• By Adam Sedia

Whitman’s Curse: Contemporary Poetry as Solipsism


Contemporary poetry is plagued by several characteristic vices: obscurity, banality, nihilism—each a topic for examination in its own right. But its most glaring and even characteristic vice is an omnipresent solipsism—a narcissistic navel-gazing by which the poet elevates superficial autobiographical detail to the level of a poetic subject, with no greater end in mind than presenting his perspective either as an individual or as a member of an identity group based on race, class, or some other demographic detail.

Why is this a problem? After all, is all poetry not in some sense autobiographical? After all a poet can only draw material for a poem from his own experience, either lived or learned. Yes: poetry is the supreme individual expression—thought frozen in eternity through the medium of art, either oral memory or writing. But that precise nature of poetry dictates that it must be universal if it is to have any success as a poem. The poem, by definition, is the poet placing his own internal thoughts and experiences outside his own frame of reference, so that it directly engages the reader’s own knowledge and experience.

The poet achieves this through the use of poetic metaphor—not metaphor as a simple rhetorical comparison, but metaphor in its literal sense: a “transfer” of the object to its representation. The sense-object that is poetic subject becomes poetic only through its transformation into a representation of an eternal, unchangeable, universal ideal, which because of its eternity, immutability, and universality is readily known and relatable to any reader across time and language.

“Solipsism” as defined here, declines to take the poetic leap from the temporal to the eternal, most likely because recognition of anything eternal and universal dwarfs the self—and intolerable feeling for any narcissist. This is not to say that contemporary poets are clinical narcissists. But contemporary poets, at least in the West, all grew up in a world of consumer culture and mass advertising that cater to individual self-worth and self-perception to push a product. The undeniable effect of this has been a narcissistic society—or at least a society with a narcissistic perspective.

In a sense, we cannot blame contemporary poets for being products of the societies in which they grew to adulthood. But it is the duty of the poet to break these bounds of time and custom, rising above them, as Dante rose above the world of feudal lords and warring Guelphs and Ghibellines, and Goethe above the world of hereditary aristocracy and Napoleonic world-conquest. So it is the contemporary poet’s duty to rise above our world of corporate tyranny, political and marketing propaganda, and would-be world overlords to reveal truth through the lens of our time. Except contemporary poets fail in this regard. It is much more comforting to talk about oneself than speak against the powers that bestow fame and fortune.

This essay explores solipsism in contemporary American poetry, traces its history to Walt Whitman, and poses a solution and a way forward to revive poetry as true artistic representation rather than self-absorbed preening.


I

First it is useful to show exactly how this solipsism manifests itself. Contemporary American poetry is so rife with solipsism that selecting representative examples proves a difficult task. Two poets immediately come to mind, but before presenting examples from them, the world was treated very recently to a very public display of solipsistic contemporary poetry.

This egregious and very fresh example is no less than “The Hill We Climb” by Amanda Gorman, recited by her at the most recent United States presidential inauguration. The poem embodies all of the vices of contemporary poetry, from prosaic language, grammar and syntax errors, and frequent use of cliché to an awkward unevenness of its lines and an utter lack of any musicality. But beyond poetics, the poem stands as a monument to solipsism. Only eight lines in, the poem features this whopper of a line:


We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.


She has barely begun her piece, and Gorman places herself at the center of a poem that is ostensibly to celebrate a new government over a nation of 325 million people. It is also a shocking display of ingratitude: she wants to be president, not just recite for one. Nor is it even logically coherent: if she is describing her own time, how is she its successor?


By inserting herself at the center of the poem like this, Gorman abdicates her central role as poet of crafting the poetic voice. A poem’s narrative voice is at once personal and universal. If the ideas a poem conveys are to have any meaning to a different mind reading it, the poem must engage the reader in the experience described beyond the level of mere amusement or sensory titillation. The poet’s experience must mean something to the reader. To achieve this effect, upon which the entire success of a poem depends, the poet must step outside his own frame of reference and view it as the reader would.


Gorman does not do this. Instead, she describes herself in raw demographic terms and relates her experience standing there, reciting at the inauguration. She makes no attempt at insight beyond a cliché “anyone can dream of becoming president” motivational slogan. By adopting such a myopic perspective, Gorman destroys any chance the poem has of appealing to a universal audience—one reflective of the whole nation. Instead, she speaks on behalf of Amanda Gorman and no one else.


But Gorman is not the only navel-gazing poet to have recited at a presidential inauguration. Richard Blanco, who recited at Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013, like Gorman, also wears his identity on his sleeve—in his case as a homosexual and the son of Cuban immigrants. A particularly glaring example of solipsism from his poetry includes the following lines from his 2012 poem, “Looking for the Gulf Motel.” The poem begins very autobiographically:


There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . .

The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts and ship’s wheel in the lobby should still be rising out of the sand like a cake decoration. My brother and I should still be pretending we don’t know our parents, embarrassing us as they roll the luggage cart past the front desk loaded with our scruffy suitcases, two-dozen loaves of Cuban bread, brown bags bulging with enough mangos to last the entire week, our espresso pot, the pressure cooker- and a pork roast reeking garlic through the lobby. All because we can’t afford to eat out, not even on vacation, only two hours from our home in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida, where I should still be for the first time watching the sun set instead of rise over the ocean.


It then continues, repeating the italicized refrain, “There should be nothing here I don’t remember . . . ,” three more times, each followed by intimate, photographic details from Blanco’s childhood, with particular focus on scenes unique to his parents’ Cuban immigrant background.


At best, Blanco only hints at a universal theme in the poem: the desire to hold onto memories from childhood. But he never hints at why these memories are important to him. Yes, they define his experience in his formative years—experience that no doubt he would say formed the person he would become. He stops at wishing not to forget those memories. He declines to transform them into something to which any reader can relate. Instead, the reader is left with a “day in the life of” spectator experience, left to say, “That’s nice,” or “That’s interesting,” as an outsider, without an idea engaging him directly in the sensory experience.


“Looking for the Gulf Motel” is hardly an aberration. Blanco’s poetry is rife with similar examples, much of it focusing on details relating to his identity as a Cuban-American and as a homosexual. While he is very apt at description and detail, his poetry is less a work of metaphor than of autobiography, presenting a perspective rather than an idea.


Lawrence Joseph is another poet whose work is rife with solipsistic detail. Like Blanco he is the son of immigrants—Lebanese rather than Cuban. Uniquely, Joseph is a well-known Big Law attorney who, famously represented Texas in its suit before the United States Supreme Court challenging the 2020 election.[1]


His provocatively-titled poem “Sand Nigger,” published in his 1988 volume Curriculum Vitae, captures the solipsism rife in his poetry:


. . . Lebanon of mountains and sea, of pine and almond trees, of cedars in the service of Solomon, Lebanon of Babylonians, Phoenicians, Arabs, Turks and Byzantines, of the one-eyed monk, saint Maron, in whose rite I am baptized; Lebanon of my mother warning my father not to let the children hear, of my brother who hears and from whose silence I know there is something I will never know; Lebanon of grandpa giving me my first coin secretly, secretly holding my face in his hands, kissing me and promising me the whole world. My father’s vocal chords bleed; he shouts too much at his brother, his partner, in the grocery store that fails. I hide money in my drawer, I have the talent to make myself heard. I am admonished to learn, never to dirty my hands with sawdust and meat. . . . “Sand nigger,” I’m called, and the name fits: I am the light-skinned nigger with black eyes and the look difficult to figure – a look of indifference, a look to kill – a Levantine nigger in the city on the strait between the great lakes Erie and St. Clair which has a reputation for violence, an enthusiastically bad-tempered sand nigger who waves his hands, nice enough to pass, Lebanese enough to be against his brother, with his brother against his cousin, with cousin and brother against the stranger.


Joseph is obviously not writing strictly about himself. The last few lines of the poem generalize his experience enough to make it clear that he is writing of the Lebanese and the Arab immigrant experience more generally, with a rather harsh view of what he sees as fractious behavior endemic to that community.


Still, he goes no further than that. He portrays the experience of a community, which while it might present a new perspective to the reader, does not engage the reader directly. It falls short of transferring the generalized Lebanese and Arab immigrant experience into the realm of the universal, even though the subject might easily lend itself to a discussion of displacement or perceptions of time and place more generally. Joseph does not go there.


Like Blanco, he presents his own and his family’s experience as a “day in the life of” portrayal, with little beyond that except a reflection on negative traits among the Lebanese. The episodes he describes of the interactions between his family members, while they might offer glimpses at unique scenes and individuals, are little more than anecdotes. No metaphor transfers them into anything greater than exemplars of what Joseph sees as defects in the Lebanese character.


Also like Blanco, Joseph places his identity at the center of his description: Lebanese, Catholic, the son of immigrants. Touting these identities so openly is but a manifestation of solipsism. Cultural, ethnic, and religious background is one—albeit a superficial—way to define the self as an entity distinct from others. But while Joseph—and Blanco—showcase their identities, they never directly engage the reader with it. Instead, it languishes in the realm of mere description—a mere anthropological study written in the first person.


Gorman, Blanco, and Joseph are very much mainstream, establishment poets. Their work reflects what the dominant cultural and educational institutions hold out as good poetry. Solipsism, it would seem, is the dominant trend in contemporary poetry. To understand why poetry is there, it helps to understand how it arrived there.


II

Autobiographical poems, of course, are nothing new. Poets did not start writing poems about themselves until a generation ago. Indeed, no less a master than John Milton produced an autobiographical poem that stands as one of the most famous works in the English language, the sonnet “On His Blindness”:


When I consider how my light is spent Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide; And that one talent which is death to hide, Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent To serve therewith my Maker, and present My true account, lest he returning chide: Doth God exact day-labour, light denied, I fondly ask? But Patience, to prevent That murmur, soon replies, God doth not need Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best: his state Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed, And post o’er land and ocean without rest; They also serve who only stand and wait.


Here, Milton discusses not only his being stricken with blindness but also the thoughts it provokes within him. It is personal in the sense that Milton describes his own perspective on his own experience. Yet Milton does not revel in his status as the sufferer of a disability. He does not ask the reader to empathize with him as a blind man—as both Blanco and Joseph do as the sons of immigrants. Instead, he asks how his affliction is part of the Divine Will for him, and in wrestling with that question famously resolves the issue: serving God—or fulfilling one’s role more generally—may be achieved passively as much as actively.


Milton universalizes his experience. He uses his blindness as an object to achieve poetic metaphor, and in so doing uses it as a vehicle to reveal a greater truth. The sonnet is not so much about Milton himself as the realization he achieves in considering an experience. The only thing autobiographical is that Milton considers his own state, rather than an external object.


A century and a half later, the Romantic poets, with their emphasis on poetry as the product of emotion, placed special emphasis on the deeply personal nature of poetry. Wordsworth, in famously defining poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . from emotion recollected in tranquility,” [2] captured the Romantic view of poetry as the product of emotion—a deeply individual experience inexorably intertwined with the poet’s unique sensory experience. If poetry is simply recollected emotion, the poet’s primary duty is the accurate conveyance of the emotion rather than a reflection on some universal truth. Metaphor is relegated to a supporting role; the description is what counts, as it is the primary vehicle for conveying emotion.

Wordsworth’s thirteen-book The Prelude is an oddity among epic poems: the grandiose, sweeping epic form juxtaposed against its subject matter: intimate and often mundane scenes from Wordsworth’s own life. Indeed, the poem is an extended autobiography, rife with reminiscences and reflections on the events and scenes of Wordsworth’s life, with particular focus on his childhood and youth.


A good example of the self-referential episodes in The Prelude is the portrayal of Wordsworth’s wanderings in the wilderness at eight years old:


Fair seed-time had my soul, and I grew up Fostered alike by beauty and by fear; Much favored in my birthplace, and no less In that beloved Vale to which, erelong, I was transplanted. Well I call to mind (‘Twas at an early age, ere I had seen Nine summers) when upon the mountain slope The frost and breath of frosty wind had snapped The last autumnal crocus, ‘twas my joy To wander half the night among the Cliffs And the smooth Hollows, where the woodcocks ran Along the open turf. In thought and wish That time, my shoulder all with springes hung, I was a fell destroyer. On the heights Scudding away from snare to snare, I plied My anxious visitation, hurrying on, Still hurrying, hurrying onward; moon and stars Were shining o’er my head; I was alone, And seemed to be a trouble to the peace That was among them. . . .

(The Prelude, I:305-24.)


Here Wordsworth sounds almost contemporary, sharing details of his boyhood that, while vividly descriptive, seem more oriented towards Wordsworth expounding his life’s story than universalizing the experience through metaphor. Indeed, few readers, particularly contemporary readers, can relate directly to Wordsworth’s experience as an eight-year-old boy alone in the wilderness. If anything, it seems most notable as a historical curiosity.


But Wordsworth does more than string together mere autobiographical sketches. After all this description he waxes truly poetic:


The mind of Man is framed even like the breath And harmony of music. There is a dark Invisible workmanship that reconciles Discordant elements, and makes them move In one society. Ah me! That all The terrors, all the early miseries, Regrets, vexations, lassitudes, that all The thoughts and feelings which have been infused Into my mind, should ever have made up The calm existence that is mine when I Am worthy of myself! Praise to the end! Thanks likewise for the means!

(I:351-62.)


At last Wordsworth universalizes the experience. His youthful wanderings formed the man he became and in them he sees destiny at work. And for that he is grateful. It is not a particularly novel or insightful observation, but one Wordsworth clearly makes in earnest.


The Prelude follows this general pattern throughout: a description of an quotidian experience from Wordsworth’s early life along with the emotions he experienced at the time followed by a reflection on the deeper, universalized significance of the experience. The poem in this way might be called a “didactic autobiography.”

Didactic as it may be, Wordsworth’s explications in The Prelude fall short of true poetic metaphor. Wordsworth tells his intent and meaning outright, rather than revealing the meaning through transformation of the poetic object. Though he “tells” rather than “shows,” Wordsworth nonetheless universalizes his experiences and provides a meaning for them presented as a lesson to the reader.


The Prelude represents a departure from the traditional epic. The very mundaneness of its episodes and the intimacy of its description turns the genre on its head. But more importantly, it represents a shift away from autobiographical poetry in the style of Milton. In making himself the subject of an entire thirteen-book epic, Wordsworth showed the way for poetry to devolve into navel-gazing. As close as it comes, The Prelude does not achieve that feat on its own; it still presents autobiographical details as instructive of a greater lesson. Wordsworth still feels that he must provide something to the reader in the form of a lesson when he relates his life experiences. He did not yet take the leap of making autobiography both the subject and the end of his poetry.


III

The Prelude was only a prelude. Across the Atlantic, the romantic trends in poetry would blossom into true solipsism in the works of Walt Whitman.


Whitman’s impact on American poetry was nothing short of transformational. Before him, American poets like Edgar Allan Poe and William Cullen Bryant wrote in the classical style inherited from Europe. Whitman gave the still-young nation a new style: discursive, conversational, non-formal, and deeply intimate. Whitman more than anyone paved the way for contemporary free verse. Indeed, Ezra Pound acknowledged as much in his poem “A Pact”:


I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman – I have detested you long enough. I come to you as a grown child Who has had a pig-headed father; I am old enough now to make friends. It was you that broke the new wood, Now is a time for carving. We have one sap and one root – Let there be commerce between us.


For Pound to proclaim that he and Whitman shared “one sap and one root” and to compare himself to a “grown child” returning to Whitman as his father is as clear an acknowledgment of influence as a poet can make. As profoundly influential as Pound was on the modernist movement in poetry, his statement renders Whitman no less than the forefather of modernism in poetry.


But Whitman is the forefather of more than the modernist style and aesthetic. Whitman is truly the first and perhaps the greatest solipsistic poet. One of Whitman’s most famous works is the masterpiece of solipsism, the sprawling, 1,346-line “Song of Myself.”


The poem begins with a clear statement of intent:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air, Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same, I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin, Hoping to cease not till death. Creeds and schools in abeyance, Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten, I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard, Nature without check with original energy. (ll. 1-13.)


Whitman could not be clearer. Not for him is Wordsworth’s didactic use of autobiography. Rather, he seeks only to “celebrate myself.” The declaration to the reader “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you” is not a statement of shared humanity as much as an invitation to step inside Whitman’s own frame of reference and see the world as he sees it. And he says later:


You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books, You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me, You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self. (ll. 35-37.)


Whitman is a democratic solipsist. He wants the reader to celebrate the self as much as he does, to view the world through a self-referential frame as much as he does. What would otherwise be an insufferable narcissism becomes an enticement: the poem does not ask the reader to endure Whitman’s navel-gazing but to join him in it, to see his own experiences reflected in the mirror of those Whitman describes from his own life.


The bulk of the poem, consequently, is an exposition of autobiographical minutiae rendered in vivid descriptive detail. Whitman bombards the reader with the scenes he saw traveling across America in the 1850s, descriptions of people, places, and events—portrayals of everyday life filtered through his own lens of observation.

The intimacy of Whitman’s detail also takes an additional dimension. Whitman, much ahead of his time, gives frank descriptions of sexual experiences throughout the poem, enough to cause Boston’s district attorney to write to Whitman’s publisher threatening prosecution under Massachusetts’s obscenity laws.[3]


Interspersed throughout the scenic portrayals, Whitman inserts his own thoughts and insights. Unlike Wordsworth, these are not didactic, but self-reflective. Some, indeed, go far beyond self-reflection and verge on the megalomaniacal. In the following two passages, Whitman proclaims a sort of divinity for himself:


Divine am I inside and out, and I make holy whatever I touch or am touch’d from, The scent of these arm-pits aroma finer than prayer, This head more than churches, bibles, and all the creeds. If I worship one thing more than another it shall be the spread of my own body, or any part of it, . . . (ll. 524-27.)

Why should I pray? why should I venerate and be ceremonious? Having pried through the strata, analyzed to a hair, counsel’d with doctors and calculated close, I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones. In all people I see myself, none more and not one a barley-corn less, And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them. I know I am solid and sound, To me the converging objects of the universe perpetually flow, All are written to me, and I must get what the writing means. I know I am deathless, I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass, I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night. I know I am august, I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood, I see that the elementary laws never apologize, (I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.) I exist as I am, that is enough, If no other in the world be aware I sit content, And if each and all be aware I sit content. One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself, And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or ten million years, I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait. (ll. 398-418.)


In a no less grandiose flourish, he offers his self-analysis of his own role as poet:


I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul, The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me, The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into a new tongue. I am the poet of the woman the same as the man, And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man, And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men. I chant the chant of dilation or pride, We have had ducking and deprecating about enough, I show that size is only development. Have you outstript the rest? are you the President? It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on. I am he that walks with the tender and growing night, I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night. (ll. 422-34.)


Or, more famously:


Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

(ll. 1324-26.)


And perhaps most solipsistic of all, Whitman proclaims that he is the pinnacle of all creation up to then:

I am an acme of things accomplish’d, and I an encloser of things to be. My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs, On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps, All below duly travel’d, and still I mount and mount. Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me, Afar down I see the huge first Nothing, I know I was even there, I waited unseen and always, and slept through the lethargic mist, And took my time, and took no hurt from the fetid carbon. Long I was hugg’d close—long and long. Immense have been the preparations for me, Faithful and friendly the arms that have helped me. Cycles ferried my cradle, rowing and rowing like cheerful boatmen, For room to me stars kept aside in their own rings, They sent influences to look after what was to hold me. Before I was born out of my mother generations guided me, My embryo has never been torpid, nothing could overlay it. For it the nebula cohered to an orb, The long slow strata piled to rest it on, Vast vegetables gave it sustenance, Monstrous sauroids transported it in their mouths and deposited it with care. All forces have been steadily employed to complete and delight me, Now on this spot I stand with my robust soul. (ll. 1148-69.)


The stars, the dinosaurs, human history—all were but one great preface, preparing the universe for the appearance of Walt Whitman.


But Whitman does not make these assertions from a tone of superiority. Indeed, considered in the context of the rest of the poem, with its intimate detail of everyday experiences, the reader is left with the impression that what Whitman proclaims about himself holds true just as much for anyone else. It is that equal-opportunity solipsism, that invitation to share in self-celebration and self-admiration that makes Whitman enticing rather than insufferable.


At the end of the poem, Whitman ponders his mortality and what will become of him after death:

The last scud of day holds back for me, It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadowed wilds, It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk. I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun, I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags. I bequeath 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.

(ll. 1334-46.)


He is clearly not a believer in the immortality of the soul. In a twist of irony, Whitman, the living divinity for whom all of geologic time was a mere preparation, “bequeath[s]” himself “to the dirt,” to be found only “under your boot-soles.” For Whitman, divinity is found in living, and the divine existence ceases on death.


Yet Whitman’s self survives and remains the focus of the poem, even after death. In its final line, “I stop somewhere waiting for you,” Whitman remains as an idea, if not an entity, waiting for discovery by the reader, to be “good health” to him. Even after what he sees as his own annihilation, Whitman never removes himself as the center and focus of the poem.


“Song of Myself” is the supreme manifesto of solipsism. It offers no didactic lesson and examines no universal truth beyond celebrating the self as the center and pinnacle of all existence. How Whitman sees his own self is how he would have everyone see their own selves: the only true frame of reference, free from and above all creeds, philosophies, and societal and cultural mores.


And Whitman triumphed. By and large, society, especially in America, has adopted his view of the self as the supreme arbiter of truth, the only frame of reference by which to judge the external world. Even among those professing a religion or adhering to a philosophy, they justify their belief or acceptance in terms of the self, their own experiences, and their own frame of reference. Solipsism lies at the core of contemporary American thought. Whitman was only its most effusive prophet.

It invites no wonder, then, that poets in such a solipsistic culture write solipsistic verse. They write from what they know and experience in their lives. But what, when all is written and published, does the solipsistic mindset achieve through poetry?


IV

Solipsism may be the way of the world, but much like consumer products sold by appeals to selfish desires, it can ultimately never satisfy the human longing for meaning that poetry addresses. All it can offer is cheap thrills. It is shallow; it portrays an experience in which the reader might—or might not—see a reflection of his own life, but it never transforms the individual experience into a depersonalized revelation of a universal truth. Without that transformative leap, poetry remains nothing more than autobiography, an anthropological curiosity locked within time and space, rather than a universal ideal that transcends them.


Where does that leave poetry? Is Whitman’s legacy inescapable? Whitman might be the patriarch of modernism and solipsism in American poetry, but he is far from the only model for poets. Indeed, a slightly older contemporary and fellow countryman of his can show today’s poets an alternative course. That poet is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


Famous for his epics The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline and his Chaucer-inspired Tales of a Wayside Inn, Longfellow wrote scores of shorter poems among which few are in any way autobiographical. When he does wax autobiographical, however, Longfellow follows the model of Milton, universalizing his experience.


“My Lost Youth,” an early poem published in his 1847 volume, Birds of Passage, is perhaps the best example of such a poem. In fact, it is very much in the vein of Blanco’s “Looking for the Gulf Motel” or Joseph’s “Sand Nigger”—a description of childhood experience viewed in hindsight by the adult poet. Unlike those poems, however, Longfellow does not merely recount the thoughts and emotions evoked upon visiting his childhood home and the places he frequented as a boy; he uses them as a vehicle to reveal a greater, universal truth.


The poem begins by describing his return to his native town in Maine:


Often I think of the beautiful town That is seated by the sea; Often in thought go up and down The pleasant streets of that dear old town, And my youth comes back to me. And a verse of a Lapland song Is haunting my memory still: “A boy’s will is the wind’s will, And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.”


The Lappish song quoted at the end of the stanza is repeated as a refrain at the end of each of the poem’s ten stanzas. Attributing these thoughts to a distant people who sang it in a strange tongue subtly emphasizes the universality of the ideas they express. The realization that the thoughts of childhood form the adult is not Longfellow’s own, but a human condition that transcends any individual or society.

He describes the scenes of the town and its surrounding countryside and the thoughts and emotions they evoke. He makes perhaps his most poignant and powerful observations in the seventh and eighth stanzas:


I remember the gleams and glooms that dart Across the schoolboy’s brain; The song and the silence in the heart, That in part are prophecies, and in part Are longings wild and vain. . . . There are things of which I may not speak; There are dreams that cannot die; There are thoughts that make the strong heart weak, And bring a pallor into the cheek, And a mist before the eye. . . .

Here he describes an experience at once his own and at the same time not necessarily his—capable of recognition in every reader who has survived long enough to realize their youth has flown. Although he mourns his youth long gone, at the same time he recognizes that many of its fleeting experiences and thoughts have remained, and often influenced the adult that the child would one day become. Unlike Wordsworth, Longfellow does not relate this lesson directly, in didactic fashion. Instead, he describes the general effect and impression of his childhood thoughts and experiences without ever diving into the intimate detail that both Blanco and Joseph use to illustrate their experiences. This at once specific and generalized narrative universalizes the experience, leading the reader to a realization of a universal truth he recognizes, instead of an autobiography that achieves little beyond presenting a personal story.


Though Longfellow addresses the same subject matter as Blanco and Joseph, and indeed as Whitman and Wordsworth, he describes and uses it in a completely different way. Both the experiences of childhood and the impressions they leave on the adult are used metaphorically, to reveal a truth about the human condition as it is affected by the passage of time. That is the only real sense in which any reader should care what a poet’s childhood experiences were—by viewing through them the truths they reveal.


Autobiography certainly has a place in poetry. Indeed, autobiography is an unavoidable element of poetry. But autobiography for its own sake is not poetic, it is mere navel-gazing. Even when used to illustrate the perceived experiences of a larger community, it does nothing more than shout to the reader, “Look at me!” Autobiography instead should be used as a device to serve the poetic end: revelation of truth through metaphor. Milton and Longfellow show how to do this successfully, and true poetry will emulate them and their timeless revelations instead of the solipsism of Whitman and his heirs of the present day.


Notes

1. Domestico, Anthony. “So Many Selves: A Poet of Unlikely Combinations.” Commonweal. Mar. 17, 2020. Available at https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/compound-voices.

2. From the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802).

3. Folsom, Ed, and Jerome Loving. Notes to “The Walt Whitman Controversy” by Mark Twain. Virginia Quarterly Review. Spring 2007. Available at, https://www.vqronline.org/vqr-symposium/walt-whitman-controversy.


Adam Sedia (b. 1984) lives in his native Indiana, where he practices as a civil and appellate litigation attorney. His poems have appeared in print and online publications, and he has published two volumes of poetry: The Spring's Autumn (2013) and Inquietude (2016). He also composes music, which may be heard on his YouTube channel. He lives with his wife, Ivana, and their two children.

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