I was going through Walt Whitman’s Notebook LC #80 at the online Library of Congress (also known as the Talbot Wilson notebook, which is from somewhere between 1847 to 1853 or 1854 (and probably closer to the latter dates (the first version of Leaves of Grass appears in 1855)), and I noticed somethings in two note pages. Below are the pages, transcription, and the poem I think they turned into. Below that are some early thoughts on what I noticed.
The soul or spirit transmutes itself into all matter – into rocks, and can [illegible] live the life of a rock – into the sea, and can feel itself the sea – into the oak, or other tree – into an animal, and feel itself a horse, a fish, or a bird – into the earth – into the motions of the suns and stars – A man only is interested in any thing when he identifies himself with it – he must himself be whirling and speeding through space like the planet
Mercury – he must be driving like a cloud – he must shine like the sun – he must be orbic and balanced in the air like this earth – he must crawl like the pismire – he must – he would be growing fragrantly in the air, like a the locust blossoms – he would rumble and crash like the thunder in the sky – he would spring like a cat on his prey – he would splash like a whale in the
We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d (in “Children of Adam” section, poem 9. 1892 edition.)
We two, how long we were fool’d,
Now transmuted, we swiftly escape as Nature escapes,
We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return,
We become plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark,
We are bedded in the ground, we are rocks,
We are oaks, we grow in the openings side by side,
We browse, we are two among the wild herds spontaneous as any,
We are two fishes swimming in the sea together,
We are what locust blossoms are, we drop scent around lanes mornings and evenings,
We are also the coarse smut of beasts, vegetables, minerals,
We are two predatory hawks, we soar above and look down,
We are two resplendent suns, we it is who balance ourselves orbic and stellar, we are as two comets,
We prowl fang’d and four-footed in the woods, we spring on prey,
We are two clouds forenoons and afternoons driving overhead,
We are seas mingling, we are two of those cheerful waves rolling over each other and interwetting each other,
We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive, pervious, impervious,
We are snow, rain, cold, darkness, we are each product and influence of the globe,
We have circled and circled till we have arrived home again, we two,
We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy.
On Early Versions of “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d”
One of the first two things I notice in images 28 and 29 occur simultaneously. I notice the em dashes and I notice the anaphora of “he must” and then “he would.” I was wondering how Whitman would score his long lines in these small notebooks. Looking at image 29 from Notebook LC #80, the em dash appears to indicate the end of the line. Perhaps the title was originally “Mercury.” When I look at image 28, I see em dashes again, and again more anaphora, and this time with “into.” I scan through more of these images in Notebook LC #80, but the frequency of em dashes is less (see below for more detail). Sometimes they appear at the end and sometimes in the middle of the poem, as if to mark the end of the line, or the end of something. In “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d” (the ninth poem in the “Children of Adam” section from the 1892 edition of Leaves of Grass) the anaphora continues but with “We” and usually with “We are.” The one interruption occurs in line two, where the transmutation from fools to people absorbed in nature begins.
In “The soul or spirit” (image 28) there are some links to the poem “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d.” There are some word choices like “transmutes” / “transmuted” / “We become” and “rocks” / “rocks” and “oak” / “oaks” and “fish” / “fishes,” etc. More important is the idea between these two poems. “The soul or spirit” section is like notes to a larger poem. In the longer poem, “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d,” Whitman extends this idea of transformation into more living items. He adds more animals and “other tree” becomes, perhaps, “locust blossoms,” which also occurs in the “Mercury” poem (image 29). Or maybe “other tree” becomes “plants, trunks, foliage, roots, bark.” There are also “beasts, vegetable, minerals” and “hawks,” and there’s even an ant – “pismire.” Nonetheless, more and more. Expansion!
And instead of “into the earth” (line 11 in “The soul or spirit”), it becomes “We are bedded to the ground” in the poem “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d.” And now these em dashes seem to be indicating more than a line break. They seem to be place holders or fill-in-the-blanks-later notations. These are expansion marks. They expand out. He is expansive.
More of this occurs at the end of “The soul or spirit” and the “Mercury” poems. Instead of “he must himself be whirling and speeding / through space like a planet,” it transforms into “we are two comets.” In chapter one of Collage of Myself, Matt Miller notes how Whitman often changes “he” in the note books to “I” in the poems. The “I,” of course, is the all-inclusive and universal “I.” But here the “he” becomes “we,” which is also inclusive, but more intimate. Walt and I are flying through space on a comet.
In the “Mercury” poem
he must be driving like a cloud – he must shine like the sun – he must be orbic and balanced in the air like this earth
becomes “We are two resplendent suns, we it is who balance ourselves orbic and stellar.” Here, Whitman condenses 25 words and 28 syllables into 14 words and 25 syllables, while keeping the essence of the original, but while being more inclusive with the “we” instead of the “he.” Contract and expand.
The sentiment of “A man only is interested / in any thing when he identifies / himself with it – he must himself be whirling . . .” at the end of “The soul or spirit” becomes “we swiftly escape as Nature escapes” in “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d.” The idea that seemingly wanted to come out in the notebooks is made more clear here. The he must not identify with things (as in the “The soul or spirit”), but instead he must be or “become” (as in “We Two, How Long We Were Fool’d”). He must become a “we” and “nature.” This is how to void everything but “freedom” and “joy.”
What I see then is how Whitman expands and contracts, moves from third person “he” to an inclusive “we” (which parallels the all-inclusive “I”), the continued use of anaphora, and the notation of em dash as line break marker and as placeholder for lists to be inserted. Maybe this is where Whitman first starts thinking about the expansive long line, especially when considering the brief cluster of pages 19-21 and 28-33 that implement the em dash as line break/expansion notation. Also, see below for more places where the em dash is used, especially with the use of four-dot ellipses acting in a similar manner as the em dash.
Of course, more exploration should certainly be made into this em dash issue, but here it is begun.
Pages/images with em dashes that may be acting as line break and/or expansion notation include 19 (has anaphoric lines with “It is”), 20, 21, 26, 28 (see above), 29 (see above), 30, 31, 32, 33, 35, 37, 54 (em dashes and four-dot ellipsis), 108, 111 (anaphoric lines with “they are” but these lines also have hanging indents with more anaphora but with “If”), 67, 112, 113 (has one em dash and two four-dot ellipses and anaphoric lines with “it”), 114 (uses one four-dot ellipsis and two em dashes but no anaphoric lines), 115 (have five four-dot ellipses and anaphoric lines with “it is” and “I” and there are three em dashes with anaphoric lines with “There”), 116 (anaphoric lines with “if”), 117, 118 (anaphora with “a” and struck through “a state), and 119 (anaphora with “can”). Images with an em dash at the end of the page are 42, 46, and 65. //