Friday, August 23, 2013

Memorization Test: Darest Thou Now O Soul

Walt Whitman, in many ways, is like the wizard of poetry. He at least looks a little like Gandalf the Grey. In fact, it is entirely possible that Tolkein, who lived a century after Whitman, found some inspiration for his character in "The Great Grey Poet."

For me, there has always been a shroud of mystery around his life. Even after reading up on him, he feels more distant from me than other authors. In all odds, it is most likely because of the way he writes. Many older poets have a structure that I can relate to. Rhyming couplets, for example, offer just enough rules for a reader to really get in an author's head. We can start to expect a certain ebb and flow from the poems and consequentially feel like we are understanding the way he or she thinks. Walt Whitman, on the other hand, is sometimes called the Father of Free Verse, and in his writing some conventional rules start to go out the window.

Not only will this make the week's Memorization Test a little more difficult (learning rhyming stanzas is definitely easier), it will also make Whitman's sentence structure a little more abstract.

But what do you expect from a man like Walt Whitman? His time did not have the luxury of order. He was born into a poor family with eight brothers and sisters. Three of his brothers were named after founding fathers. When he was a kid he was kissed on the cheek by the Marquis de Lafayette on the Fourth of July. He finished his formal education at age 11.

The man was a volunteer nurse during the Civil War. Later, employed in the Attorney General's office, his job was to interview Confederate soldiers seeking Presidential pardon. If there were ever a confusing time to be an American, it was during his generation. His opinions on slavery illustrate well the polarizing struggle he faced in his turbulent times. He was opposed to extending slavery, he was for the abolishment of slavery and he later saw the end of slavery as a danger to democracy, the root of America.

Whitman was admired by some other incredible authors. When his first book of poetry came out Ralph Waldo Emerson praised him heavily for his work. Later he would be visited by Henry David Thoreau. These men would stand by him while critics railed on his work for being overtly sexual, severely tarnishing his reputation in the public eye.

Darest Thou Now, O Soul, is a beautiful poem that I've found myself repeating during hard times. It is a dialogue from a man addressed to his inner self, his courage. There is something universally mysterious and daunting about the unknown paths in our lives. For a rising generation with college degrees and little work, I think this poem has inestimable value. It assesses the difficulty there is in being a pioneer, an explorer, and carving your own path. It calculates the risks and payoffs of blazing a new trails.

It reminds me of a few intensely spiritual moments in my life. They all stick out in my mind. Moments when I collect information, advice and opinions from those I hold close, and then walk towards my decision, never looking back for a second, and, while squinting at the ever-approaching fog, repeat to myself over and over: Darest Thou Now, O Soul?

Darest Thou Now, O Soul

Darest Thou Now, O Soul
Walk with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?

No map there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not, O Soul;
Nor dost thou-- It is a blank before us;
All waits, undream'd of, in that region -- that inaccessible land.

Till, when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds bound us.

Then we burst forth -- we float,
In Time and Space, O Soul -- prepared for them;
Equal, equipt at last -- (O Joy! O Fruit of All!) them to fulfill, O Soul.

-Walt Whitman 1900