxon words and tones,'" and that Vasseur's wife and son assimilated the language better. Yet Santí concludes rather too hastily from scant and evasive words that therefore "all translations from the original English were done by [Vasseur's] wife and son."18

In fact, however, the preface to the sixth edition, published almost forty years after the initial translation, is much less conclusive about sources consulted and translation methodology. Vasseur does write that he never grew comfortable with the sounds of English, as Santí notes, and that, despite Vasseur's consultation of exercise books and dictionaries, it was his "wife and son [who] assimilated it better." Yet Vasseur concludes the passage with an enigmatic sentence: "In general, when I needed to translate, I did so well-accompanied." This ambiguous phrase suggests he received assistance from his family or friends, and certainly underscores Vasseur's need for aides, human or bibliographic, in the translation process. It does not, however, indicate that Vasseur was not the principal translator of any English texts consulted, nor that his wife and son were. In fact, elsewhere in the same introduction Vasseur claims that the process involved, in his words, "making myself read the original, verifying the versions, choosing the most rhythmical."19 As we will suggest below, some, if tenuous, textual evidence does seem to confirm that Vasseur had access to an English edition, or at least to someone able to check the English, during the writing of the translation.


Chilean scholar Fernando Alegría's pioneering 1954 study Walt Whitman en Hispanoamérica [Walt Whitman in Hispano-America] offers one of the most comprehensive and cogent readings of the Vasseur translation, and has served as the foundation for all subsequent studies. Its exhaustive textual analysis of the work remains indispensable, though Santí's essay, cited above, offers a more detailed genealogy of the translation, as well as some new insights into it. Bringing the history of the translation up to date, Santí points out, for example, that despite the 1954 date of Alegría's study, the Chilean scholar seems not to have been acquainted with the preface to the sixth edition, in which Vasseur owns up to having used other translations as his source. (Alegría writes that Vasseur's translation is based, presumably directly, upon Whitman's 1892 edition). There too, Vasseur describes his free-handed stylistic approach to both the structure and the content of the poetry: "Purifying, pruning, and at times enriching it with some spark."20

Still, Alegría's painstaking analysis of Poemas provides the necessary figures on the translation: it tallies up the total of 83 poems included from Leaves of Grass, many in abbreviated forms, and lists the titles of the 16 poems whose names Vasseur changed, often drastically (Walt Whitman, 351, see Appendix A below for a full list). Alegría further compares, section by section, Vasseur's version of "Song of Myself" with Whitman's, listing by subsection each omission made by Vasseur (some 750 verses in total) and tracking Vasseur's strange reordering of sections of the poem.21 Alegría critiques what he sees as Vasseur's inconsistencies and occasional sloppiness, as, for example, the decision to translate "Song of the Answerer" as "Canto del Poeta" ["Song of the Poet"].22

Such inconsistencies indeed can do more than irritate: at times they undermine the sense of the book as a whole, as in "Song of the Exposition," for example, when Vasseur leaves "Columbia" unchanged in the Spanish ("Columbia"), whereas in the poem "Spain, 1873-1874" ["España 1873-1874"], appearing earlier in the collection, he inexplicably renders the same word "America." This curious change may owe something to the Americanist voice typical of Vasseur's own poetry. Such a perspective emerges more strongly at times than even the oft-strident Whitman's—as, for example, when Vasseur amplifies Whitman's "new garden of the West," from the poem "Ages and Ages Returning at Intervals," into "the new Eden, the great West of my race" [el nuevo Edén, el gran Oeste de mi raza]. "Raza," or race, does not have in Spanish quite the racialist connotation it does in English, meaning something more like a nationalist sentiment, or a sense of a "people." Here it has the unmistakable ring of celebratory pan-Americanism. And in a comic moment that Alegría dryly glosses, a regionalist chauvinism overtakes Vasseur when he changes Whitman's "wait at Valparaíso, Rio de Janeiro, Panama" to "wait at Valparaíso, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Montevideo" (from "Salut Au Monde"), and again, later in the same poem, "I see the Amazon and the Paraguay [rivers]" to "I see the Amazon, the Paraguay, the River Plate" (Walt Whitman, 359).23

Vasseur abbreviated poems according to his own taste, almost invariably eliminating Whitman's signature catalogues (Vasseur's translation of "Salut au Monde" is the only exception, rendered in its entirety).24 The problematic features of what Vasseur termed his "adaptation" include but are not limited to outright errors; the completion of sentences Whitman had deliberately rendered opaque; the omission of Whitmanesque gerunds; and, perhaps most glaringly, a tendency to cover over Whitman's homosexuality with, in the most benign cases, a vague rhetoric of brotherly love.25 In the most radical instances of Vasseur's censoring, the translator changes originally homoerotic or at least ambiguous phrases into expressions of clearly heterosexual desire.

Alegría's comprehensive enumeration of Vasseur's changes lays important groundwork for a more interpretive analysis of Vasseur's departures from the original. On the whole, Vasseur's translation is not unfaithful, but changes in elements as seemingly minor as punctuation, for example, have cumulative effects on the style and sense of the work as a whole. Vasseur often adds a fervid exclamation mark where Whitman has none. Vasseur converts commas into periods—a surprising echo of what more typically marks translation from the more clausal, long-winded Spanish into the curter English—reducing Whitman's penchant for catalogues to a more brusquely prosaic style and removing some of his biblical rhythms. Further, Vasseur unfortunately either misjudges the significance of or dislikes too much to preserve Whitman's lyric "I." Instead, he makes the most of the ability to drop pronouns in Spanish. This loss of the repetition of "I"s does disproportionate damage to the cadence and sense of the poems. And Vasseur's occasional insertion of parentheses within lines sometimes dulls Whitman's frankness, turning bold statements into qualifications, or worse, into seemingly unnecessary elaborations. Taken together, these subtle editing choices can make Whitman less strange than he is in the original. In one instance, for example, Vasseur turns Whitman's unusual locution "not-day"—a neologic negation—into the quotidian, positive term "noche" [night].

In analyzing Vasseur's changes one must bear in mind that his may be either principally or entirely a second order translation from not the English but Gamberale's Italian. Thus before drawing conclusions about the significance of Vasseur's changes it is first necessary to make sure they are indeed Vasseur's own doing, and not the passive reproduction of Gamberale's changes or errors. That said, it is striking that in our comparisons, glaring innovations in Vasseur's translation are almost invariably his own departure from the Italian, the latter of which is unusually, even at times detrimentally, literal.26

Vasseur's handling of the sexual thematics of Whitman's poetry offers a good example. Here the translator vacillates between muted renditions of Whitman's sexual openness and versions that may push Whitman's suggestiveness beyond its original bounds. This is particularly the case when the passages involve issues of race or gender—concepts whose framing ideologies vary considerably across Latin America as well as between Latin America and the United States. In the case of Whitman's famous "fugitive slave" passage from "Song of Myself," Vasseur's rendition makes an important amendment to the original scene: Whitman (1892):

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and

And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him. . . .
Vasseur (1912):

El esclavo fugitivo se aproximó á mi choza, deteniéndose en el umbral,
Por la entreabierta puerta de la cocina, lo vi tambalearse y sin fuerzas:
Fuí hacia el tronco de árbol en que se había sentado, lo cogí entre mis brazos, y lo llevé adentro;

[The fugitive slave approached my hut, stopping at the threshold,
Through the half-open door of the kitchen, I saw him tottering and weak:
I went toward the stump where he had sat, I held him in my arms, and I carried him inside. . . .]

The addition of "held him in my arms" opens up this passage to more erotic readings than did Whitman's original. In another passage substantively amended by Vasseur, the body of the black male slave is made to resonate historically with the violent restriction of women's bodies:
La madre de antaño condenada por bruja y quemada sobre haces de leña seca, á la vista de sus hijos,
El esclavo, perseguido como una presa, que cae en mitad de su fuga, todo tembloroso y sudando sangre,

[The mother of old condemned as a witch and burned over dry firewood, before her children's eyes,
The slave, persecuted like an imprisoned woman, who falls mid-flight, all atremble and sweating blood.]

Here is Whitman's original from 1892: The mother of old, condemn'd for a witch, burnt with dry wood,
     her children gazing on,

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blow-
     ing, cover'd with sweat. . . .

Vasseur's direct comparison of the slave to a woman is based, presumably, on their common lack of power, but it also creates cross-gendered possibilities that turn the passage in new ways. Whitman had distinct units—separate lines—for the witch and the hounded slave. An association could be made between them because of their juxtaposition; yet that association is not insisted on in the English original. Vasseur turns the suggestion of a link into an unmistakable link, associating racial slavery with all the irrationality of religious persecution (invoking, perhaps, the spectre of the Inquisition). That church-sponsored terror might in turn remind informed Hispanophone readers of the widespread support of slavery by some religious organizations in the United States (bitterly denounced in Frederick Douglass's narrative and in others'). Such a reading is remotely perceptible in Whitman's original, but in Vasseur's it rises to the surface.

Still, this dynamic of reaching across boundaries of gender, race, and sexuality does not uniformly characterize Vasseur's translation. Whitman's identification with the slave in his 1892 passage concludes with the declaration, "All these I feel or am." Vasseur's Spanish, however, renders this identification less close: "All this I feel and suffer as he does." The tension here may be rooted in racist boundaries; Vasseur's version of Whitman, it might be argued, seems to allow for homoeroticism in the case of a black subject, while at the same time, it stops short of permitting empathy across racial lines.

In other moments involving Whitman's gay poetics a certain squeamishness is evident in Vasseur's choices. Alegría notes that Vasseur twists key words that Whitman uses to express particularly homosexual desire, relationality and coupling into less physical, even cerebral terms—his prime example is Vasseur's rendering of "adherence" as "trust."27 Additional examples are plentiful. In "City of Orgies" Vasseur changes "lovers" to "friends" [amigos]. In the translation of "I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing," "manly love" becomes the slightly tamer "male affection" [afecto viril]. In "Song of Myself," Vasseur translates "the atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless/ It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it" as, to back translate it as literally as possible, "The atmosphere is not a perfume, it tastes of no essences, it is odorless,/ My mouth breathes it in vital gasps; I love it madly, as I would a woman." The Italian contains no such insertion of loving a woman; this addition is Vasseur's. Strangely enough, elsewhere in the translation Vasseur omits references to women: for example, in his version of "Give Me Your Silent Splendid Sun," the line "give me for marriage a sweet-breath'd woman of whom I should never tire" is eliminated, as is, in Vasseur's version of "From Pent-up Aching Rivers," the phrase "of the woman that loves me and whom I love more than my life."28

The Whitmanian word Camerado presents an interesting challenge to Vasseur's vaguely homophobic sensibilities, and perhaps represents something of a cop-out in his attempts to maneuver around openly gay love. Camerado is a defunct term borrowed from Renaissance Spanish, and is the root of the English comrade, Whitman's basic denotation. But Vasseur's frequent equivalent, the contemporary Spanish word camarada, is unusual insofar as it is functionally neutral, but suggests a feminine subject because of its female-gendered ending, "-a" (camarada is in fact grammatically a collective feminine.) A little-used term, camarada is derived from the Spanish cámara, or chamber, and a camarada was originally a group sharing a chamber, or sharing a bed. Hence it first meant bedfellow, then more generally a companion or friend.

In "An Oak in Louisiana," a poem focusing on male love, Vasseur opts for camarada. He does translate the phrase "without a friend" as without an amigo (male/neutral). But Vasseur translates "lover" as "camarada," a dodging of the issue. It is possible that Vasseur is here influenced by the Italian rendition, which chose camarata for camerado. The Italian camarata, however, is a more common word for companion, interchangeable with the unambiguously male/neutral compagno, and indeed carries militaristic, masculine connotations despite its apparent gender. In another passage from "Song of Myself," Gamberale translates Whitman's "bed-fellow" as "compagno di letto" in the lines "the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,/ Leaving me baskets cover'd with white towels swelling the house with their plenty." Vasseur makes the loving bedfellow the more muted "caressing, affectionate camarada," rather than, say, compañero de cama. The Italian bedfellow kisses and hugs, and fills the house with white towels. The Spanish companion is merely affectionate and caressing, and leaves white towels that brighten (alegran), rather than more sensually "swell[ing]," the house with their plenty. It is, of course, possible that Vasseur simply finds camarada the best translation for bedfellow. The gender agreement for "caress" does indicate that the bedfellow is male.29

At times Vasseur's changes evince a general fidelity to the integrity of Leaves of Grass, but remain puzzling. Why, for example, does he render "Endless unfolding of words of ages!/ And mine a word of the modern, the word En-Masse," the last word faithfully maintained in French in the Italian translation, as "Infinite unfolding of words in time!/ Mine is a modern word: the word multitude!"? Multitude is in keeping with Whitman's famous lines about contradiction, but the very use of multitude later in the original suggests Whitman meant something particular in choosing "En-Masse" in the earlier line. The choice is the more puzzling because in his version of "Song of Myself" Vasseur uses the term "en masa," an equivalent of en masse, to describe the killing of captured soldiers in the poem's thirty-fourth section (1892 ed.).

As evidenced in Vasseur's insertion of additional exclamation points, something of his Romantic stylistic tendency persists and breaks through at moments. As Alegría puts it wonderfully, "Whitman as much as Vasseur expresses . . . a sentimentalist indignation typical of nineteenth century Romantic, liberal philanthropism. But Vasseur laments two times where Whitman does once" (358). These flourishes can be almost comical, as when Vasseur adds to Whitman's line "my faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths" the superfluous addition "like the tail of a comet."

An additional trilingual comparison of the Whitman, Gamberale, and Vasseur versions offers intriguing evidence that Vasseur was working with an English edition as well. We reproduce the three versions below to illustrate what appears to be a correction on Vasseur's part back to the English meaning of a word erroneously translated into the Italian: Whitman (1892):

I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured
      and never will be measured.

Gamberale (1907):

Io so di avere il meglio del tempo e dello spazio, e che esso non fu misurato mai, nè sar misurato mai.

[I know I have the best of time and space, and that this was never measured, nor ever will be measured]
Vasseur (1912):

Sé que soy superior al tiempo y al espacio, sé que nunca he sido medido, que no lo seré jamás.

[I know I am above time and space, I know I have never been measured, that I never will be.]

Here, although Vasseur inexplicably changes "have the best of" to "above," he reinstitutes the "I" as that which is not subject to measure, which Gamberale had turned from the subjective to the objective immeasurable "best of time and space."

In her study of Gamberale's translation, Grazia Sotis points out that some of the idiosyncratic or more streetwise English words give the Italian translator trouble (52). The famously barbaric yawp, for example, becomes a mere shriek or scream in the stanza that ends "I, too am untranslatable," which Gamberale faithfully renders "intraducibile." But in the Spanish, as if Vasseur were making a subtle yet bold commentary on these challenges of translation, the same section concludes with an "I" not untranslatable but "inexplicable" [inexplicable]. Perhaps Vasseur was, in the very act of translation, refuting Whitman's claim, and honoring Whitman's "dearest dream" for "an internationality of poems and poets binding the lands of the earth"?30 Though not all of Vasseur's changes may be "explicable," the wider availability of this important translation may help encourage further study of the "internationality" of Whitman's works.

Matt Cohen
Rachel Price

Duke University


List of poems from Vasseur's translation Poemas, 1912, each followed by a literal translation and Whitman's 1892 title.

Note that we have rendered both the nouns canto and canción as "song"; Vasseur may well intend a distinction here, as canción is closer to the English sense of "song," while canto can refer to a chant or hymn as well as the classical "canto."

En el mar, sobre las naves [At sea, on ships]In Cabin'd Ships at Sea
A una locomotora [To a locomotive]To a Locomotive in Winter
Chispas emergidas de la rueda [Sparks from the wheel]Sparkles from the Wheel
Desbordante de vida, ahora [Overflowing with life, now]Full of Life Now
Canto de la vía pública [Song of the open road]Song of the Open Road
Ciudad de orgías [City of orgies]City of Orgies
El Himno que Canto [The Hymn I Sing]Still Though the One I Sing
Una marcha en las filas [A march in the ranks]A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown
Apartando con las manos la hierba de las praderas [Parting by hand the prairie grass]The Prairie-Grass Dividing
Ciudad de los navíos [City of ships]City of Ships
En las praderas [On the prairies] Night on the Prairies
A ti, vieja causa [To you, old cause]To Thee Old Cause
Imperturbable [Imperturbable]Me Imperturbe
Una extraña velada transcurrida en un campo de batalla [A strange evening passed on a battlefield]Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night
Un roble en la Luisiana [An oak in Louisiana]I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing
Pensamiento [Thought]31Thought
Silenciosa y paciente, una araña [Silent and patient, a spider]A Noiseless Patient Spider
Cuadro [Painting]A Glimpse
Este polvo fue antaño un hombre [This dust was once a man]This Dust Was Once the Man
A los Estados [To the States]To the States
España (1873-1874) [Spain (1873-1874)]Spain, 1873-74
A un historiador [To a historian]To a Historian
La Morgue [The Morgue]The City Dead-House
Como meditaba en silencio [As I meditated in silence]As I Ponder'd in Silence
¡Oh capitán! ¡Mi capitán! [Oh captain! My captain!]O Captain! My Captain!
Allá á lo lejos... [Far off...]Old Ireland
Dadme vuestro espléndido sol [Give me your splendid sun]Give Me the Splendid Silent Sun
Hijos de Adam [Sons (or Children) of Adam]Ages and Ages Returning at Intervals
Canto de la bandera, al amanecer [Song of the flag, at dawn]Song of the Banner at Daybreak
¡Pioners! ¡Oh pioners! [Pioneers! Oh pioneers!]Pioneers! O Pioneers!
Imágenes [Images]Eidólons
Pensamientos [Thoughts]32Thoughts
Hacia el Edén [Towards Eden]From Pent-Up Aching Rivers
Excelsior [Excelsior]Excelsior
Á Uno que fué crucificado [To One who was crucified]To Him That Was Crucified
Del canto de mí mismo [From the song of myself]33Song of Myself
Canto del hacha [Song of the axe]Song of the Broad-Axe
Mira tú que reinas victoriosa [Look, you who reigns victorious]Lo, Victress On the Peaks
A un burgués [To a burgher/bourgeois]To a Certain Civilian
Año que tiemblas y vacilas ante mí [Year that trembles and reels before me]Year That Trembled and Reel'd beneath Me
Canto del poeta [Song of the poet]Song of the Answerer
Inscripción para una tumba [Inscription for a tomb]Outlines for a Tomb
Canto de la Exposición [Song of the Exposition]Song of the Exposition
El enigma [The riddle]A Riddle Song
Á un extranjero [To a foreigner]To a Stranger
La duda terrible de las apariencias [The terrible doubt of appearances]Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances
Del canto al Presidente Lincoln [From the song to President Lincoln]34When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd
La canción de la Muerte [The song of Death]35When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd
Á cierta cantante [To a certain singer]To a Certain Cantatrice
De lo más hondo de las gargantas del Dakota [From the deepest passes of Dakota]From Far Dakota's Cañons
Del mediodía á la noche estrellada [From noon to starry night]36Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling
Iniciadores [Beginners]Beginners
¡Jonnondio! [Yonnondio!]Yonnondio
Los Estados Unidos á los críticos del Viejo Mundo [The United States to Old World critics]The United States to Old World Critics
Hacia alguna parte [Toward somewhere]"Going Somewhere"
Media noche [In the middle of the night]A Clear Midnight
Espíritu que has plasmado esta naturaleza [Spirit that has shaped this nature]Spirit That Form'd This Scene
La abuela del Poeta [The Poet's grandmother]37Faces
La Etiopía saludando á la bandera [Ethiopia saluting the flag]Ethiopia Saluting the Colors
Luna hermosa [Beautiful Moon]Look Down Fair Moon
Reconciliación [Reconciliation]Reconciliation
Cuando estaba a tu lado [When I was beside you]As I Lay with My Head in Your Lap Camerado
¡Oh estrella de Francia! [Oh star of France!]O Star of France
Paises sin nombre [Nameless lands]Unnamed Lands
Un espectáculo en el campo [A sight in the camp]A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim
La cantante en la prisión [The singer in the prison]The Singer in the Prison
Orillas del Ontario azul [Shores of blue Ontario]By Blue Ontario's Shore
A un revolucionario europeo vencido [To a defeated European revolutionary]To a Foil'd European Revolutionaire
Canto del Sequoia [Song of the Sequoia]Song of the Redwood-Tree
Europa [Europe]Europe
Una hora de alegría y de locura [One hour of joy and madness]One Hour to Madness and Joy
Canto el cuerpo eléctrico [I sing the body electric]I Sing the Body Electric
Poetas venideros [Poets to come]Poets to Come
Cuando leí el libro [When I read the book]When I Read the Book
Un canto de alegrías [A song of joys]A Song of Joys
Saludo mundial [Salute to the world]Salut au Monde!
Atravesé antaño una ciudad populosa... [I once passed through a populous city...]Once I Pass'd through a Populous City
Camino de las Indias Orientales [Road to the East Indies]38Passage to India
La plegaria de Colón [Prayer of Columbus]Prayer of Columbus
Os he oído, suaves y solemnes armonías del órgano [I have heard you, soft and solemn harmonies of the organ]I Heard You, Solemn-Sweet Pipes of the Organ
Juventud, mediodía, vejez y noche [Youth, midday, old age and night]Youth, Day, Old Age and Night
Solitario pájaro de las nieves [Solitary snowbird]Of That Blithe Throat of Thine
Grave y titubeando [Grave and hesitating]Pensive and Faltering
Mirando labrar [Watching the plowing]As I Watch'd the Ploughman Ploughing
De los Cantos de Adiós [From Songs of Farewell]39So Long!


A translation of Vasseur's "Del canto de mí mismo" ["From the song of myself," pp. 71-100] back into English.

Translating into English Vasseur's Spanish version of "Song of Myself," itself based on the Italian translation of Leaves of Grass and perhaps other translations, felt like straining to hear a muffled and distant voice. Much of Whitman's meaning and even words remained surprisingly intact, however, throughout the course of the poem's linguistic transmutations. One is reminded of the mid-nineteenth century Brazilian phrasebook, English As She Is Spoke, which so charmed Mark Twain. The phrasebook, intended to provide Brazilians with common English phrases, was written by two men, José da Fonseca and Pedro Carolina, neither of whom knew English. Comedy ensued; it has been said that many of the improbable mis-translations came not from consultation of a Portuguese- English dictionary but from a French-English dictionary.

This translation is designed more to stimulate critical comparison than to be aesthetically innovative or elegant. It attempts to strike a balance between offering as literal as possible a translation (rather than trying to refract the style or flavor of Vasseur's version), and rendering words plausibly cognate with Whitman's original in that form. That is, after undertaking a first stab at back-translation, I corrected any synonyms I may have chosen that were slightly, but not meaningfully, different than Whitman's 1892 original. This should permit readers consulting this English version of Vasseur to discern the more significant changes proper to Vasseur's version.

That said, however, as much as meaning would permit, and even when a difference was as small as an article, I attempted to conserve it in the translation. Whenever possible, I have also transferred Vasseur's punctuation and layout to my translation. The layout, using paragraph instead of hanging indentation, follows Vasseur's practice in Poemas. Paragraph indentation is not uncommon for Spanish language poetry, but by Vasseur's time poets were manipulating such layout conventions as a way of making meaning. It was not possible, however, to preserve line segmentation. In cases in which Vasseur's choice of gender seemed clearly significant in relation to the original, a footnote indicates the designation. Finally, as Salessi and Quiroga note (127), Vasseur often renders Whitman's "you" in the plural form, vosotros, which, while not always mitigating the intimacy of Whitman's famous "I and you" moments, does introduce different potential meanings.

Rachel Price

From the song of myself

I celebrate myself and sing myself,
What I attribute to myself I also want you to attribute to yourselves,
For every atom of mine could also be yours, and will be.

Poet, I invite my soul to the song,
As I loaf and stroll contemplating a tendril of summer grass.

My tongue, every molecule of my blood emanate40 from this land, from this air,
Born here, of parents whose grandparents and great-grandparents were also born,
At thirty-seven years of age, in perfect health, I begin these hymns with the hope of continuing even in death.

I grant armistice to creeds and schools,
I consider them for a moment from a certain distance, conscious of what they are and what they mean, never forgetting that;
Directly I offer myself as an asylum for good and bad, I let all chance speak,
Unchecked Nature with her original energy.

The atmosphere is not a perfume, it tastes of no essences, it is odorless,
My mouth breathes it in vital gasps; I love it madly, as I would a woman:
I will go to the slope where the forest begins, strip naked,
To enjoy its contact.

The humidity of my own breath pleases me,
The echoes, the undulations, the vague humming of the wild murmurs, love's root, silken threads, the tangles and root of the vines,
My inspiration and my respiration, the beating of my viscera, the blood and air my lungs push through,
The scent of the green leaves and of the dry leaves, of the blackened rocks all along the coast, the scent of the hay stored in barns,
The sound of my voice when I howl words and throw them into the eddies of the wind,
Some kisses on a sweet mouth, some hugs, breast to breast,
The flicker of the sun and shade on the trees when breezes rock their branches,
The happiness of solitude amongst crowds of trees in the forests or among the packed streets' multitudes,
The sensation of health, the noontime hymn, my morning song upon rising from bed and finding myself again before the sun.

Did you think one hundred hectares of land would suffice?
Did you think all the land was much?
Have you been learning to read for a long time?
Have you felt pride, penetrating the meaning of my poems?

Stay a day and a night with me; you will possess the essence of all poems.
You will possess all the good on earth and in the sun (millions of other suns exist as well),
I do not want you to keep receiving things second or third hand, nor that you look with the eyes of the dead, nor that you feed on the specters that lie between the leaves of books,
Nor do I want you to look with my eyes or receive things as if gifts from me,
I want you to open your ears to all voices, that they may impress you with their own virtue and according to your own nature.

I have heard what some minstrels told, stories with beginnings and ends:
I do not speak of the beginning nor of the end.

Never have there been beginnings other than the ones we witness each day.
More youth or more age than there is today;
Never will there be more perfection than that of our times,
Nor more heavens or hells than those that exist today.

Urge, more urge, always urge,
Urge is the incessant procreator of the world.

Equals emerge from the shadow, and develop as complements,
Always substance and multiplication, always sex;
Always a weave of identities, and of differentiations:
Always the conception, pregnancy and birth of life.

It is useless to refine; the cultured and the uncultured understand it equally.

Clean and smooth is my soul, equally clean and smooth is all that is not my soul.

If one of the two were lacking, both would lack,
The invisible is proven by the visible,
Until it is made invisible, and proven in turn.

All epochs have been forced to value "the best" and distinguish it from "the worst";
As I know the absolute justness and constancy of things, I remain silent amidst arguments, then go bathe myself and admire my body.

Welcome be every one of my organs and attributes, and those of all pure and cordial men;
Neither an inch of my being, nor an atom are41 vile,
None of them should be less familiar to me than the others.

I feel happy. I see, dance, laugh, sing;
When my caressing and affectionate comrade, who has slept
Beside me all night, departs with furtive steps at dawn,
Leaving me baskets filled with white towels that brighten42 the house with their abundance,
Will I check my acceptance and caring, concerned to know right away, to the penny,
The exact value of both, and which of the two will profit me?

My real self, inaccessible to pitches and tremors,
Enjoys its unity, satisfied, compassionate, idle,
Looks to watch the world from below, now erect, now propped against a secure, though impalpable support;
Deduces what will be from what is, watches everything with curious eyes,
Joining the game and at the same time outside it, observing it and marveling.

I see behind me the time I wandered in the fog between talkers and contenders:
I do not toss off any mockings or objections, I observe and wait.

I believe in you, my soul; the other man I am ought not abase himself before you,
As you ought not abase yourself before the other.

Come dream with me on the grass, flood my ears with the outpourings of your throat;
There is no need for words, music, rhymes or speeches, even the best.
Your murmur is enough for me, with the confidences and suggestions of your voice.

I remember one limpid summer morning we stretched out on the grass;
You rested your head between my knees, turning sweetly towards me,
You half-opened my shirt, plunging your tongue inside my chest unto my heart;
Then you stretched out, adhering to all from my beard to my feet.

Right away scattered over me the peace and wisdom that surpass all the reasoning on earth,
I knew that the hand of God was a promise for my own,
I knew that the spirit of God was my brother;
That nothing disappears; all is progress and development.
And to die is very different than what everyone imagines, and happier.

Has anyone thought being born was lucky?
I hasten to show him that to die is just as lucky.
I know it.

I agonize with the dying and am born with those that are born,
My I is not entirely contained between my shoes and my hat;
I examine the multiplicity of objects, there are no two alike, and each one is good.
The land is good, good the stars, and all that accompanies them.

I am not an earth nor the accessory to an earth,
I am the comrade of all peoples, all immortal and fathomless as am I.
(They ignore their immortality, but I am familiar with it, I know it.)

The boy sleeps in his crib,
I part the muslin and watch him a while, then silently scare away flies with my hand.
The young man and the purple-cheeked young woman move off through the bank's undergrowth,
From above, my curious gaze accompanies them.

The suicide victim lies stretched out on the room's bloody floor,
I observe the ruined hair of the corpse, I see the site where the revolver has fallen.

I love to go hunting alone in wilds and mountains,
Wander capriciously, amazed at my lightness and gaiety;
When dusk comes I choose a spot to spend the night;
I light a fire, grill the fresh-killed meat,
And fall asleep on a mountain of leaves, with my dog and my gun by my side.

The fugitive slave approached my hut, stopping at the threshold,
Through the half-open door of the kitchen, I saw him tottering and weak:
I went toward the stump where he had sat, I held him in my arms, and I carried him inside;
As I had inspired confidence in him, I filled a bucket of water for his sweaty body and his torn-up feet,
Then I steered him towards a room adjacent to mine, and gave him clean warm clothes,
I remember perfectly the gleam of his eyes and his embarrassed demeanor,
I remember having applied poultices to the sores on his neck and his ankles;
He spent a week by my side, until he grew stable and could emigrate to the North,
He ate with me at my table, while my shotgun lay in a corner.

Twenty-eight youths bathe in the river.
Twenty-eight youths, all of them comrades and friends;
And she, with her twenty-eight years of feminine life, so sadly alone!

Her house is the most beautiful one on the riverbank;
She who, most elegantly dressed, observes the bathers from across the curtains of her balcony.

Which of them might she love?
Ah! The least handsome is magnificent to her.

Where are you off to, lady? Though you remain hidden in your room I note you plunge in there, in the water!

I see you advance along the bank, dancing and laughing, beautiful bather;
The others do not see her, but she sees them, burning more and more with love.

The beards and hair of the young men gleam with the water drenching them;
An invisible hand passes over their bodies,
Lowers trembling from their temples and their pectorals.

The youth float on their backs, their white bellies soak up the sun; they do not wonder who clasps them so tightly,
They ignore she who sighs and leans toward them, suspended and curved in an arc.43
The youth do not know whom they splash with the water's mist!

Oxen that, walking, jingle the yoke and chain, or that rest in the leaves' shade, what is it your eyes express?
They seem to me to express more than all the printed lines I have read in my life.

I love all that develops outdoors;
The men that guard troops and flocks, those that navigate the oceans, those that live in the deepest forest,
Those that construct and those that crew boats, those that wield the axe and hoe, those that break-in colts and those that hunt buffalo
I enjoy their company, week after week.

I arrive with powerful musics, between the thundering of my trumpets and of my drums,
I do not only play marches for sacred victors, I also play them for the vanquished and the victims.

Many times you will have heard how beautiful it is to gain the advantage in every expedition,
I tell you that it is also beautiful to yield, that battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won!

My drum rolls in praise of the dead,
For them my trumpet lofts its most booming and joyous notes.

Praise to those who fell!
Praise to those whose battleships sank beneath the waves!
Praise to all those who sank at sea!
Praise to the generals defeated in all the battles and to all the dead beings!
Praise to the innumerable unknown heroes, equal to the most famous and sublime heroes!

Who goes there? Hungry, gross, naked and mystical,
How is it possible I extract strength from the ox I eat?

What is a man, after all? What am I? What are you?

When I refer to myself, I want you to attribute it to yourself as well,
If there were no equivalence between you and I, your reading me would be pointless.

I do not grouse like those who go about the world lamenting themselves,
That time and nothingness are synonymous, that the earth is nothing but putrefaction.

Groaning and rampant throng, race of valetudinarians and orthodox who seek to square the circle:
As for me, I carry my hat as I wish, indoors or out.

Pray? Why? To whom? My head is not made for reverences nor my mouth for flattery.44

I know I am an immortal.
I know that the orbit I describe cannot be measured with a carpenter's compass.
I know I will not vanish like the circle of fire that a boy traces in the night with a smoldering stick.

I know I am august,
I do not torture my spirit to defend that45 nor that they may understand me,
I know that the elemental laws never beg forgiveness,
(In the end I do not judge myself more haughty than the level at which my house sits).

I exist just as I am, that is enough for me,
If no one knows it, that does not embitter my satisfaction,
And if all know it, equal is my satisfaction.

A world-the vastest of worlds for me-knows that I am myself.
And I will arrive at my ends, this very day, or within ten thousand years, or after ten million years.
I can now accept my destiny with a happy heart, or I can wait with equal gaiety.

Of granite is the base46 on which I rest my foot;
I laugh at what you call dissolution,
I know the amplitude of time.

I am the poet of the Body and the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of the Heavens accompany me, as accompany me the tortures of Hell:
Within me I have multiplied the graft from the first,
The second I translate into a new language.

I am the poet of the woman as much as the poet of the man,
I say the greatness of woman is no less than the greatness of man,
I say nothing is greater than the mother of men.

I sing the hymn of expansion and pride.
We have begged and lowered our brows too much.
I show that greatness is nothing but development.

Have you surpassed the rest? Are you President?
It is a trifle, each must go beyond that, always advance.

I am he who walks in the sweetness of dusks.
I cast forth my cries to the land and the sea, half-enveloped by the night.

Squeeze me tightly, bare-breasted night!
Squeeze tightly, magnetic and nourishing night!

Night of Southern winds, night of the great stars!
Silent night winking at me, mad and naked summer night.

Smile, voluptuous land of fresh gusts!
Land47 of misty, sleeping trees!
Land of setting sun, land of mountains whose peaks disappear in the fog!
Land of cristalline milkiness faintly blued by the full moon!
Land of rays and shadows, peppering48 the river waves!
Land of the limpid gray of the clouds, more clear and brilliant in homage to my admiration!
Land curving away until lost from sight, fertile land covered with apple orchards!
Smile, for your lover approaches.

Prodigal,49 you have given me your love. Therefore I give you mine!
Oh Love, unspeakable and passionate!

Listen, oh sea! I abandon myself also to you, I guess what you mean to tell me,
From the beach I see your curved fingers calling me,
It seems to me you refuse to go without caressing me.

We must take a turn together; wait while I undress;
Carry me soon until I lose sight of land,
Rock me in your soft cushions, disappear me in the rhythm of your waves,
Splash me with loving liquid, I will do the same with you.

Sea of unfurling waves,
Sea that breathes with a long and convulsive gasp,
Sea of the salt of life and of the tombs that no shovel opens (and that yet are always ready),
That roars and shoves you about in storms, capricious and adorable sea;
I am co-substantial with you, I also have only one face and all faces!

I am the poet of goodness, but I do not decline to be the poet of evil as well.

What is all this talk about vice and virtue supposed to mean?
Evil spurs me on, reforming evil spurs me on, but I remain indifferent,
My attitude is not that of a censor or of a rebuker,
I water the roots of all that grows.

That they have gone well in the past, or that they go well now is not surprising:
The perpetual prodigy consists in that there may be a man or an infidel below.

Infinite unfolding of words in time!
Mine is a modern word: the word multitude!

My word presupposes an inextinguishable faith, always true.
That it be realized here or in the future, matters not to me.
I entrust myself to Time without fear.

It alone is pure, perfect, rounds and completes all.
Only this disconcerting and mystical marvel completes it fully.

I accept Reality, I do not argue with it,
I begin and end impregnating myself with materialism.

Hurrah for positive science! Long live exact demonstration!
In your honor let them bring and interlace pine, cedar boughs, and flowering lilacs,
This is the lexicographer, this is the chemist, this is the linguist, decipherer of ancient inscriptions,
These mariners have guided their boat through unknown seas, sowed with reefs,
This is the geologist, that one wields the scalpel, the other is a mathematician.

Gentlemen, illustrious scientists, the highest honors correspond to you!
The facts you cite, the observations you bring, are useful; however, they are not my domain,
Amidst them I but enter in a part of my domain!

The words of my poems do not evoke the recognized properties of things,
They evoke the uncatalogued life, liberty, emancipation.
They are not concerned with neutral and brave cases, they favor men and women potently organized.
The drums of rebellion roll, they join with the fugitives, with those that plot and those that conspire.

I am Walt Whitman, a cosmos, a son of Manhattan,50
Turbulent, carnivorous, sensual, who eats, who drinks, who procreates.
(Not a sentimentalist; not one of those beings that think themselves above men and women, or apart from them).
I am neither modest nor immodest.

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors from their jambs!
He who rejects any man, rejects me.
Everything done or said bounces back to me.

Through me, as if through a fissure, inspiration passes,
Through me pass the current and the indicating needle.

I transmit the age-old password, I teach the Creed of democracy;
I make Heaven my witness! I will accept nothing that the rest cannot accept under the same conditions.

From my depths arise multiple voices silenced a millennium.
Voices of interminable generations of prisoners and slaves,
Voices of the sick and desperate, of thieves and the decrepit.
Voices from the cycles of preparation and growth,
Of children united with stars by mothers' chests and fathers' sap.
Voices of trampled rights, of the corrupt and of the inept,
Voices from the crossroads, from the jails, from the mental hospital, from the hospices and from the barracks,
Voices of idiots, of the downtrodden, of the humble.
Voices vague as if loosed in winter fog, voices of the beetles, of opprobrium and crime.

From deep within me forbidden voices rise.
Voices of the sexes and of the concupiscences whose veil I part.
Indecent voices, primordial roars, crazed cries I classify and transfigure.

I do not put my finger to my mouth.
I treat with equal delicacy bowels, head or heart.
To my eyes copulation is no baser than death.

I believe in the flesh and its appetites.
To see, hear, touch, are miracles; every particle of my being is a miracle.

Outside as much as inside me I am divine,
I sanctify what I touch, and whatever touches me,
The scent of my armpits is purer than prayer,
My head is greater than churches, bibles and creeds.

When I climb the steps to my door I often pause to ask myself if that is the case,
A morning glory glinting blue in my window satisfies me more than all the metaphysics of books.

To contemplate the dawn!
The tenuous, so tenuous clarity fades the immense and diaphanous shadows,
The taste of the air pleases my palate.

Dazzling, formidable, the sun's rising would quickly kill me
If I could not now and always project out of myself a rising sun.

We are also dazzling and formidable like the sun,
We have found what we needed, oh my soul! in the calm and freshness of the dawn.

I listen to the song of the magic soprano. (What is my work compared with hers?)
The orchestra whirls me beyond Uranus's orbit,
Arouses in me crazed burnings whose existence I had ignored,
They sail me over the sea whose indolent waves graze my feet,
A sharp and furious hail stabs at me, I lose my breath,
I feel submerged in a morphine bath that tastes of honey, my trachea closes fatally,
Finally, I feel free to feel the enigma of enigmas,
And that we call being.

I believe a leaf of grass is not inferior to the journey of the stars,
That the ant is as perfect as they are, and as is a grain of sand, and as is the kinglet's egg,
And the tadpole is a masterpiece comparable to the greatest,
And the running blackberry could adorn the salon of the heavens,
And the meanest hinge in my hand challenges all of mechanics,
And the cow chewing mash with lowered head surpasses any statue.
And a mouse is a miracle able to move sextillions of doubters.

I could go live with animals, their calm and indolence pleases me so;
I remain whole hours contemplating them.

They neither become embittered by nor lament their fate,
They do not lie awake in the dark crying for their sins,
They do not lose heart over debates about their obligations to God,
None appears discontent, the mania to possess does not make them crazy,
None kneels down before another nor before any of its kind dead thousands of years,
None lives with respectability, none exhibits his misfortune to the curiosity of the world.
So they prove their kinship with me, and as such I accept them,
They bring me testimonies of what I am, they show me clearly that they possess the highest values.

With nightfall, I climb up to the pawl, relieve the guard keeping watch in the crow's nest.
We navigate through the arctic sea, there is enough light to orient us,
Through the translucent atmosphere my gaze takes in the prodigious beauty around me,
Huge masses of ice pass before my eyes, the scenery is visible in all directions.
In the distance the bright white peaks of mountains are visible; towards them the caprices of my imagination journey,
We approach a great battlefield where soon we will have to fight,
We pass before the colossal vanguards of the army, we pass prudently in silence;
Or we may be advancing down the avenues of a great city in ruins,
The stone blocks and stricken monuments surpass all the living capitals on earth.

I am a free lover, I camp beside the fires brightening the conquerors' bivouacs,
I throw the husband out of his bed and take his place by the wife.
All night I press her passionately between my thighs and lips.

I comprehend the large hearts of the heroes,
Modern courage and prehistoric courage,

The disdain and calm of martyrs,
The mother of old condemned as a witch and burned over dry firewood, before her children's eyes,
The slave, persecuted like an imprisoned woman, who falls mid-flight, all atremble and sweating blood.
The murderous bullets that stab like needles at his legs and neck,
All this I feel and suffer as he does.

I change agonies as I do clothes.
I do not ask the wounded person what he feels, I myself become the wounded person,
His injuries grow livid in my body, as I watch him leaning on my cane.

I am the fireman with the chest crushed under the rubble,
The falling walls have covered me completely,
I breathe smoke and fire, I hear the anguished yelling of my comrades,
I hear the distant clack of their picks and shovels,
They have arrived now where I lie buried, and they gently lift me up.

I lie stretched out on the floor in my red shirt, all fall quiet around me.
I neither suffer nor despair despite my exhaustion,
Beautiful and white are the people surrounding me, with their heads freed of their helmets,
The kneeling group fades with the torch light.

Now I will narrate the murder of four hundred and twelve young warriors murdered in cold blood.
Ambushed by enemy forces nine times greater than their own, they formed a square, making a parapet of their belongings;
More than nine hundred enemy had already died,
When their colonel fell and they ran out of ammunition;
Then they entered negotiations, obtaining a dignified capitulation, signed by the respective captains,
They immediately gave up their arms and followed their captors as prisoners of war.

They were the flower of the race, the glory of Texas rangers,
Unparalleled in breaking ponies,51 singing, enjoying themselves, courting young women,
Handsome, turbulent, amiable, generous, proud,
Bearded, sun burned, dressed in a typical hunter's garb,
Not one was older than thirty.

The morning of the second Sunday, at the beginning of a lovely summer, they were brought out by squadron and assassinated en masse.

None followed the order to kneel,
Some made a desperate and furious push, others stood fast, immobile;
Some fell at the first shot, wounded in their temples or heart; living and dead they lay together,
The mutilated ones hid themselves in the mud and arriving comrades saw them stretched out there,
A few half-dead tried to crawl away,
These were finished off with a clean bayonet thrust or a jab with the rifle butt,
A brave one not seventeen grabbed his killer and two others were needed to tear him away.
The three were left with their clothing in tatters, soaked in the boy's blood.

At eleven they began to burn the bodies:
Such was the story of the murder of four hundred and twelve young men.

Who is that brimming, cordial savage?
Is he among those awaiting civilization, or those who, having surpassed it, dominate it?

Is he a native of the Southwest, is he one whose infancy took place in the out of doors? Is he Canadian?
Does he come from the Mississippi region? From Iowa, Oregon, or California?
From the mountains, the plains, the forests?
Is he a mariner who has sailed the seas?

Wherever he goes, men and women welcome him gladly,
Desire that he love them, touch them, talk to them, and live with them.

His conduct is as arbitrary as a snowflake, his words as simple as the grasses, his hair, uncombed, king of smiles and sincerity.
His slow pace, his common features, his common manners as much his own as are his emanations,
These emerge from his fingertips in new ways.
They float in the air about him, with the odor of his body and his breath, and they also radiate from his looks.

Do you want me to describe to you an old-time naval battle?
Do you want to know who emerged the victor by the light of the moon and stars?
Listen to the story as it was told me by my grandmother's father.

They were not cowards, no, the crew of the enemy ship (he told me)
Their52 obstinate, stubborn courage was that of the English
(There is no cruder or stronger courage, there never has been and there never will be);
It was dusk when the enemy ship greeted us with the first cannon shot.

We came alongside at once, the ships' yards entangled, the cannons touched,
My captain took part in the fight like the boldest of his subalterns.

The enemy fire came along various lines under water.
Two cannons from the first deck of our ship blew up under the first fire, killing all around.

So the battle continued throughout the dusk and then in the dark,
At ten o'clock at night, under the full moon, taking on water (we already had over five feet),
The master-at-arms ushered up prisoners locked in the hold, that those who could save themselves might.

Now those who circulate through the passageways, near the Santa Barbara, are stopped by the sentinels;
These, on seeing so many strange faces, no longer know whom to trust.

Out frigate is afire in several places
The enemy calls to us: Do you surrender?
Do you lower your flag?

I let forth a laugh as I hear the voice of my captain answer loudly: No! We do not lower it!
We have only just begun!

Only three cannons remain:
With one, our captain aims at the main mast of the enemy frigate,
The other two, stocked with grapeshot, clear the decks, and silence their musketry.
From the top, some shooters second the fire of our small battery,
Their shoot-out continued through all the action.

Not a moment of truce:
The leaks beat out the pumps, the fire advances towards the powder kegs,
A cannon explodes one of our water pumps;
Everyone thinks we are sinking.

The little captain maintains his serenity,
He is not hurried, his voice is the same as ever,
His eyes throw out upon us more light than the battle lanterns.

Towards twelve o'clock, under the moon's beams, they surrendered to us.

The midnight extends immense and silent.
Two great hulls lie immobile in the darkness,
Our ship sinks slowly, we make preparations to pass to the one we have conquered,
At the poop's far end the captain coldly gives his orders, with his face white as a shroud,
Beside him lies the body of a boy from our crew,
And the dead face of an old seadog with his long white hairs and the points of his moustache carefully curled.
The flames flicker on all sides,
The voices of two or three officials can be heard, attentive to orders,
Mountains of corpses and bodies can be seen, isolated pieces of flesh and limbs scattered about,
Broken cordage, balanced tackles, and the light shock of the soft waves53

The cannons, black and impassive, the remains of powder parcels, a tremendous scent of burned flesh and of gunpowder.
Some big stars that shine above silently and as if in mourning,
The breeze that comes in soft puffs, the night air that tastes of sea reeds and grasses that line the shore, the last messages confided to the survivors,
The hiss of the surgeon's saw, the steel teeth that [hieuden]54 the live tissue and the bones:
Wheezes, agonized cluckings, bloody pools, the streaming blood, sudden and crazed cries, long and melancholic groans:
All this is seen and heard: a naval battle is all of that, all that is irreparable.

Insolent and glorious sun, I have no need for your heat,
Halt your trajectory,
You only illuminate surfaces, I illuminate surfaces and depths,
Earth! it seems you search for something between my hands.
Tell me, old flirt:55 what do you want from me?

Behind that door someone is dying.
I enter his room, toss the covers to the foot of the bed, throw out the doctor and priest,

I take the dying man in my arms, I raise him up with irresistible will.
Despairer-I tell him-here is my neck,
As God is my witness I do not want you to die!
Hang on to me, with all your weight!
I dilate you with a powerful breath,
I fill all the room with warrior forces,
Forces of all those who love me and resist the attractions of the tomb.

Sleep! I and my friends will watch over you until dawn!
Fear not, death will not dare brush you with his wings.
I have taken you in my arms, you are mine;
When you awaken tomorrow, you will confirm the truth of what I tell you. Sleep!

Look! I do not offer you sermons nor small charities
I give myself when I give.

I do not ask who you are, nor what you do or may have done,
You cannot do anything, nor can you be anything, except what I enclose within you.

I give a familiar kiss on the cheek of the slave who labors in the cotton plantations and on that of the worker who cleans latrines.
I swear on my soul I will never deny them.

I am in search of women fit for maternity.
It pleases me to make big and lively children for them.
(I plant in them the substance of futures and highly arrogant Republics).

I have read what has been written about the Universe,
Know, from having heard it unto satiation, what has been said for thousands of years,
It is not too bad for what it is . . . but is that all?

I come to magnify and realize,
I do not oppose special revelations,
I consider that a curl of smoke, or a hair from the back of my hand is as admirable as any revelation,
The firemen, pointing their hoses or running up stairs, do not seem to me inferior to the warrior gods of antiquity,
The dung heaps, the filth, are to me more prodigious than anything dreamed of,
The supernatural is only so in name;
I myself await the hour in which I will be one of the supreme beings,
The day will come in which I will do as much good as the greats, in which I will equal them in marvels,
See me! Already I become a creator,
I have already integrated into the mysterious breast of the shadows.
These numerous and good little men that trot around me, tucked into their collars and coattails,
I know very well who they are (they are neither worms nor fleas),
I recognize in them my equals, the weakest and most empty is as immortal as I,
What I do and say holds for them as well,
Every idea that flashes in me, flashes equally in them.

I know perfectly well the depth of my egoism,
I know how omnivorous are my verses, I do not for that reason stop writing them;
Whoever you are, my desire would be to elevate you to my own level!

I have not made my poem with routine words,
I have made it like a brusque interrogation, rushing beyond the questions, in order to put them in reach of everyone;
Here is a printed and bound book; but the typography? And the printer's apprentice?
Here are admirable photographs; but what about your wife, or your friend,56 pressed in your arms?
Here a black boat, reinforced with steel, with its mighty cannons atop its turrets; but what of the courage of the captain and of the mechanics?
Here are houses with their dining room tables set at mealtime; but what about the sir and madam of the house, and the looks gleaming in their eyes?
Here the sky, but what of that beneath it, in this door, at the one across or at the end of the street?
History is filled with saints and wise men; but what of all of you?
It is filled with sermons, creeds, teleologies; but what about the bottomless human brain?
And finally, what is reason? What is love? What is life?

Priests from all the ages, from all lands, I do not look down on you,
My faith is the vastest and most tenuous of faiths-like the tail of a comet-, it encompasses all systems and zodiacal immensities,
It encompasses the ancient cults and the modern cults and all that were between ancient and modern.
I believe I will return to the face of the earth after five thousand years have passed.
I await the responses of oracles, I honor the gods, I salute the sun,
I make a fetish of the first rock or the first stump I encounter, I enchant with magic rings;
I help the lama or the Brahmin to prepare the lamps of his altars;
I join57 the phallic or gymnosophist processionism, weaving in liturgical dance all along the way,
I live in austerity and in ecstasy, in the middle of the woods,
I drink the honeywater in skullcups, I admire the Shastas and the Vedas, I revere the Koran,
I go out in the teokallis stained with the blood of sacrifices, beating a snakeskin drum;
I accept the Gospels, I accept he who was crucified, I know, without doubt, he is divine,
I kneel during mass, or I rise to accompany the chants of the Puritans, or I often remain seated on a bench in Church,
I grow delirious and froth in a fit of dementia, or I await as if dead my spirit to awaken,
I pass my eyes over flagstones and landscape, or beyond the flagstones and landscape,
I am one of those who advance by the circle of circles.

The time has come for me to explain myself. Let us rise!
I leave aside all that is known,
Onward! Towards the unknown! I launch you towards all, men and women, like stones in the depths of my own self!

The watch marks the hour? But what marks Eternity?
Hitherto we have exhausted trillions of winters and summers,
Trillions remain for us to exhaust, and after those, trillions and trillions more.

Seeds have brought us richness and diversity,
Other births will bring new richness and new diversity.

I do not call this big nor the other small,
Whatever fills its time and occupies its place is equal to any other thing.

I am a peak of things realized and I am the receptacle of all that will be.

As I rise, ghosts lie down behind me.
Far, far away in the depths, I perceive the enormous primordial void, I know I have passed through it,
I know I have waited, permanent and invisible, asleep in liturgical mist,
I have taken my time, without being harmed by the fetid carbon,
For infinite infinities I have remained latent, narrowly compressed, waiting.

Immense have been the preparations for my development,
Loyal and friendly have been the arms that have shored me up.

The ages' cycles have rocked my cradle, rowing, always rowing like joyful boatmen;
The stars have opened at my approach, in their processional orbits,
They have continued to illuminate me, looking after the latencies of my future.

I already existed, before being born in human shape,
That my embryo might become a sentient being,
The nebula had congealed into an orb:
The geological strata piled up one atop the other,
The generations of vegetables, clorofiliated the atmosphere,
And the monstrous sauroids transported it in their jaws, depositing it delicately!
All forces have continually acted towards my improvement and delight,
And now I am here, with my powerful soul.

My sun has its own sun, around which it turns docilely.
It turns with its comrades in a superior circle,
And greater systems turn about larger stars containing small spots;
There is no rest, nor will there ever be any:
If I, you, and the worlds and all that exists within and on them were to be reduced to a pallid and dragging58 fog, this would not matter in the end.
We would surely return to our present state,
We would surely go the distance we cover, and then much farther, always farther!

I know I am above time and space, I know I have never been measured, that I never will be.

I am the tramp of an eternal trip (come listen all!)
You will recognize me by my waterproof shirt, by my solid boots and by my staff, cut in the woods,
None of my friends make themselves comfortable in my chair,
I have no chair, nor church, nor philosophy,
I bring no one to the hotel, the library or the Exchange,
I lead all, men and women, to the peak of a knoll,
There, hooking my left hand around the waist of my companion,
I point out, with the right, landscapes, continents, and the route open to all.

Today, before dawn, I climbed a hill and contemplated the starry sky,
And I said to my spirit: When we have covered all the orbs and tasted the pleasure and the science of all the things that the contain, will we feel filled and satisfied?
And my spirit answered: No, we will have reached those heights in order to surpass them and continue our march.59

I hear clearly the problems you present me with now.
In truth I must say I cannot reply to them; you yourselves should find them and give yourselves the answers.

I am the teacher of athletes.
He that, from my teaching, boasts a broader chest than I, proves the amplitude of my chest,
He honors more my style who, studying it, learns to destroy the professor.

I teach others to stray from me, and yet, who could stray from me?
From now on, whoever you be, I will follow in your steps,
My words will prick in your ears, until you understand them.

No room of airtight windows, no school that is not out of doors, can commune with me,
Easier achieved by vagabonds and children.

The young worker is the most intimate of my intimates, he who knows me best,
The woodcutter who takes his axe and jug also takes me with him,
The youth who works in the fields feels a sense of well-being at the murmur of my voice,
My words set sail with the ships, nostalgic for all the seas,
I love to spend time with fishermen and salty dogs.

I say the soul is not more than the body,
I say that the body is not more than the soul.60
Nothing, not even God himself, is greater than any body's own self,
I say whoever walks two hundred meters without sympathy, marches wrapped in a shroud to his own funeral,
And I, you, without a cent in the pocket can acquire the choicest things on earth,
And to look with the eyes or observe a bean in its pod, confounds the science of all times,
I say there exists no trade or employment in whose execution he who is determined cannot become a hero,
My object, as vile or weak as it may appear, that cannot turn in the axis of the universal wheel;
And I say, to any man, to any woman: "May your soul preserve its serenity, its composure before a million universes!"

And I say to humanity: "Do not be curious with respect to God.
I, who have such curiosity, have none about Him."
(No wealth of words could express my tranquility in what concerns God and death).

I hear and see God in every object.
Still, I confess my infinite incomprehension of God.
And what I understand still less, is that which could be more wonderful than myself.

Why should I have desires to see God better than I currently see him?
I see something of God in each one of the twenty-four hours, and also in every minute,
I see God in the face of men and in that of women, and in mirrors when they reflect my face,
In the streets and in the fields, everywhere, I find cards God has dropped.
Cards marked with his name and his signature, that I leave where I find them, because no matter the path of my steps, I know others and others will arrive for me punctually, for all my time.

As for you, oh Death! and you, bitter embrace of mutable substance, it is useless to try to alarm me.

Oh Life! I do not ignore the fact that you are the residuum of incalculable numbers of dead.
(I myself, before being born this time, surely had already died more than ten thousand times.)

What is it you murmur in the distance? Oh heavenly stars! Oh suns! Oh grasses of graves! Oh perpetual transferences and developments!
If you fall quiet, how can I say anything?

You who listen to me, do you have anything to tell me?
Look me in the face as I inhale the fluid caress of the evening.
(Speak to me sincerely, no one is listening, I can only wait a minute.)

Am I in contradiction with myself?
Very well, it is true I contradict myself.
(I am vast, I contain multitudes).

The hawk darts down until it grazes my locks; he accuses me of gab and laziness.

I am as wild as he, and as inexplicable;
I reverberate my savage barks above the roofs of the world.

The last sparkles of the day offer themselves up to my eyes,
They cast my image after the rest-as true as any other-in the shadow-invaded wilds,
They urge me gently toward the fog61 and the dark.

I depart like the air, shake my white hair towards the setting sun,
Throw my flesh into eddies, let it blow away in frothy fibers.

I give myself to the mud to be reborn in the grasses I love.
If in the future you want to see me again, look for me under the soles of your shoes.

You will never know what I am nor what I signify.
Nevertheless, for you I will be health,
I will purify and fortify your blood.

If you cannot raise me right away, do not lose heart;
If you do not find me at one point, look for me in another,
I am somewhere, awaiting you!


A translation of Vasseur's "Prólogo" [Preface, from Poemas 1912, vii-xii] into English.

Though attempting to capture some of Vasseur's acrobatic metaphorics, this translation emphasizes the sense of the "Prólogo" over its style. Titles of books and names of authors mentioned have been rendered in their best-known English versions; titles of specific editions cited are left in the original Spanish.

Matt Cohen

Walt Whitman

The poems whose Spanish adaptation I offer to my readers were written between the years 1854–1888. The first edition of the Leaves of Grass, in modest octavo, was no longer than one hundred pages. Whitman himself, being an old typographer, composed his own work (1).62

The poet, who was born in Long Island—an island situated across from New York—the 31st of May, 1819, was then thirty-five years old.

Stimulated by Emerson's essays, he had many times dreamed of a lyrical form—capable of descending to the most trivial, quotidian details and of soaring to all the spiritual heights—falling back on neither traditional prose nor traditional poetry.

It was a desire analogous to that which Baudelaire describes in the preface to his Prose Poems. The difference lies in the distinct temperaments with which one and the other teased out his execution.

Classically rhythmatic clauses and sober adjectivization in the Frenchman; grandiloquent phrases, redundant and barbarous in the American.

The said form did not seem to have other precedents than certain liturgical ejaculations, some isolated pages of Chateaubriand, Kempis's exhortations, the axioms of the great French thinkers—Pascal and La Rochefoucauld—swift and musical like poems, and overall, the verses of the Bible, and of the fragments of Orphic and Vedic hymns (1) as they circulate in the translations of modern languages.63

The "Great Idea" that Whitman was forging for himself, about how he had to be the singer of democracy, could not be projected along the lines of New World schools, after they deformed themselves on slender, trendy poetical frameworks.

He had to begin by breaking the mold of Medieval metre. He had to revolutionize the ancién régime of rhetoric, with the aim of giving to the American intellect freedom of creation and expression as others had already given it political and civil freedom.

To achieve this it was necessary to renounce the European poetic tradition; make a tabla rasa of its themes and its tinkling verbal musics; return to the most ancient, to fling himself into the unknown. . .

Walt Whitman, guided by his extraordinary poetical instinct, reached the same fountains as had the great gospels, true lullabies of the races.

"The Bard of Democracy," as he considered himself, was not just another poet. He had to be the evangelist of the continent-in-formation, creator of new values, hero, prophet and companion of men. Guide of guides, consoler of the afflicted, terror of despots, a marvel to children, beloved of the young, friend of wives, counselor of fathers, glorifier of life and of death.

For him, to live was not to conserve oneself, as Schopenhauer understood it, nor to defend oneself in order not to perish, as Darwin postulates. To live is to develop—not at the expense of others and oneself—as Nietzsche would say a quarter of a century later, but out of oneself. And since the individual life takes root in an egocentric substrate as absorbent as the personality is imperious—resulting in altruism—it illuminates its most sordid depths.

Walt Whitman carried within himself the thirst for life and love that Wagner incarnated in Siegfried. His character made blossom in the midst of his youth the grain of wisdom that Faust harvested in old age: to love life over the images of it that withered between the pages of books.

To prefer the smile of the watchman's daughter to the treasures hidden in bank vaults.

To project from himself the fantastic dawns of suns for the rejoicing of humanity present and future.

After having studied the greatest teachers of the ages, to wish that they could come to his time to study him. To manifest himself in everything like a God.

To hit upon a literary form adequate to the tone and the multiple senses of his "new good" was an undertaking before which all of Hercules's paled.

Forty years passed, dense, electric, before Whitman would definitively cast the torrential and often contradictory intuitions of his temperament.

Forty years of fighting with verb and rhythm, of variants and incessant re-smeltings.

Ten editions of Leaves of Grass saw the light in Whitman's lifetime. With each new edition the book grew, transformed, became more and more monumental. But always it was the same book.

The leveling idea, the love for common men, the ennobling of all varieties of the profanum vulgus, the passion for Nature and human liberty, the religious cult of manual labor, bursting out in hymns to all occupations, the apotheosis of fecund sensualism and of physical beauty, flash out in his poems like the sword of the Archangel at the entrance to Milton's Paradise Lost.

The symphonic music that energizes his verses is comparable to Wagner's most potent chords.

Certain passages in some of his songs outdo in spirit and transcendence the most heroic of all times. Only Nietzsche in the poem of "The Seven Seals" achieves the elevation and lyrical flight of the Yankee.

In spite of his silence in this respect, more than once I have believed I recognized seedlings of Leaves of Grass ripening on Zarathustra's mountainside.

The poems of Walt Whitman were known in Germany before 1868. The poet Freiligrath had already published a study of the democratic singer in the Allgemeinen Zeitung.

Nietzsche found himself in those days in Leipzig. He had not yet been named Professor of Philosophy at Basel (1869). His first work, The Birth of Tragedy, appeared in 1872; the Gay Science in 1882; The Dawn in 1886; and the first part of Zarathustra he wrote in 1883. The four known parts of the said epic appeared from 1883 to 1886.

According to Nietzsche's plan, inserted in the edition of his Obras póstumas (vol. XII), Zarathustra was meant to consist of six parts. The final chapter of the sixth part cuts, in the most thorough way, the old knot of its contradictions.

In it, Zarathustra announces to the men congregated around him that class conflict has come to an end, as has the moral rule of the dominators. He affirms that at this level of evolution, the human species shares one lot and one ideal. After reiterating his hope for the appearance of the Superman, he proclaims his new faith: that life would return to its commencement (1).64 Then he asks them: Would you like all this, one more time? All answer: Yes! And Zarathustra dies of joy. In this strange ending seems perceptible the influence of the democratic muse of Whitman more than that of the great Fichte, Hölderlin, and Emerson, the favorite authors of his youth.

The Yankee cosmos was, in its life and nature, that which the German poet had dreamed to be: force and sweetness, beauty and disinterest.

Walt Whitman practiced as a volunteer nurse during the War of Secession. In Washington's hospitals he contracted the disease that, undermining his titanic constitution, degenerated over thirty years into paralysis.

Nietzsche was also a nurse during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71). To the emotions of this epoch and to the subsequent abuse of chloral hydrate is attributed the dementia that reduced him to idiocy in his final years.

Both are, in my judgment, the chief lyricists of the past century. The German, with the limitations imposed by his philosophical criticism and the complexities of his great classical culture. The Yankee with the brilliance of his religious transcendentalism and the ingenuities of his august autodidacticism.

That one, concentrated and explosive, like the flammable ordnance of the Prussian arsenals; this one, overflowing and for moments monotonous, like the cataracts of his country.

Beside him, Hugo, Leconte de Lisle, Swinburne, Carducci, Junqueiro, Rapisardi, look like regional poets. Poets, in the most conventional and European sense of the word.

The influence of W. Whitman is already universal. Translated into Italian, German, French, Spanish, his images and adjectival couplings retain their primitive texture. Modern verslirismo is one of the many effects of his work.

Maetnerlinck and Verhaeren in Belgium; Rapisardi; D'Annunzio, the "Futurists" in Italy; Laforgue, Viele Griffin and the "social poets" in France; Miers, Rossetti, Carpenter in England; Unamuno, and perhaps Alomar, in Spain; Darío and Lugones in America, are indebted to him for varied and profound suggestions.

I could have followed silently such illustrious examples without risking passing for a tradittore. . .

It has seemed to me more original to take this final risk. . .

"What matters the individual if it is the spirit who guides?"

Sings the poet.

Blessed be the tempest of his art, if it manages to clear the Hispanoamerican literary atmosphere, so overburdened with clucking and crowing!


San Sebastian, February 1912.65


In addition to those thanked in the footnotes, the editors would like to thank Ralph Bauer, George Handley, Hugo Achugar, and the directors of the Walt Whitman Archive for reviewing this introduction and making suggestions that much improved it.


1. Basing his judgment on John Delancey Ferguson's 1916 assessment of Whitman scholarship in Ferguson's American Literature in Spain, Gay Wilson Allen concluded that, "to judge from the representative examples which Ferguson has provided, Spanish criticism of Walt Whitman has been as intelligent and perceptive as that of any other foreign country,—more intelligent, in fact, than that of most of the infatuated disciples in France, Germany or even the United Status" (Allen quoted in Aizen de Moshinsky, Walt Whitman, 60). [back]

2. Fernando Alegría succinctly justifies further study of Vasseur's work, "because of all the Spanish translations of Whitman's book it is the one which has had the greatest influence on the poets and public of Spain and Hispanoamerica" (Walt Whitman, 349, our translation). Vasseur's rough contemporary, the Uruguayan poet and critic Alberto Zum Felde, similarly argued that Vasseur's translation "was the one I knew in those years, as it was the one that circulated in Uruguay, and surely elsewhere in Latin America. Knowledge of this translation influenced [my own work]" (Visca-Arturo, Conversando, 35-6, our translation). The importance of the translation, Alegría argues, was such that it served as something of a "literary manifesto" insofar as it did not translate Leaves of Grass in its entirety but instead selected a limited number in an attempt to "convulse and revolutionize the world of Spanish letters and to stamp in the minds of poets the idea that a more profound conception of poetry was necessary if they hoped to gain any measure of universality" (Walt Whitman, 350, our translation). [back]

3. Martí, Allen, and Echevarría, JoséMartí, 185. [back]

4. Ibid., 189. [back]

5. See Martí, Obras Completas, 18: 286. [back]

6. See John Englekirk, "Notes," 134. [back]

7. See Allen, Handbook, 320. [back]

8. See Ferguson, American Literature in Spain, 175. For a chronological list of Whitman's translators and critics in Spain and Latin America see Alegría, Walt Whitman, 34. [back]

9. For more on Whitman's role in Latin American literary aesthetics see Santí, "The Accidental Tourist"; and Salessi and Quiroga, "Errata sobre la erótica." [back]

10. For an exhaustive catalog and analysis of Whitman's presence and translators in Latin America see Fernando Alegría's Walt Whitman en hispanoamérica. For a more circumscribed but nuanced reading of Whitman's influence on some of the twentieth century's more notable Latin American authors, including Borges and Neruda, see Enrico Mario Santí's "The Accidental Tourist: Walt Whitman in Latin America" (156-176). [back]

11. Quoted in Monegal, "Sexo y poesía." [back]

12. For further consideration of this moment see Achugar, Poesía y sociedad; and Sergio Visca-Arturo's interview with Alberto Zum Felde, Conversando Con Zum Felde. This helpful source we owe to Santí's excellent bibliographical research on Vasseur's translation, discussed in "The Accidental Tourist." [back]

13. See Zum Felde, El proceso intelectual, 213. [back]

14. Vasseur, "Prólogo para la sexta edición." [back]

15. Indeed, Vasseur hints at one of the origins of his translation, as well as his professional anxiety about turning Whitman's translator instead of writing poetry inspired by him, at the conclusion of the preface to the first edition. There he writes, "Yo podía haber seguido silenciosamente tan ílustres ejemplos sin exponerme á pasar por tradittore. . . Me ha parecido más original correr este último albur. . ." ["I could have followed silently such illustrious examples, without risking passing for a traitor . . . It has seemed to me more original to take this last risk . . ."] (Poemas 1912, xii). Vasseur chooses to render the word "traitor" in Italian when we expect the word "traductor," evoking the ironic saying, "traduttore, traditore," or "translator, traitor." At the same time he plays on the multiple meanings of the verb "exponserse," which can mean both to risk and to expose oneself—the playful use of the Italian suggesting simultaneously that his source is not directly Whitman and that he is aware of the pitfalls of translation. [back]

16. See Allen, Walt Whitman Abroad, 187. [back]

17. Thanks to Grazia Sotis for clarifying these details. [back]

18. Santí, "The Accidental Tourist," 366 fn 12. Perhaps Santí was unduly convinced by an anecdotal (and unfortunately unverifiable) recollection, by Vasseur's contemporary Zum Felde, that Vasseur had not known any English, but instead had depended upon a certain Dr. Vitale for auxiliary literal English translations. In the preface to the sixth edition Vasseur does mention his friend Dr. Vitale's role in familiarizing Vasseur with English-language literature, including Whitman, but says nothing about Vitale as a consultant in translation. Further, he mentions visiting Vitale in Montevideo—but Vasseur undertook the Whitman translation in Spain. [back]

19. Vasseur, "Prólogo para la sexta edición." In the same introduction Vasseur dwells on having grown up in a French-speaking household, recalling that French was his mother tongue until he was at least fifteen years old. And he follows the above-cited comment about being well-accompanied in his translation process with the sentences: "Harto diversas y simultáneas solían ser mis preocupaciones. Singularmente, en aquella primera etapa hispano-anglo-francesa" [My concerns tended to be quite varied and simultaneous. Singularly so, in that first Hispano-Anglo-French moment]. This signals the possibility that one of the "versions" or translations of Leaves of Grass consulted was the French. [back]

20. Vasseur, "Prólogo para la sexta edición" (our translation). [back]

21. Alegría describes the parts Vasseur edited out of "Song of Myself" (using a numbering system explained in the appendix): "6, pantheistic symbol of grass; 9, an illustration of his philosophy of death; 12, a detailed description of human types, important because it helps in understanding the poet's incarnation in familiars, part of his pantheistic doctrine; 15, enumeration of jobs; 16, 17, 19, where the poet expresses his understanding of all kinds of men, victors and vanquished alike, good and evil, throughout the eras; 27, 28, 29, 30, where he glorifies the feelings of and affirms the greatness of the human body; 37, where the poet identifies with the prisoner, the rebel, the thief, the choleric, the beggar; 38, in which he suggests his transfiguration; and 50, where he indicates the meaning of his Happiness. In addition to these sections, omitted altogether, many verses were excluded from the translated sections" (Walt Whitman, 367-8, our translation). [back]

22. Ibid., 352. [back]

23. At times, it should be noted, Vasseur manages to out-Whitman his master, or to put a verse into words that may seem truer to Whitman's own spirit. Take, for instance, Vasseur's decision to translate "imbue" as "impregnate" in a line from "Song of Myself." One meaning of imbue can be to impregnate, but the latter word lends a rawer, transgressive, if less lyrical, tone to Vasseur's rendering, which in English would be: "I accept Reality, I do not argue with it,/ I begin and end impregnating myself with materialism" (the original is "I accept Reality and dare not question it,/ Materialism first and last imbuing"). On translation and the possibility of supersession see Ilan Stavans, "Beyond Translation: Jorge Luis Borges Revamps William Faulkner," in Look Away! The U.S. South in New World Studies, ed. Jon Smith and Deborah Cohn (Durham: Duke UP, 2004): 495-504.

Several critics have argued on behalf of the innovation of Vasseur's interpretation of Whitman. Enrico Mario Santí, for instance, offers a revision of Fernando Alegría's critique of Vasseur's translation. Santí places scare quotes around Alegría's criticisms and goes on to ratify—even endorse—what he reads as Vasseur's knowing and pointed re-writing of Whitman. Alegría's judgment of Vasseur's readings as "truncated" and "incorrect," and his grumbling about Vasseur's "excessive liberties," were, in Santí's estimation, misguided. Indeed, he counters, "Far from Alegría's view that Vasseur's 'translations' were defective or aberrant because they did not render faithfully Whitman's English original, I find them to be the most apposite. These 'unfaithful' versions of Whitman, foundation-texts of his Latin American cult, confirm the alienated, second-order quality of such discourse" (164). Another article, by Jorge Salessi and José Quiroga, similarly defends Vasseur's poetic license, proclaiming that the Uruguayan poet manages to make Whitman more erotic than he reads in the English. Citing a fragment of Vasseur's translation of "To a Locomotive in Winter," they write that in translation "Whitman's locomotive is turned into an erotic manifesto that is already not without a certain Marinettian flair. In the original, the body is more mechanical" (125). [back]

24. See Ferguson, American Literature in Spain, 189. [back]

25. See Alegría, Walt Whitman, 352-355. [back]

26. Again, despite the fact that he was apparently unaware that Vasseur was working from at least the Italian translation, Alegría's major assessments still obtain. For example, it is true that several of the titles Vasseur changes were also slightly changed in the Italian. But the changes are not consonant, suggesting that at most Vasseur was inspired by Gamberale's adaptations to make his own, or that indeed the changes may be merely coincident or derived from another source such as the French translation. Thus, for example, while "To a Certain Civilian" is rendered by Gamberale as "Ad un pacifico cittadino" [To a peaceful civilian], it is translated equally curiously but distinctly as "A un burgués" [To a burgher/bourgeois] by Vasseur.

For a discussion of Gamberale's translation and the debatable merits of its literal nature see Grazia Sotis, Walt Whitman in Italia: la traduzione Gamberale e la traduzione Giachino di Leaves of Grass (Naples: Società Editrice Napoletana), 1987. [back]

27. 361. Alegría notes also, importantly, that Whitman's rendering of key terms from phrenology, such as "adhesiveness" or "amativeness," is lost in Vasseur's version; this may be the case for other terms Whitman has borrowed or adapted from specialist discourses. [back]

28. Perhaps more strangely, as if to balance out Whitman's male-focused gaze, Vasseur fantasized the poem "The Poet's Grandmother" ["La Abuela del Poeta"] into existence, constructing it from a section of Whitman's poem "Faces" (Poemas 1912, 147). [back]

29. Just a year after Vasseur's translation was published in Barcelona, Cebrià Montoliu, the author of the 1909 Catalan selections from Leaves of Grass, wrote his in-depth study of Whitman, Walt Whitman: L'home i sa tasca (1913). One can only speculate about whether or not he read Vasseur's translations in the meantime. In any case, as Alegría points out, Montoliu was clear, if ambivalent, about Whitman's sexuality, writing that Whitman "demonstrated all his life a great indifference to the fair sex" and that, "strange as it may seem," the "perfect male . . . seemed not to feel . . . the magical attraction of females" (quoted in Alegría, Walt Whitman, 37, our translation). [back]

30. Whitman quoted in Allen, Handbook, 252. [back]

31. Many of Whitman's poems are titled "Thought"; "Pensamiento" corresponds with the poem on page 300 of Whitman, Leaves of Grass 1892. [back]

32. "Pensamientos" corresponds with the poem on page 364 of Whitman, Leaves of Grass 1892. [back]

33. Vasseur both made selections from "Song of Myself" and reordered the lines within those sections. See for example the analysis in Alegría 367-8. [back]

34. Vasseur translates sections 6, 7, 10, and 11 of this poem as it appears in Leaves of Grass 1892. [back]

35. These lines are excerpted from section 14 of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," as it appears in Leaves of Grass 1892, 260-61. [back]

36. This poem is subtitled "¡Tú, Astro Cenital!" [You, Star of the Zenith!] in Vasseur's text; "Thou Orb Aloft Full-Dazzling" is the first poem in the section "From Noon to Starry Night" in Leaves of Grass 1892, 352. [back]

37. This poem is excerpted from section 5 of "Faces," Leaves of Grass 1892, 355-56. [back]

38. This poem is excerpted from section 9 of "Passage to India," Leaves of Grass 1892, 322-23. [back]

39. This poem is excerpted from "So Long!" in the section "Songs of Parting," in Leaves of Grass 1892, 382. [back]

40. In Spanish the plural is conserved despite the comma following "tongue." [back]

41. [Sic] The Spanish here is, I believe, erroneously plural. [back]

42. Literally, make happy (alegran). [back]

43. Here Vasseur makes the invisible character described unambiguously the lady. [back]

44. Literally, salaams. [back]

45. The phrase is ambiguous in the Spanish: defenderlo could be "defend it"; "defend that" (the august nature); or possibly even "defend itself" (as it is in the original), in a strange kind of reflexivity in which the soul would be a direct object to itself. [back]

46. Pedestral is likely a typographical error for pedestal. [back]

47. Tierra can mean either earth or land, but, given the context, readers of Spanish would probably presume the more metaphorical "land" than the more literal "earth." [back]

48. Literally, snowing upon. [back]

49. Vasseur makes this person female, Pródiga. [back]

50. "Indigenous name of the island on which New York is located." (Vasseur's footnote) [back]

51. Vasseur includes in this list lizar, a word not listed in the DRAE, though possibly a kind of gun or gun skills. [back]

52. Crew is plural in Spanish. [back]

53. No period or other punctuation mark appears in the Spanish. [back]

54. A typo beyond deciphering; perhaps hieren, or "they injure." [back]

55. Rendered feminine in the Spanish, coqueta. [back]

56. Rendered masculine in the Spanish, amigo. [back]

57. Literally, incorporate into (incorporo). [back]

58. The Spanish is fletante, meaning chartered or freighted. This may be a typographical error for flotante, or "floating." [back]

59. "'He who desires eternal return—Kierkegaard says—that is a man.' And Nietzche's Zarathustra adds: If that has been life, let us live it once again." (Vasseur's footnote) [back]

60. In Spanish these two lines contain an additional second meaning that the body is "nothing more than [e.g., is equivalent to] the soul," and vice versa. [back]

61. Vasseur's original reads bruna, likely a typographical error for bruma, meaning mist or fog. [back]

62. Leaves of Grass (New York), Brooklyn 1855. [Vasseur's note.] [back]

63. Some of W. Whitman's poems seem written by the same hand that recorded The Bhagavad-Gita. In others he manifests himself as a reincarnation of Kalidasa. [Vasseur's note.] [back]

64. This is the famous idea of the Return that Nietzsche believed himself to have been the first to imagine (1881). Before him, Kierkegaard had written: He who desires to begin again, that is a man. W. Whitman, twenty years before, repeats the same idea, with delicate variations, in distinct poems. [Vasseur's note.] [back]

65. Vasseur's epigraph, excerpted from a footnote to "Good-Bye my Fancy," from the "Second Annex: Good-Bye my Fancy," at the end of the 1891–92 edition, reads:

Behind every Good-bye there hides, in large part, the salutation of a new Beginning.

For me, Development, Continuity, Immortality, Transformation constitute the chief themes and meanings of Nature and Humanity.


66. Sel., intr., and notes by Emilio Abreu Gómez [back]


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