Walt Whitman

4/6/97--Ed Walt Whitman Walt Whitman, America's greatest and most influential poet, lived across the Delaware River in Camden from 1873 till his death in 1892. The Good Gray Poet, surely the national bard, revolutionized both the form and content of poetry. His use of free verse (that is, verse without rhyme and without a set meter) established it as a normal form of American poetry. And he wrote seriously about the body and about loving men, subjects rarely if ever touched since ancient times. Writing in the proverbially repressed atmosphere of the Victorian era, he inspired the first two exponents in the English language of gay self-awareness and gay liberation, the Englishmen John Addington Symonds and Edward Carpenter, both of whom dated their coming out to reading Whitman's Calamus poems, the homoerotic section of Leaves of Grass. On May 2nd, 1877, Carpenter arrived in Philadelphia from London and crossed by ferry to visit Whitman at 330 Mickle St. in Camden, NJ, just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. A few days later Carpenter joined Whitman in the country, where he had gone to visit the Stafford family, whose printer son, Harry, was one of Whitman's great loves. Carpenter liked Harry too. Other visitors to Mickle Street include Oscar Wilde in 1882 and Thomas Eakins, the best American painter of the 19th century, about whom more later. For $4 round trip, you can take the Camden ferry, which lands at the foot of Mickle Street. Whitman's house, now a museum, is a ten-minute walk from the ferry. Whitman's tomb, designed by Whitman himself, is a few miles away in the Harleigh Cemetery, where a ceremony is held every year to mark his birthday, May 31st. One of the Calamus poems: When I Heard at Close of Day When I heard at close of day how my name had been receiv'd with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow'd, And else when I carous'd, or when my plans were accomplish'd, still I was not happy, But the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh'd, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn, When I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light, When I wander'd alone over the beach, and undressing bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise, And when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy, O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food nourish'd me more, and the beautiful day pass'd well, And the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening came my friend, And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores, I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to congratulate me, For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night, In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me, And his arm lay lightly around my breast--and that night I was happy. Bibliography Jonathan Ned Katz, Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A., Revised Edition (New York: Meridian, 1992). Walt Whitman, "Calamus Poems" in Leaves of Grass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973).