Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Triangulating Blake, Whitman, and Ginsberg

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Triangulating Blake, Whitman, and Ginsberg

Article excerpt

I HAVE JUST SPENT the last several years seeking to tease out Walt Whitman's relationship to several members of the British literary pantheon, most notably Shakespeare, Milton, Burns, Blake, and Wordsworth. The result-Containing Multitudes: Walt Whitman and the British Literary Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014)-could be described as an attempt to imagine how Whitman would have felt if he had actually voyaged to Great Britain and visited Westminster Abbey's Poets' Corner, where all five of these authors are honored. As I neared completion of the project, I thought it would be appropriate to read again, after four decades, Harold Bloom's provocative and magisterial The Anxiety of Influence (1973), and I was gratified to be reminded of how daunting he makes the task of identifying and measuring influence: "Criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem."1 My task, of course, was rendered more difficult because Whitman seems to have made some concerted effort to camouflage those hidden roads that might link him to his forebears. In an unsigned self-review of the 1855 Leaves, he declared that he was making "no allusions to books or writers; their spirits do not seem to have touched him."2 Beyond the influences, also worth exploring are the simple (or complex) affinities that the latecoming Whitman shared with his poet-forerunners. The Danish scholar Frederik Schyberg, in his 1933 study Walt Whitman (an English translation appeared in 1951), eloquently warned, "In the relationships of literary history, the influence of one author on another is only half the story, and often the least interesting."3 He adds that it is also possible to "find Whitmanesque poets even in the literature preceding him." This is an old idea. In his Religio Medici (1643), Thomas Browne wrote, "Men are lived over again. . . . There was none then but there hath been someone since that parallels him, and is, as it were, his revived self."4

I experienced this déjà vu feeling often in my research, but perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in the case of William Blake, Walt Whitman, and Allen Ginsberg. Their chief affinity is not prosodic (though all three reveled in the long line), but rests in their being exuberantly subversive outliers in the culture and society in which they lived. Radical individualism, courageously asserted, propelled them: all three were vigorously counter-cultural. During the course of teaching a graduate seminar on Whitman and Ginsberg, I became particularly conscious of how often the latter acknowledged Blake and Whitman as inspirational for his relentless demolition of culture and society (and literature) in post-World War II America. The comprehensive interrogation of English culture in 1789-1820 that Blake produced in his Songs of Innocence and Experience and several prophetic poems was repeated for America a half-century later by Whitman, and Ginsberg gaily rehearsed the process for 1950s and 1960s America in several of his collections. These three poets identified the same social and literary foibles in their countrymen, and this produced remarkably similar targets for their fury. While completing my chapter on Blake for Containing Multitudes, I also became aware of the hidden roads that connect, say, Blake's last prophetic poem Jerusalem (1804-1820), Whitman's "Song of Myself" or his 1870 screed Democratic Vistas, and Ginsberg's "Howl" (1955-56). (The hidden road can be traced back much further, of course-for instance, to Book One of Sir Thomas More's Utopia [1516], which also castigated a nation's political and economic culture.) What follows is but a preliminary suggestion of some of the ways Ginsberg can be seen as having "lived over again" the legacy of Blake and Whitman.

Among the very first persons to note the likeness of William Blake and Walt Whitman was a member of Walt's own circle, John Swinton, whose brother William was a perceptive early reviewer of Leaves of Grass. On September 27, 1868, Whitman wrote to William O'Connor, telling him that Swinton was saying "the formal resemblance between several pieces of Blake, & my pieces, is so marked that he, S, has, with persons that partially know me, passed them off temporarily for mine, & read them aloud as such. …

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