Betsy Erkkila

Betsy Erkkila: On "Sisters"

The difficulty and complexity of sisterhood as an affirming model of women's literary history is suggested by Amy Lowell's "The Sisters." Against the emphatically masculine genealogies of male modernist poets, "The Sisters" is a revisionary attempt to establish a distinctively female literary genealogy that runs from Sappho, to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, to Amy Lowell herself. Representing women poets as an exclusive, rare, and even "queer" group, the poet begins with an act of historical (mis)interpretation that immediately consigns to invisibility the large numbers of women poets who had been writing since at least the end of the eighteenth century, and who were particularly visible in the literary landscape of 1922, the year the poem was published:


Taking us by and large, we're a queer lot

We women who write poetry. And when you think

How few of us there've been, it's queerer still.

I wonder what it is that makes us do it,

Singles us out to scribble down, man-wise,

The fragments of ourselves. Why are we

Already mother-creatures, double-bearing,

With matrices in body and in brain?


The category woman poet and the possibility of literary sisterhood are, from the outset, uncertain and fraught with contradiction. Are women poets "man-wise," and thus like men? Or are they different, with a "double-bearing" power as "already mother-creatures" to produce both poems and children? Or do they represent some other possibility, neither "man-wise" nor "mother-creature," but lesbian, for example? What is at stake in the poem is not only the category "woman poet" as a potential contradiction but the definition of womanhood itself--who does, and who does not, belong. Split between Victorian and modern discourse about the nature of woman, the poem locates itself within early twentieth-century debates about modernity, women's sexuality, the New Woman, and the mannish lesbians

Given the anti-Victorian thematics of the poem, Sappho is--or at least should be--its heroine:


There's Sapho, now I wonder what was Sapho.

I know a single slender thing about her:

That, loving, she was like a burning birch-tree

All tall and glittering fire, and that she wrote

Like the same fire caught up to Heaven and held there,

A frozen blaze before it broke and fell.


Sappho is at the origins of a specifically female lyric tradition and a female desire uninhibited by the traditions of the Church Fathers and the prohibitions of Queen Victoria. Even more importantly, though more covertly in the poem, Sappho represents the beginnings of a tradition of women writing love poems for and about each other; thus she validates Amy Lowell's own lifelong love relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell as subject, audience, and context of many of her poems. The poet's fantasy encounter with Sappho is erotically charged, as the speaker appropriates the traditionally masculine position, and gazes lovingly at her:


                                just to watch

The crisp sea sunshine playing on her hair,

And listen, thinking all the while 'twas she

Who spoke and that we two were sisters

Of a strange, isolated little family.

And she is Sapho--Sapho--not Miss or Mrs.,

A leaping fire we call so for convenience.


Lowell's sexually nuanced bond with Sappho represents a different kind of sisterhood from the more general sisterhood of women poets with which the poem began. As a "strange, isolated little family" of self-identified and woman-loving lesbian poets, this sisterhood underwrites the poet's sense of identity and legitimacy as a lesbian poet even as it becomes the grounds for the exclusion of other women.

This process of exclusion is enacted in the poet's evocation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, which begins by drawing "the perfect line" between Sappho and Mrs. Browning, "between sea-cliffs / And a close-shuttered room in Wimpole Street":


Sapho could fly her impulses like bright

Balloons tip-tilting to a morning air

And write about it. Mrs. Browning's heart

Was squeezed in stiff conventions. So she lay

Stretched out upon a sofa, reading Greek

And speculating, as I must suppose,

In just this way on Sapho . . .


In this formulation, Sappho represents the freedom, mobility, and sexual desire associated with the New Woman in early twentieth-century discourse; Browning represents the entrapment, stasis, and bodily repression of the Victorian era. As "an older sister / And not herself so curious a technician / As to admit newfangled modes of writing--," Browning is represented as the very figure of the quaint, old-fashioned, and tradition-bound Victorian poetess from whom Lowell seeks to escape and against whom she seeks to authorize and validate her own identity as an adventurous, experimental, modern woman poet.

Compared with Lowell's loving evocation of Sappho, her representation of Mrs. Browning seems rivalrous, hostile, and at odds with the sisterly context of the poem. This may be because Lowell, as the daughter of a prominent and genteel Boston family, also suffered bouts of nervous prostration and thus knew firsthand the repressiveness of Victorian convention:


For we are such a little family

Of singing sisters, and as if I didn't know

What those years felt like tied down to the sofa.

Confounded Victoria, and the slimy inhibitions

She loosed on all us Anglo-Saxon creatures!


But something more than common oppression is at stake in Lowell's apparent hostility to Browning, for why blame the victim? Or even Victoria for that matter? Browning, in fact, had something that Lowell did not. She is the very model of that "double-bearing" creature--a mother and a poet--that Lowell cannot finally be:


It seems miraculous, but she escaped

To freedom and another motherhood

Than that of poems. She was a very woman

And needed both.


For all Lowell's attempt to escape the inscriptions of Victorian womanhood, the poem still seems embedded in a Victorian sexual ideology that locates womanhood--and indeed woman's sexuality--in reproduction and maternity. If Browning's other "motherhood / Than that of poems" makes her "a very woman"--a phrase Lowell repeats twice in the poem--then by implication Lowell may not be a "woman"; she may indeed be the very image of the sterile, brainy, unwomanly poet--the mannish lesbian--who haunts the subtext of the poem.

In her attempt to find a positive lesbian identification as a poet, Lowell seems particularly hostile to Browning's heterosexuality. "I do not like the turn this dream is taking," Lowell quips, when "Robert" intrudes upon the "doubtful" scene of her encounter with Browning. Moreover, Lowell suggests that Browning's heterosexual love poems to Robert have been "fertilized" and legitimized in ways that, again by implication, her own love poems to Ada are not:


Suppose there hadn't been a Robert Browning,

No "Sonnets from the Portuguese" would have been written.

They are the first of all her poems to be,

One might say, fertilized. For, after all,

A poet is flesh and blood as well as brain

And Mrs. Browning, as I said before,

Was very, very woman. Well, there are two

Of us, and vastly unlike that's for certain.


The speaker not only asserts her difference. She also suggests that even for Mrs. Browning the lesbian position would have been the most effective means of reconciling the potential contradiction of being woman and poet:


                            But Sapho was dead

And I, and others, not yet peeped above

The edge of possibility. So that's an end

To speculating over tea-time talks

Beyond the movement of pentameters

With Mrs. Browning.


But while Lowell seeks to legitimize a line of lesbian poetry that runs from Sappho to herself, she, too, resists giving up being "very woman," a concept which, in the context of the poem at least, cannot finally be loosened from its Victorian inscription as reproduction and maternity.

And thus the poem comes to turn on problems of sterility, unwomanliness, and doubt that cloud even Sappho's radiant image. Although Sappho is associated with the "glittering fire" of passion, it is a "frozen blaze" that "broke and fell"--lines that suggest a sterile passion that expends itself upon itself. More to the point, the lines suggest the legend, first articulated by Ovid, that Sappho abandoned women and writing for the love of Phaon--a love that ended tragically when he rejected her, and she leaped in despair from the Leucadian cliffs. Whatever its precise reference, this "frozen" image appears to make any fully empowering bond with Sappho impossible.

Lowell's imaginary encounter with Emily Dickinson is similarly troubled by images of sterility and unwomanliness. Their meeting seems at first promising--in fact "even better than Sapho"--as the poet encounters Dickinson in the garden "Engrossed in the doing of a humming-bird / Among nasturtiums." Lowell appears to admire Dickinson's intellectual difficulty and her hide-and-seek gaminess:


Sapho would speak, I think, quite openly,

And Mrs. Browning guard a careful silence,

But Emily would set doors ajar and slam them

And love you for your speed of observation.


But as a model of how to resolve the apparent split between woman and poet, Dickinson, too, proves inadequate. If Sappho erred in the direction of too much body and too much passion, and Browning in the direction of heterosexual love, marriage, maternity, and "very" womanhood, Dickinson erred in the direction of too much brain. Having begun in the sentimental mode of nineteenth-century romantic friendship among women, Lowell's evocation ends in the gothic mode, with Dickinson figured as a sterile and fragile Victorian anorexic who gave up "womanhood" for poetry and metaphysics:


But Emily hoarded--hoarded--only giving

Herself to cold, white paper. Starved and tortured,

She cheated her despair with games of patience

And fooled herself by winning. Frail little elf,

The lonely brain-child of a gaunt maturity,

She hung her womanhood upon a bough

And played ball with the stars--too long--too long--

The garment of herself hung on a tree

Until at last she lost even the desire

To take it down.


As a New England sister, Dickinson is in some sense meant to figure a fate that Lowell herself all too narrowly escaped. But for all Lowell's desire to present herself as a "modern" sister in relation to her Victorian predecessors, Lowell's representation of Dickinson is once again embedded in a nineteenth-century sexual discourse that emphasized the natural balance of an essentially maternal female body against the neurasthenia, hysteria, and even insanity caused by overuse of the brain. And within this discourse, Lowell's own "womanhood" is also in question.

Although Lowell continues to insist on the metaphor of sisterhood, by the end of the poem what is most striking is the problem of difference:


Strange trio of my sisters, most diverse,

And how extraordinarily unlike

Each is to me, and which way shall I go?


As it turns out, none of the poet's literary sisters provides an adequate model or direction:


Good-bye, my sisters, all of you are great,

And all of you are marvellously strange,

And none of you has any word for me.

I cannot write like you.


Still preoccupied by the problems of womanliness, maternity, and reproduction, the poet dreams hopefully forward, imagining herself as the progenitor if not of children then of some writing woman who will look back on her as she has looked back on her own literary precursors:


I only hope that possibly some day

Some other woman with an itch for writing

May turn to me as I have turned to you

And chat with me a brief few minutes.


But given Lowell's contradictory and troubled impulses toward her own literary ancestors, even this dream of literary progeny seems inadequate to lift the pall of sadness, fear, and self-doubt that hangs over the final passages of the poem.

Rather than empowering Lowell, her literary sisters leave her feeling "Sad and self-distrustful / For older sisters are very sobering things." For all their seeming strangeness, they are also paradoxically "near / Frightfully near, and rather terrifying" (461). The poet's initial desire to retrieve a distinctively female literary genealogy ends as a drive to exorcise her sisters as a frightening and terrifying presence. And thus what begins as an affirmation of literary sisterhood ends as a cautionary tale about sisterhood as an impossible and ultimately terrifying relation. What the poem suggests finally is that women poets and the concept "woman" itself are so written over and overwritten by the misogynist inscriptions of classical authorities, a "long line of Church Fathers," and the sexual ideologies of the Victorian and early modern periods in England and the United States, that any complete sisterly identification is impossible and, indeed, "rather terrifying."

"Lesbians are not women," Monique Wittig famously and provocatively wrote in her article "The Straight Mind." Her words mark the distance and difference between the Sapphic communities of the early modern period and the theory and politics of lesbianism in the eighties and nineties in the United States, Britain, and France. Whereas in the later period several lesbian theorists would seek to escape the category "woman" and to use their position "outside" as a lever to criticize the heterosexual binary man/woman as a social construct rather than as an ontological given, Amy Lowell appears to have been struggling to stay in the category "woman" at a time when early modern discourse on the mannish lesbian was telling her that lesbians were indeed "not women." She appears to have been looking for a way to be woman, man-wise, mother-creature, sexual, lesbian, and poet at a time when the only choices available to her were man, woman, or pervert.

Betsy Erkkila: On "Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"

"A Word Out of the Sea" ("Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking"), which was initially published as "A Child's Reminiscence" in the Christmas issue of the New York Evening Post (December 24, 1859), was composed before "As I Ebb'd," perhaps as early as 1858. In the artistic ordering of the 1860 Leaves, however, "Out of the Cradle" comes after and appears to respond to the doubts raised by "As I Ebb'd."

The 1860 version of the poem begins abruptly: "Out of the rocked cradle." Whitman has frequently been praised for improving these lines to read in the final version: "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking." Their present-participial form and the rhythmic progression of dactyl-trochee are reminiscent of the regular and continuous rocking of the sea/cradle that is part of the poem's overall message of faith. But this message is implied rather than stated. The past tense and jolting rhythm of the initial lines, along with the third line that Whitman later deleted--"Out of the boy's mother's womb, and from the nipples of her breast"--are closer to the experience of discord, fracture, and separation that informed the 1860 version of the poem. In seeking to improve his poems artistically, Whitman frequently eliminated or toned down passages of crisis, anxiety, and doubt, giving a smoother line to the arc of his own and the nation's development than had in fact been the case. The line "Out of the cradle endlessly rocking," which became the title of the poem in 1871, is at odds with the demonic rumblings of the sea throughout the poem, whereas the 1860 title "A Word Out of the Sea" retains some of the ambiguity and dark mystery of the word that the poet receives from the sea: "Death, Death, Death, Death, Death."

"Once, Paumanok," Whitman says at the outset of his "Reminiscence," giving an American folk quality to his tale of love and loss:

When the snows had melted, and the Fifth Month

   grass was growing,

Up this sea-shore, on some briers,

Two guests from Alabama--two together,

And their nest, and four light-green eggs, spotted with


And every day the he-bird, to and fro, near at hand,

And every day the she-bird, crouched on her nest,

    silent, with bright eyes,

And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,

Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

'I'he he-bird and she-bird exist in a fecund, sun-drenched, and seemingly timeless landscape of love, where they celebrate the union that sustains them against potentially divisive elements:

Shine! Shine!

Put down your warmth, great Sun!

While we bask--we two together.


Two together!

Winds blow South, or winds blow North,

Day come white, or night come black,

Home, or rivers and mountains from home,

Singing all time, minding no time,

If we two but keep together.

This harmonious union is broken when "May-be killed, unknown to her mate," the she-bird disappears one day, never to return. 

This story of love and loss has usually been treated as a dramatization of a personal experience.' In image and tone, the story seems to relate in particular to the Calamus poems and the homosexual love crisis that Whitman records in this sequence. If, however, we read the poem in the specificity of its historical context, we find a democratic elegy written at a time of national crisis that unites all the elements, psychosexual and political. To read the poem in relation to the division of the American Union is not to detract from its significance as a tale of love, loss, and artistic resolution but, rather, to recognize the historical roots of this elegy of dissolution in the state of the nation on the eve of the Civil War.

The poet's tale of two together is a communal idyll, projecting the democratic dream of America that fed the national imagination and spurred Whitman to pour out his own joyous carols. Local Paumanok is a grassy, spring landscape of fertility and generativity, where native American mockingbirds pass their time singing songs of love and union in a version of American pastoral. Whitman evokes their idyllic existence in the vernacular idiom of the locale, using the Quaker term Fifth Month for May, and words such as he-bird and she-bird, briers, crouched, and peering.

As birds of passage, the "two guests from Alabama" nesting on the shores of Long Island organically join North and South in a single life-rhythm. The union of he-bird and she-bird sustains them through darkness and light and in the midst of potentially disruptive winds from north and south. When the she-bird disappears, the he-bird looks southward as the source of disunion, invoking the south wind to return his mate to him. All summer long his songs are absorbed bv the curious boy:

Yes, when the stars glistened,

All night long, on the prong of a moss-scallop'd stake,

Down, almost amid the slapping waves,


Sat the lone singer, wonderful, causing tears.

The fracture of idyllic union transforms the he-bird into a solitary singer of loss and separation. In contrast with the sun-drenched landscape of the two together, the bird is isolated in a nocturnal landscape that appears to be the site of violence and execution. No longer a communal singer of harmony and joy, the bird now comes closer to the neurosis and solipsism of one of Poe's lovelorn characters, tossing himself frantically on the grave of his beloved.

The transformation of the bird from a joyous singer of light and union to an elegiac singer of darkness and separation is similar to the transformation that Whitman himself underwent during the period of heightening schism in the nation between 1855 and 1860. In fact, Whitman points out the analogy: Into the past-tense narration from the child's perspective, he interjects the present-tense voice of the adult poet:

He called on his mate,

He poured forth the meanings which I, of all men,


Yes, my brother, I know,

The rest might not--but I have treasured every note.

What Whitman knows, he tells us, comes from both shared experience and the specter of "White arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing"--reminding us of similar visions of shipwreck and drowning in "As I Ebb'd" and other 1860 poems.

The bird's song ends on a forlorn note: "Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved!," he repeats, shifting from the present to the past tense, as he recognizes the fact of "Two together no more." As the bird's song sinks, the poet's song rises in the heart of the boy. "The aria sinking,/All else continuing," Whitman says as he links the sinking of the bird's aria with the emergence of the "outsetting bard of love" in a sequence of participial lines that moves beyond the finality of loss and death, inscribing a unitary pattern of endless process:

The boy extatic--with his bare feet the waves, with

    his hair the atmosphere dallying,

The love in the heart pent, now loose, now at last

    tumultuously bursting,

The aria's meaning, the ears, the Soul, swiftly


The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,

The colloquy there--the trio--each uttering,

The undertone--the savage old mother, incessantly


To the boy's Soul's questions sullenly timing--some

    drowned secret hissing,


To the outsetting bard of love.

Here for the first time the "fierce old mother" the sea, whose "angry moans" have surged as a hoarse undercurrent through the poem, joins the boy and the bird to become a major character in the drama; it is she who bears the "drowned" secret suspected by the bird, sought by the boy, and translated by the poet.

Although the poem may say something about the origins of Whitman's art, the interaction between bird and boy is less an enactment of Whitman's emergence as a poet than it is a dramatization of his reemergence as a poet after his crisis of the late 1850s. If the bird projects some of Whitrnan's despairing sense of personal and national loss, the emergent poet represents the renewed dedication to his art through which Whitman attempted to overcome his crisis of faith. In the final version of the poem, the poet emerged as "the outsetting bard" not the "outsetting bard of love," but the initial line is closer to his concept of his role in 1860 as the lover and fuser of his "heated, torn, distracted" times.

But while the bird's "despairing carols" deepen the boy's awareness and release him into song, the bird's effect is not wholly positive. In the final version of the poem, the bird is addressed as "Demon or bird!," echoing Poe's similar "bird or fiend" addressed to his fateful raven. A demon can be a muse, a genius, or an inspiration, but it can also be an evil spirit, a fiend from the underworld, or a demon like Poe's raven piercing the heart with its beak. The boy's reaction to the bird suggests both senses of the term:

O throes!

O you demon, singing by yourself--projecting me,

O solitary me, listening--never more shall I cease

    imitating, perpetuating you,

Never more shall I escape,

Never more shall the reverberations,

Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent

    from me,

Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was

    before what there, in the night,

By the sea, under the yellow and sagging moon,

The dusky demon aroused--the fire, the sweet hell


The unknown want, the destiny of me.

Echoing the refrain of "The Raven"--"Nevermore"--the entire sequence has a Poesque ring. The effect of the "dusky demon"--a line Whitman later toned down to "messenger"--is in fact mixed, summed up in the paradox "sweet hell"; sweet because he arouses the flames of desire and hell because this desire can never be satisfied in the world. The distance between the peaceful child and the awakened bard of love marks the distance Whitman traveled between his own visionary songs of 1855 and the elegiac poems of 1860.

Like the poet in "As I Ebb'd," the boy wants to be more than a solitary singer of separation and fracture; he wants a further clue that will allow him to move beyond the tragic perspective of the bird:

O give me some clew!

O if I am to have so much, let me have more!

O a word! O what is my destination?

O I fear it is henceforth chaos!

O how joys, dreads, convolutions, human shapes, and

    all shapes, spring as from graves around me!

O phantoms! you cover all the land, and all the sea!

O I cannot see in the dimness whether you smile or

    frown upon me;

O vapor, a look, a word! O well-beloved!

O you dear women's and men's phantoms!

As an intense response to the prospect of dissolution and chaos, the boy's words articulate the poet's mood in 1860: They link Whitman's uncertainty about his identity and destiny as a poet with his doubts about the fate of the nation and the order of the universe. Like the vision of the land as a corpse that he evoked in his antislavery notes and that flits specterlike in and out of his verse, the passage reverses the regenerative myth that is the source of his faith in human and national destiny. The passage registers the fear of some sort of catastrophe, as joys, dreads, convolutions spring at the poet and phantoms cover land and sea. 'I'hrough the dimness, the poet cannot tell whether he is moving toward light or darkness, regeneration or chaos. In the poem's final version, Whitman deleted all but the first two lines of the boy's desperate address to the sea. The change had the effect of removing from the poem the fact of historic struggle, the sense of panic about human destiny that in 1860 was bound up with the impending dissolution of the nation.

Like the "unsaid word" sought by the poet in "Song of Myself," at the end of "Out of the Cradle" the boy seeks "the word final, superior to all." But the word the boy receives in 1860 is not, as in 1855, "form and union and plan." The word he receives is DEATH:

Answering, the sea,

Delaying not, hurrying not,

Whispered me through the night, and very plainly

    before daybreak,

Lisped to me constantly the low and delicious word


And again Death--ever Death, Death, Death,

Hissing melodious, neither like the bird, nor like my aroused child's heart,

But edging near, as privately for me, rustling at

    my feet, And creeping thence steadily up to my ears,

Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.

The fivefold repetition of Death responds to the bird's plaint--"Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved! Loved!"--seeming to convey a life-affirming message of continuity and process, a message that is underlined syntactically by the passage's participial flow: answering, delaying, hurrying, hissing, edging, rustling, creeping. But from the child's point of view at least, there is still something "creepy" about Death. Like the monster-sea that overtakes Emily Dickinson on the outskirts of consciousness in "I Started Early Took My Dog," the sea that edges toward the child is not completely reassuring. Lisping and hissing, creeping and rustling like a snake, the sea's word of death is at best ambiguous.

The poem moves in the concluding sequence from past to present, returning to the adult frame of the poet. It is here that Whitman seeks to reconcile the dualities of the poem: life and death, love and loss, child and man, land and sea, sun and moon, day and night, south and north, past and present. The poet's final words are a unifying gesture, articulated in a single phrase that appears as a continuous flow out of the world of the sea and the preceding action of the poem.

Which I do not forget,

But fuse the song of two together,

That was sung to me in the moonlight on Paumanok's

    gray beach,

With the thousand responsive songs, at random,

My own songs, awaked from that hour,

And with them the key, the word up from the waves,

The word of the sweetest song, and all songs,

That strong and delicious word which, creeping to

    my feet,

The sea whispered me.

Appearing in his 1860 role as unifier and fuser, Whitman resolves artistically the problem of dissolution by yoking the song of two together, the boy's responsive songs, and the word death in a single poetic phrase that encompasses as it inscribes a compensatory rhythm of life and death, love and loss. Beneath and beyond the poem's artistic resolution we still hear the rumbling of a darker sea that floats up the sediment and debris of "As I Ebb'd." But by using an artistic rather than a chronological ordering in the 1860 Leaves, Whitman presents "Out of the Cradle" as a progression away from rather than toward the wasted shores of "As I Ebb'd."

As a response to the fact of dissolution in self and world, "Out of the Cradle" marks a turn toward the other-worldly poetics of Whitman's later period. The poet locates the source of his songs not in democratic presence, but in absence and death, in the "unsatified love" and "unknown want" that he seeks to articulate in song but that can never be fully satisfied in the social world. If the poem dramatizes Whitman's renewed dedication to his art after his crisis of faith in the late 1850s, it is a dedication that arises out of the disjunction between desire and history, between the poet's democracy of the imagination and the fact of a disintegrating world.

Betsy Errkila: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

The intense bonds of compassion, comradeship, and love that Whitman witnessed and formed among the soldiers were a source of democratic sustenance amid the blood-drenched scenes of war. These loving bonds formed by men at war also gave Whitman a positive language and social form in which to experience and articulate his own homosexual desire. In the poems of Drum-Taps the lover of the Calamus poems becomes the soldier-comrade and wound-dresser ("Many a soldier's kiss dwells on these bearded lips"), thus heightening the lyric intensity and emotional immediacy of several of the war poems.

Whitman's "undertone of sweetest comradeship & human love" is particularly strong in the elegy "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night," where in the starlight illuminating the darkened landscape of war, the poet-soldier buries his "dear comrade" and "son of responding kisses" in a private ritual of mourning and love. Modulating formal control with a tone of uttermost woe, Whitman's "strange" vigil suggests that it was the loving affection among men--released and allowed in a wartime context--that enabled him to rise from the "chill ground" of the battlefield and conduct his own burial of the dead in the poems of Drum-Taps and Sequel.

"Bold, cautious, true, and my loving comrade," Whitman's common soldier is more than a soldier of war in Drum-Taps. He is a figure of democratic--and homosexual--humanity marching the "untried roads" of the future.

Betsy Erkkila: On "For You O Democracy"

Whitman's increased emphasis on adhesiveness was also a response to the deep cultural fear among Northerners and Southerners alike that dismemberment would give rise to a civil or military dictatorship. In poem no. 5 (''For You 0 Democracy"), Whitman invokes the Union as something more than a legal compact that could be held together by the machinations of lawyers or the use of arms:


Were you looking to be held together by the lawyers?

By an agreement on a paper? Or by arms?

Placing himself in the service of "Democracy ... ma femme," Whitman announces his intent to "twist and intertwist" the states by circulating "new friendship" throughout the land: "Affection shall solve every one of the problems of freedom," he observes. The problems of freedom to which he refers are the same as those encountered by the framers of the Constitution: how to ensure a maximum of freedom without inviting either a tyranny of the majority or a tyranny of the State. What the founding fathers sought to do through an appeal to republican virtue, the poet seeks to do by arousing the bonds of comradeship and love:

The dependence of Liberty shall be lovers,

The continuance of Equality shall be comrades.

These shall tie and band stronger than hoops of iron,

I, extatic, O partners! O lands! henceforth with the

        love of lovers tie you.

I will make the continent indissoluble,

I will make the most splendid race the sun ever yet

        shone upon,

I wfll make divine magnetic lands.

Betsy Erkkila: On "One's-Self I Sing"

The poet he imagines in the 1855 preface is, like his ideal republic, balanced between self and other: "The soul has that measureless pride which consists in never acknowledging any lessons but its own. But it has sympathy as measureless as its pride and the one balances the other and neither can stretch too far while it stretches in company with the other. The inmost secrets of art sleep with the twain. The greatest poet has lain close betwixt both and they are vital to his style and thoughts."

This vision of a poet stretching within a universe bounded by pride and sympathy had as its political analogue the paradox of an American republic poised between self-interest and public virtue, liberty and union, the interests of the many and the good of the one. The secret of Whitman's art and the American Union, the paradox of many in one, eventually became the opening inscription and balancing frame of Leaves of Grass:

One's-Self I sing, a simple separate person,

Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.


Balanced between the separate person and the en masse, the politics of Leaves of Grass is neither liberal nor bourgeois in the classical sense of the terms; rather, the poems represent the republican ideals of early-nineteenth-century artisan radicalism, emphasizing the interlinked values of independence and community, personal wealth and commonwealth.

Betsy Erkkila: On "In the Waiting Room"

On the broadest level, "In the Waiting Room," like other Bishop poems, inscribes the terrifying instability of the "I" and individual identity as the traditional bounds between inside and outside, self and world collapse into mere boundlessness and flux: "Why should I be my aunt, / or me, or anyone?," the child asks, as the waiting room begins "sliding / beneath a big black, wave, / another and another." But the poem also registers the girlchild’s terror and resistance as she experiences her identification with other women as a fall into the oppression and constraints of gender – signified by her "foolish aunt" and "those awful hanging breasts" she sees in the National Geographic as she reads and waits in the dentist’s office. In words that adumbrate Bishop’s later refusal to be categorized and anthologized as a woman poet and her lifelong friendship and struggle with Marianne Moore, the child’s terror registers Bishop’s own desire for distinction and difference and her simultaneous fear of having her historically specific "I" lost and absorbed in the sexual identity she shared with other women – including Marianne Moore.


from Betsy Erkkila, "Differences that Kill: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore," Chapter 4 in The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History and Discord (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 150.

Betsy Erkkila: On "The Fish"

[Erkkila is comparing Marianne Moore’s "The Fish" to Bishop’s poem.]

Whereas Moore’s "Fish" emphasizes the product and meaning of observation, Bishop’s "Fish" foregrounds the process of observation and the essential gap between subject, representation, and world. Moore appropriates the fish into an imaginative order that gives rise to ethical insight. Bishop begins with an act of appropriation – "I caught a tremendous fish" – but ends by returning the fish to the experiential flux from which the fish, ver "vision," and the poem arise. The ultimate focus of Moore’s poem is aesthetic and moral, revealing a natural providential order of permanence and value. The focus of Bishop’s poem is epistemological and visionary, suggesting temporality, transcience, and the subjectivity of value. If Moore’s poem is "about" the values of adaptability, endurance and natural heroism, Bishop’s poem is "about" the experience of living in an alien, mutable and ultimately mystifying world. Like her vision of Darwin – "his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown" [as quoted by Anne Stevenson] – Bishop’s Moore-like concentration on the object slips "giddily" off into the unknown, the strange, the surreal, unfixing traditional notions of a bounded self and world and collapsing the traditional distinction between conscious and unconscious, subject and object, self and world.


From Betsy Erkkila, "Differences that Kill: Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore,: Chapter 4 in The Wicked Sisters: Women Poets, Literary History and Discord (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 122-123.