A Clear Midnight
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best,
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1881).
The progression of the final line is lovely, isn't it? "Night, sleep, death and the stars." In thinking about the aptness of that progression, it is well to remember that, in Whitman's view, we have nothing to fear from death. To wit:
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
Walt Whitman, from Section 7 of "Song of Myself," Ibid. "I hasten to inform him or her" is wonderful, as is the certainty of "and I know it."
Or, consider this:
Gliding o'er All
Gliding o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul -- not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing.
Walt Whitman, Ibid.
William Shackleton, "The Mackerel Nets" (1913)
Whitman turns up in unexpected places on the other side of the Atlantic. Here, for instance, is Gerard Manley Hopkins writing to Robert Bridges in 1882:
"I always knew in my heart Walt Whitman's mind to be more like my own than any other man's living. As he is a very great scoundrel this is not a pleasant confession. And this also makes me the more desirous to read him and the more determined that I will not."
Gerard Manley Hopkins, letter to Robert Bridges (October 18-19, 1882), in R. K. R. Thornton and Catherine Phillips (editors), The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Volume II: Correspondence 1882-1889 (Oxford University Press 2013), pages 542-543.
As a product of Victorian England who had converted to Catholicism and then become a Jesuit, Hopkins was pretty much obliged to refer to Whitman as "a very great scoundrel." But I don't think his heart was in it.
The Starlight Night
Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves'-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare! --
Ah well! it is all a purchase, all is a prize.
Buy then! bid then! -- What? -- Prayer, patience, alms, vows.
Look, look: a May-mess, like on orchard boughs!
Look! March-bloom, like on mealed-with-yellow sallows!
These are indeed the barn; withindoors house
The shocks. This piece-bright paling shuts the spouse
Christ home, Christ and his mother and all his hallows.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, in W. H. Gardner and N. H. MacKenzie (editors), The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins (Oxford University Press 1967).
"The Starlight Night" was written in 1877. I do not know whether Hopkins was aware of Whitman's poetry at that time. (His first reference to Whitman in his correspondence appears in a letter to Robert Bridges dated January 30, 1879.) However, the octave of the sonnet (rampant exclamation marks and all) sounds like something that Whitman could have written, had he ever taken it upon himself to write a sonnet. As for the sestet: well, Walt Whitman was never a Jesuit, but I believe he would understand, and respect, Hopkins's devotion and passion.
Phyllis James (1911-1973), "New Walk at Night, Leicester"
I am not suggesting that Hopkins's poetic technique or themes were directly influenced by Whitman. (For one, Hopkins was preoccupied with technical matters of prosody that would have been of no interest to Whitman.) Rather, I think that Hopkins and Whitman were both mystics at heart, and shared an emotional bond that was based upon their deep-felt sense of the capaciousness and timelessness of the human soul as it makes its way through a wondrous universe.
This in turn brings us to Ivor Gurney, a mystic as well, who was influenced by both of them, but particularly by Whitman.
To Long Island First
To Long Island first with my tortured verse,
Remember how on a Gloucester book-stall one morning
I saw, brown 'Leaves of Grass' after long hesitation
(For fourpence to me was bankruptcy then or worse).
I bought, what since in book or mind about the dawning
On Roman Cotswold, Roman Artois war stations;
Severn and Buckingham, London after night wanderings,
Has served me, friend or Master on many occasions,
Of weariness, or gloriousness or delight.
At first to puzzle, then grow past all traditions
To be Master unquestioned -- a book that brings the clear
Spirit of him that wrote, to the thought again here.
If I have not known Long Island none has --
Brooklyn is my own City, Manhattan the right of me,
Camden and Idaho -- and all New England's
Two-fold love of honour, honour and comely grace.
If blood to blood can speak or the spirit has inspiring,
Let me claim place there also -- Briton I am also Hers,
And Roman, have more than Virgil for meditations.
Ivor Gurney, Selected Poems (edited by George Walter) (J. M. Dent 1996).
A key phrase in Gurney's poem articulates how I see Whitman's influence at work in both Gurney and Hopkins: "a book that brings the clear/Spirit of him that wrote, to the thought again here." It was "the clear spirit" of Whitman that moved both Hopkins and Gurney.
This spirit is manifested in the cascading rushes of images and in the catalogues and lists that are characteristic of all three poets. Hopkins's "The Starlight Night" is but one example. Another instance is this poem from Gurney (which has appeared here on more than one occasion, but which is always worth revisiting):
I believe in the increasing of life whatever
Leads to the seeing of small trifles . . . . .
Real, beautiful, is good, and an act never
Is worthier than in freeing spirit that stifles
Under ingratitude's weight; nor is anything done
Wiselier than the moving or breaking to sight
Of a thing hidden under by custom; revealed
Fulfilled, used, (sound-fashioned) any way out to delight.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Trefoil . . . . . hedge sparrow . . . . . the stars on the edge of night.
Ibid. All of the ellipses appear in the original manuscript.
In fact, "The Escape" serves well as a description of the essential forces that are at work throughout the poetry of Whitman, Hopkins, and Gurney: "the increasing of life," "the seeing of small trifles/Real, beautiful," "freeing spirit that stifles/Under ingratitude's weight," and "the moving or breaking to sight/Of a thing hidden under by custom." Most importantly, all of these activities end in "delight." If not, why write poetry?
Merlyn Evans, "Window by Night" (1955)
But the last word should go to Walt Whitman, with a return to souls and stars.
When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer
When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.
Walt Whitman, Drum-Taps (1865).
Harald Sohlberg, "Flower Meadow in the North" (1905)