Walt Whitman to Obama about Guns/ Hunting

When people hunt, so much happens, stories unfold as they seldom do in ‘shooting in a gallery, all standing in one place.’ The difference is between ‘still life’ and ‘moving cinema.’ Here is the master poet Walt Whitman on just a portion of a hunting life and firearms… from “Song of Myself” which sees ‘the self’ as both a personal and universal self… If Whitman could fly across the vault of Time, perhaps he’d say something like this to Barack…

ALONE FAR IN THE WILDS AND MOUNTAINS I HUNT

Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,
Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,
In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night,
Kindling a fire and broiling the fresh-killed game,
Falling asleep on the gathered leaves with my dog and gun by my side.

The Yankee clipper is under her sky sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud,
My eyes settle the land, I bend at her prow or shout joyously from the deck.
The boatmen and clam-diggers arose early and stopped for me,
I tucked my trouser ends in my boots and went and had a good time;
You should have been with us that day round the chowder kettle.

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,
the bride was the red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking,
they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was dressed mostly in skins,
his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck,
he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare,
her coarse straight locks descended
up her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopped outside,
I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,
Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,
And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,
And brought water and filled a tub for his sweated body and bruised feet,
And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,
And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,
And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;
He stayed with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,
I had him sit next me at table, my firelock leaned in the corner…

———-
CODA from dr.e
… the word ‘dumb/ dumbly’ in Whitman’s time, meant ‘composed, somber, without speaking.’

“…the galls of his neck and ankles…” Gall is the word for a place on the skin rubbed raw from chafing, in this case, the slave’s skin chafed into open sores against the ankle and neck chains that he had worn so long.

…”tucked trouser ends into boots”… some say related to clamdigging, but also per the festive tone, so he could dance without his trousers riding low thereby tripping on the cuffs.

…’the Yankee Clipper’ some say, is the moon– others say, another way/vessel Whitman engaged as he writes of ways of hunting…

“the red girl’ refers to skin tone light brown with a copperly underglow to it… certain tribal groups carried this beautiful color of skin tones. Trappers, often French, and later French and Native, had light yellow skin often from their own tribal affiliations. Being red of skin was not a demotion, rather a color of skin that was seldom seen by people, tribal and otherwise, from the easterly direction of what would become the USA… and thereby a skin hue remarkable to some. Later, the idea of skin color, red, brown, black, white, pink, and so on, would be used as means to define and/or demote persons [for what seemed then to thinking people, and now, no good reason.]

Whitman’s lines and the vivid moving pictures they make, are so clear– especially lines like this about hair… cant you just see it all… “his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand, She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended up her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.” [In Whitman's time, coarse did not mean rough or prickly; it meant as applied to hair, or cloth: loose, unconfined... as in a cloth loosely woven, or hair without binding.]

And too, that Whitman in his cabin, carried the water from the ground well or river in order to wash the wounds of a man who had ‘revolving eyes…’ Just that phrase, ‘revolving eyes’ says it all. And that last …’my firelock leaned in the corner’ about insight and peace-granting.

I hope you liked seeing Whitman’s ‘hunting poem’ for the first time, or once again.

Thank you.

——-
CODA
Born May 31, 1819, Walt Whitman was one of nine children from a family that studied Quakers. He grew up during hard times with his parents and siblings in several rooms in Brooklyn and Long Island. At 12, Whitman learned the printer’s trade, and setting type, fell in love with words. Largely self-taught, he read Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the Bible. In 1836, at age 17, he taught in the one-room school houses of Long Island. He continued to teach until 1841, when he turned to journalism –telling of stories– full time.

He founded and edited a number of Brooklyn and New York papers. In 1848, Whitman became editor of the New Orleans Crescent. There, in New Orleans, Walt Whitman experienced at first hand the viciousness and victory of slave sellers and buyers in the slave markets of that city.

In 1855, Whitman took out a copyright on the first edition of Leaves of Grass, twelve untitled poems and a preface… a second edition of the book in 1856, containing thirty-three poems, a letter from Emerson praising, and a long letter by Whitman in response. Whitman continued to add to the volume, publishing several more editions of the book.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a “purged” and “cleansed” life. He visited and wrote about the wounded at New York-area hospitals. He traveled to Washington, D.C. in December 1862 to care for his brother who had been wounded in the war. Overcome by the suffering of the many wounded in Washington… hearing the thud of limb after limb dropped into surgery buckets… Whitman stayed to work in the hospitals. Within eleven years, he took a job as a clerk for the Department of the Interior, which ended when the new Secretary of the Interior, James Harlan, discovered Whitman was the author of Leaves of Grass, which Harlan found offensive for its ways of freedom and consort with the downtrodden, sexuality and denouncement of war. Harlan fired the poet.

Whitman struggled to support himself on a clerk’s salary and modest royalties, and spent any excess money, including gifts from friends, to buy supplies for the patients he nursed. He sent money to his widowed mother and an invalid brother. From time to time writers both in the states and in England sent him bits of money so he could eake by.

In the early 1870s, Whitman came to visit his dying mother in Camden, New Jersey. However, there he himself suffered a stroke, and could not return to Washington. He stayed until the 1882 publication of Leaves of Grass gave Whitman enough money to buy a modest home in Camden a two-story clapboard house where he spent his latest years working on additions and revisions to a new edition of the book and preparing what would be his final volume of poems and prose, Good-Bye, My Fancy (1891).

He passed away in the winter of 1892 in March, a time between winter and spring… as he lived in mind and heart… taking life from the ice to the thaw. He was a couple months short of seventy-three years of age… a lifetime and a half for a poet of his time.

Author: DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

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5 Comments

  1. Thank-you for this Dr E. I have a lot of respect for Walt Whitman’s work during the Civil War and can’t imagine the suffering he must have witnessed. As for hunting, I’ve had some memorable experiences while hunting but am afraid I don’t have the words to do them justice. Suffice to say, the shooting is the least of it, whereas spending hour after hour quietly watching nature unfold around you and watching the light change continually from morning dark to evening dark, you gain perceptions you might not have otherwise had.

  2. you have the words Zephyr, you just said them. I was with you in every word. Thank you.

  3. Love Walt Whitman … his poetry is always a delight…

    My eldest brother is an avid hunter … he was able to retire in his forties and since given his life to hunting… he uses guns some but predominately hunts and teaches bow hunting… i have respect for the code of ethics he has for hunting..

    Each time we talk i first ask about hunting. He shares the most beautiful stories of being at hunting camps, the hunt, the skill, the subtle clues that lead to sighting, the patience, the hard work of dressing out and carrying back the game…but most of all i love his love and awe for Nature and the animals, it is where he finds his connection with the Greater…

    While listening to his stories it could be 10,000 years ago sitting around the fire recounting the hunt…There is something Old that still needs those stories…

    Your sharing of this poem took me there also… thanks

  4. Thank-you Dr E. and thank-you OS. It is indeed an important connection, one that’s been lost to most people. Btw, I don’t have any use for the highly commercialized and popular culture, high-tech approaches to hunting; I feel they miss the point.

  5. I am not anti-hunting, but I don’t see this as a poem primarily about hunting. It is a poem of 40 lines. Only the opening five lines talk hunting, and the rest of the poem is about a dream that the hunter has. The second five lines talk about the Yankee clipper whch I see as a metaphor for the ship of state ( compare to his “Captain, my Captain”) The next ten lines are about the trapper and the west; is it a stretch to think that he is thinking about the destiny of our nation? The closing ten lines are about the slave which I take as a reflection on the Civil War.
    I love Whitman. To me this poem is a meditation on the war with the hunting trip being a way of finding peace in nature from the horrors of that war with the subsequent dream expressing the justification for the war and the hopes for a future that the war has brought about.
    I have similar thoughts about Hemingway’s great short story, “Big Two-hearted River.”

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