“O Me! O Life!” by Walt Whitman

 

Whitman's famous poetry collection.
Whitman’s famous poetry collection.

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

  Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

 

Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman

 

“O Me! O Life!” was published in Whitman’s collection Leaves of Grass in 1891.

Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in Long Island and raised in New York, working as a journalist for a number of newspapers before leaving the state to travel the country. In the post-Civil War era of industrialization and modernization, the poet’s work celebrated humanity’s body and soul amidst a rapidly changing world. Influenced by his admiration for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in 1855. The collection of twelve poems was then re-published several times throughout his life with new additions to the original, and the final edition published in 1892. Whitman died on March 26, 1892 in New Jersey.

In “O Me! O Life!” Walt Whitman questions his existence in a meaningless world of modernization and industrialization in the years following the Civil War. Written in free verse, the poem poses a question in the first stanza and answers the question in the second. Whitman employs the anaphora “Of” to begin five of the eight lines in the first stanza, linesthat ponder the aimlessness of the world and his being in relation to it. The stanza’s run-on, continuous phrase exposes Whitman’s frantic and anxious thoughts about questioning his existence in the face of a meaningless world. He laments the futility of life in the era of industrialization, of “trains of faithless, of cities filled with foolish” (2). He examines himself in a self-deprecating tone, labeling himself “foolish” and “faithless” to believe he influences the world around him. He “vainly [craves] the light” (5), craving a verification of existence and meaning in a “sordid” or dishonorable world where the struggle increases each day as he strives to reach an unattainable goal of verifying his existence in the face of his world’s dishonesty and barrenness. He finds himself “empty” in a hopeless cycle of dissatisfaction and frustration.

The second stanza answers the first stanza’s rambling question in three succinct lines. He reminds himself that life, “the powerful play” (11), carries on and that the world continues to spin, that he is alive and his mere physical existence matters. From that physical existence, he can influence the world and make his mark on society, to verify his being and to fill the empty void he feels. He celebrates the human condition and believes that physical existence is part of the fight against the futile world in which he lives. As he trudges through his self-doubts and a changing culture, Whitman remembers the continual nature of life and his role in it, deciding that he may “contribute a verse” (11) to establish his legacy and to verify his existence in a seemingly futile world by creating poetry.

 

 


“My Heart Is like a Withered Nut!” by Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Norton

The Spirit of Justice
Daniel Maclise chose Caroline Norton as his model for “The Spirit of Justice” because she was a famous victim of injustice.

My heart is like a withered nut,
Rattling within its hollow shell;
You cannot ope my breast, and put
Any thing fresh with it to dwell.
The hopes and dreams that filled it when
Life’s spring of glory met my view,
Are gone! And ne’er with joy or pain
That shrunken heart shall swell anew.

My heart is like a withered nut;
Once it was soft to every touch,
But now ‘tis stern and closely shut;–
I would not have to plead with such.
Each light-toned voice once cleared my brow,
Each gentle breeze once shook the tree
Where hung the sun-lit fruit, which now
Lies cold, and stiff, and sad, like me!

My heart is like a withered nut—
It once was comely to the view;
But since misfortune’s blast hath cut,
It hath a dark and mournful hue.
The freshness of its verdant youth
Nought to that fruit can now restore.
And my poor heart, I feel in truth,
Nor sun, nor smile shall light it more!

 

Caroline Norton
Caroline Norton

Caroline Norton was an English feminist, social reformer, and recognized writer of the early and mid-nineteenth century who successfully advocated for married women’s rights in Victorian Britain. She not only wrote poetry, but novels and political pamphlets as well. Henry Nelson Coleridge, eldest son of Samuel Coleridge, compared her to Byron, saying, “She has very much of that intense personal passion…also Byron’s beautiful intervals of tenderness, his strong practical thought, and his forceful expression.” Later in her life Norton grew more ambitious with her poetry, writing long poems that addressed social issues, such as the plight of the factory worker.

“My Heart Is like a Withered Nut!” was published in London in 1830 by Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley as part of Norton’s second collection of poetry, The Undying One and Other Poems. In it the speaker regrets and resigns herself to the loss of her youthful hopes and happiness through an extended metaphor. Although Norton published this poem at the still-young age of twenty-two, it was likely inspired by her own life. Pressured by her parents, she married George Chapple Norton when she was nineteen, and it soon proved to be a very unhappy marriage. Not only did the two disagree on nearly every important issue of the day, but her husband began abusing her just two months into their marriage.

In “My Heart Is Withered like a Nut!” each of the stanzas begins with the same line with only one alteration – the words are always the same, but the punctuation changes. It progresses from a comma to a semicolon to a dash, the pauses signified by the punctuation lengthening. The changes reflect the speaker’s emotional journey; as time goes on, she finds herself further and further from the happiness of her past, further even from being able to mourn it. Her heart will feel “ne’er… joy nor pain,” not distinguishing between positive and negative emotion. The word withered suggests death, and what is dead can no longer bleed. The speaker’s condition seems to be nothing less than depression: a dulling of the senses; an inability to experience strong emotion, whether painful or pleasant; but nonetheless an oppressive unhappiness through a knowledge of what has been lost. Although the narrator claims otherwise, her heart does not seem dead yet – the poem has a kind of bitter liveliness, perhaps best expressed by the first (or fourth) iteration of that repeated line in the title. It uses the most aggressive of all punctuation marks, the exclamation point, which expresses strong emotion. Although the emotion is negative, the speaker plainly does feel it.

The ending lines of the poem show that the narrator has a bleak view of her future, and the same would hold true for Norton’s life. During her fourth pregnancy, her husband beat her so badly that she miscarried, and when she tried to leave her husband, she realized that as a married woman, she had no legal identity and therefore no right to custody of her children. This sparked her campaigning for the rights of married women, and she succeeded in passing three related laws. The emotional turmoil and drama in “My Heart Is like a Withered Nut!” marks it as a typical poem of its time, but although the content may be unoriginal, it is authentic. Ultimately, Caroline Norton’s life appears to be more interesting than her poetry, which could be seen as either a crushing failure or tremendous success.


“The Suicide’s Soliloquy” by Abraham Lincoln

 

Lincoln's tomb
Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois, where “The Suicide’s Soliloquy” was published.

 

The following lines were said to have been found near the bones of a man supposed to have committed suicide, in a deep forest, on the Flat Branch of the Sangamon, sometime ago.

 

Here where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl
Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.

Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery
By hope deserted too?

To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
And wallow in its waves.

Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.

Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn’d on earth!

Sweet steel! come forth from out your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!

 

Lincoln daguerreotype
An 1846 daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln.

Before he was elected the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln was a failed lawyer who would occasionally wrote poetry for his friends.  Shortly after Lincoln’s assassination, his friend Joshua Speed mentioned to Lincoln’s biographer William Herndon that the President had once written a poem about suicide as he struggled through a period of deep depression.  For over a century and a half, Lincoln scholars searched for the piece so long and so fruitlessly that many came to doubt that it even existed.  In 2004, however, the Abraham Lincoln Association’s Spring Newsletter announced that freelance author Richard Lawrence Miller may have found the piece published in the April 25, 1838 edition of the Springfield newspaper The Sangamo Journal.  The poem is anonymously authored (the Journal introduces the piece as having been found “near the bones of a man supposed to have committed suicide, in a deep forest”) but some Lincoln scholars have declared that the poem shares elements of meter, syntax, diction, and tone with other published Lincoln poems.  Miller found the theme of the interplay between rationality and madness to be “especially Lincolnian in spirit.”  Interestingly, the use of the word dagger might be another clue to the author’s identity: the term was not much in use in the 1830s but would be familiar to those who, like the future President, were intimate with the works of William Shakespeare.  Abraham Lincoln was especially fascinated by the play Macbeth, which famously includes a scene in which the titular ruler is haunted by a spectral dagger.

Abraham Lincoln suffered from severe depression throughout his life, and in 1835 he suffered from suicidal urges following the death of a friend from typhoid.  This poem, assuming it is in fact Lincoln’s work, perhaps reflects his later reminiscences about this period in his life.  The author clearly has first-hand understanding of what today would be termed “clinical depression”: the references to the narrator never knowing pleasure and seeking escape from his own thoughts through self-destruction correspond strongly with modern psychologists’ understanding of the symptoms of depression.

The poem is similar to other mortality poems of the period, though even more melodramatic than most (the last stanza, in which the speaker continues to narrate his feelings after he has stabbed himself through the heart, is particularly painful).  Aside from the historical curiosity of its authorship, the piece—with its glamourizing of suicide and its overwrought morbidity—does little to distinguish itself from other amateur poetry in the school of Poe.  Sadly, this soliloquy does not manifest the same economy and inventiveness of language that makes the mature Lincoln’s speeches canonical masterpieces.  The rhyming words are mostly monosyllabic and Lincoln seems unable to keep his own details straight: how can there be “ashes” if there is a “carcase” for the animals to scavenge?  To a fault, the poem is self-reflective: not only is the speaker so self-absorbed that he does not even stop to consider the effects of his actions on his friends and loved ones, but the piece also does not meaningfully engage with the readers or force them to examine their own lives in any important way.  Though certainly not a monumental achievement on any artistic level, this piece is nonetheless significant for what it reveals about the psyche and the very human frailty of this oft-mythologized president.


“The Wild Swans at Coole” by William Butler Yeats

 

William Butler Yeats featured image

 

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine and fifty swans.

The nineteenth Autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold,
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes, when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

 

Yeats picture

 

Published in The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats by Macmillan, 1956

William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865. He came from a wealthy Anglo-Irish background, but opposed English influence in Ireland. He was one of the biggest voices of the Celtic Revival, and his poetry often dealt with mysticism in the form of Irish folklore and legends. He was a political poet, and his works also often dealt with Irish Nationalism. As Yeats grew older, cynicism replaced much of his earlier optimism. He was not satisfied with the direction of Ireland and Irish society, and his later work reflected this. Arguably his most famous poem, “Sailing to Byzantium,” meditates on this struggle and his place as an aging man in a modern world.

Published in a collection of the same name, “The Wild Swans at Coole” is a poem about the constancy of nature in the face of human turmoil. The speaker’s “heart is sore” after the realization that “all’s changed” since that time when he “trod with a lighter tread.” In contrast the swans are “unwearied still” and “their hearts have not grown old” with the passage of time. No matter what happens to the speaker personally or in the larger political theatre, the seasons will still change, the swans will still visit the autumn pond, and they will “delight men’s eyes” anew.

When considered in the political context of the time, the poem becomes even more poignant. “The Wild Swans at Coole” was published in its collection in 1919, only a few years after the Irish civil war and World War I. The speaker’s world-weariness and disenchantment are products of the new horrors developed with industrialism. The cyclical patterns of nature, such as the change of the season and the migration of birds, provide a counterbalance to this, if not a reassurance.


“Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye

powliza

The river is famous to the fish.

The loud voice is famous to silence,
which knew it would inherit the earth
before anybody said so.

The cat sleeping on the fence is famous to the birds
watching him from the birdhouse.

The tear is famous, briefly, to the cheek.

The idea you carry close to your bosom
is famous to your bosom.

The boot is famous to the earth,
more famous than the dress shoe,
which is famous only to floors.

The bent photograph is famous to the one who carries it
and not at all famous to the one who is pictured.

I want to be famous to shuffling men
who smile while crossing streets,
sticky children in grocery lines,
famous as the one who smiled back.

I want to be famous in the way a pulley is famous,
or a buttonhole, not because it did anything spectacular,
but because it never forgot what it could do.
 

powliza2

“Famous” was first published in Words Under the Words: Selected Poems by Far Corner Books in 1995.

The stylistic construction of “Famous” gives the poem its ruminating, conversational tone. The stanzas vary from single lines to quartets, a seeming lack of structure that makes the images described seem almost spontaneous, imagined on the spot, the voice unhurried and thoughtful. But in actuality, each relationship described is carefully chosen to represent the miscellany of the meaning of fame.

At its most basic level, the poem is about fame. But Nye treats fame as a construct of perspective: the result of imbalances of power, fear, unrequited love, and tragedy. The fame of an object to the subject may not exist in reverse, and the notoriety of both may not exist at all outside of their isolated relationship. Fame only lives when there is someone or something for which to be famous. The bent photograph, bent because it is handled and looked at so often, is famous to its owner; but the subject may not even be aware of its existence. The dress shoe is famous to the floor, but the earth will never know it.

The poem shifts its handle on the subject of fame in the second to last stanza. No longer is the author discussing others’ relationships, but her own desires regarding fame. Again, her use of the term “fame” differs from the typical colloquial usage: she doesn’t want to be famous for any particularly unusual or extraordinary feats, but for her ability to use the tools she has been given, to do what she is meant to do. She wants to be famous to “shuffling men” and “sticky children” simply because she smiled back; because she recognized that it was within her power to be kind, and so she was.

Naomi Shihab Nye was born in St. Louis, Missouri to a Palestinian father and American mother. She spent her high school years in Palestine, Jerusalem, and San Antonio, Texas, where she ultimately earned her BA in English and World Religions from Trinity University. Her experience of multiple cultures has influenced much of her work, including many books and poetry collections, several of which are for children. Her poems and short stories have appeared in journals throughout North America, Europe, and the Middle and Far East.