Sunday, March 26, 2017

Memento mori; Walt Whitman died 125 years ago today.

...Such snapshots seem to capture the real Whitman, and put him beyond reach of those who would vilify him, or those so determined to deify him that, over the objections of his family, they had an autopsy done in search of medical evidence that would "silence forever the slanderous accusations that debauchery and other excesses" had ruled and ruined him. He was not a drinker, though he liked a glass of champagne. His coded diary entries show us that he felt sexual passion for this or that young man, and that he tried not to. He was friendly but firm with the women and men who made advances (the list of those who did so by mail included a young Bram Stoker). He was happy to receive the visits of the great (this list included Oscar Wilde, resplendent in brown velvet) but happier riding the ferryboats. He would energetically and unscrupulously promote himself, but from his deathbed (this in the small house he was finally able to afford, the two-room kind that he and his carpenter father had built in the early days) he instructed his disciples not to "prettify" him. "Do I contradict myself? / Very well, then, I contradict myself" he says near the end of "Song of Myself," before these closing lines:

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.


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