This page is an archive from the previous version of The Row Boat, which is why it doesn't look and work the same as the current version. However, these archives are fully functional and integrated with the new system.
Why does this site permit advertising?
Powered by Little Logger
The Row Boat
"Had we but world enough, and time..." *
Walt Whitman's Prayers12/03/2007 23:13:00
I've been having some trouble sleeping lately as I prepare for a big move and some changes, and I've been reading Walt Whitman's Specimen Days to help me settle down. They are scattered journal entries from his life. I've been looking mainly at the Civil War years, which he paints so viscerally you'd think it was today. Especially because he is in the places I know so well - Washington D.C. and Virginia, where I grew up. He spends his days visiting the soldiers' hospital housed at the Patent Office Building (which is now the Museum of American Art and the Portrait Gallery, which has a whole marvelous room devoted to Whitman). He writes:
I have come to adapt myself to each emergency, after its kind or call, however trivial, however solemn, every one justified and made real under its circumstances - not only visits and cheering talk and little gifts - not only washing and dressing wounds, (I have some cases where the patient is unwilling any one should do this but me) - but passages from the Bible, expounding them, prayer at the bedside, explanations of doctrine, &c. (I think I see my friends smiling at this confession, but I was never more in earnest in my life.)
I don't know how much beyond these lines I have to say, really. What speaks to me and the things I tend to talk about here is the work of the Bible, the prayers, and the explanation of doctrine. The transgressive Whitman was not known for his pious orthodoxy (in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James even mentions a cult around Whitman who treat his poems like scripture). Yet at the bed of the wounded, dying soldier, whose mother perhaps taught him to pray as a child and knows what the words mean intimately if not doctrinally, Whitman finds himself able to preach with a straight face.
What is belief but the ability to say (you yourself, to others), in "earnest," what needs to be said? The ordinary categories fall apart in the war hospital.
Another thing: at the Dupont Circle Metro station in Washington was inscribed this summer (gradually unfolding as I went there every day) a part of Whitman's "The Wound Dresser" to commemorate the victims of AIDS and those who cared for them. Haunting.