Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Unlikely Antiphony: Whitman's Call and Morrison's Response in "Song of Myself" and Song of Solomon

Academic journal article Walt Whitman Quarterly Review

Unlikely Antiphony: Whitman's Call and Morrison's Response in "Song of Myself" and Song of Solomon

Article excerpt

AT THE END of Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, in the aftermath of the hatred and violence that has felled Pilate, Milkman cradles his indomitable aunt's head as she makes a dying admission: "I wish I'd a knowed more people. I would of loved 'em all. If I'd a knowed more, I would a loved more."1 It is this moment, arguably more than any other in the novel, in its remarkable insistence on love in response to the deranged Guitar's rancid vengeance, that triggers Milkman's triumphal leap into the "killing arms of his brother" (SS 341). Yet, while transformative for Milkman, Pilate's near-death sentiments nevertheless have received relatively light scholarly treatment, most likely because they are upstaged by Morrison's dazzling finale, which celebrates Milkman's bravado even as it confounds readers with the indeterminacy of his fate. Pilate's last words, however, resonate, not just within the pages of the novel, acting as the exclamation point on the central motif of agape love, but also outside of it, harkening back to Walt Whitman, whose own quest for the all-illusive universality of the human soul seems to have engendered, at least in one specific linguistic utterance, simpatico in Toni Morrison. The striking example of their camaraderie, to borrow a coveted Whitman term, is found in section 6 of "Song of Myself," "A child said What is the grass?"2 In it, the speaker attempts to capture the essence of nature's most mundane but ubiquitous manifestation. Calling it hope, the visible evidence of God, the offspring of vegetation, and an ancient language spoken by, hence connecting all humanity, the speaker than abruptly shifts course, coupling grass with death, the "uncut hair of graves " (LG1891 33). At this point, the speaker ceases his phenomenological musings about grass to focus on all those in graves carpeted by it. The contradiction between the vibrant "curling grass" springing from the corpses of "young men" appears to be too much for the speaker as he sighs about the deceased, in words nearly identical to Pilate's, "It may be if I had known them I would have loved them" (LG1891 33). Here the speaker's longing for the young men appears singular, separate from his subsequent reflections on all others who have died, suggesting perhaps, given Whitman's penchant for homoeroticism in his work, an expression of sexual rather than platonic love. Yet, his ardent profession, like Pilate's, is also transcendent, a recognition of his relationship to and participation in the family of human beings, coupled with his awareness of the limitations in earthly form to consummate a universal oneness.

The similarities between Pilate and the poetic voice in "Song of Myself" might end there, were it not for what Pilate, in her dying breath, saves for last. "Sing," she begs Milkman. "Sing a little somethin for me" (SS 340). What Pilate intends by this request is not clear. Perhaps it is a desire to ensure that her knowledge about family and culture does not end with her, or that she teaches Milkman one way to give back, to care for others, even though he "knew no songs, and had no singing voice that anybody would want to hear" (SS 340). Perhaps she simply wishes for the sound of singing, which had sustained her so often in life, to usher her into the afterlife, albeit coming as it does from a tone-deaf nephew. Or, finally, it just might serve as a reaffirmation of the breathless announcement that opens Whitman's own epic song: "I celebrate myself, and sing myself" (LG1891 29). Whitman would have applauded Pilate's admonition to Milkman to sing, even as Milkman chooses to honor Pilate, "Sugargirl," rather than himself. For on the heels of Pilate's death, Milkman's singing becomes more urgent, "louder and louder" (SS 340), until it soon propels him towards his own liberation.

Certainly Pilate's verbal echoes are hardly evidence of a direct line of literary descent, a conclusion Morrison would surely balk at given her distaste for such comparisons,3 but they are also more than an interesting coincidence, especially when viewed within the context of the most obvious, and overarching, linguistic (re)iteration, the novel's title, Song of Solomon, which shares a kinship with "Song of Myself" at the level of grammar and diction; in its riff on biblical scripture; and as a musical trope that resonates well beyond literality. …

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