In his chapter on “Language” in Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that “We know more from nature than we can at will communicate” (23). It is a strange sentence. It suggests a nonverbal transference, an epistemologically freighted communication, that is yet not couched in the familiar terms of language, but is instead linked to the failures of language to communicate what it is exactly that we know from nature. What do we know from nature? There is the sense here that nature, despite not speaking, somehow communicates better than we do – better than words do – because it mysteriously and uncannily gives us something “more” – something that, perhaps because it is “more,” we cannot encapsulate exactly into words or language. There then arises a problematic gulf between our experience of nature and our ability to communicate this experience in words – it is as though there is an immensity to our experience of nature, an overabundant meaningfulness, a significance or fullness – what Susanne Langer calls “import” – that can be captured in language only by indirection, and that indeed calls attention to the limits or failures of language to adequately convey our total experience. Emerson continues to elaborate on this notion of inarticulacy two sentences later in the same essay, when he writes,
The poet, the orator, bred in the woods, whose senses have been nourished by their fair and appeasing changes, year after year, without design and without heed, – shall not lose their lesson altogether, in the roar of cities or the broil of politics (23).
“Shall not lose their lesson altogether” – this nonverbal communication from nature that makes verbal communication of that experience difficult if not impossible is characterized here as a “lesson.” Here the nonverbal, despite not speaking, teaches us something – we could almost say, mentors us in some way. But what is the nature of this nonverbal mentorship? What kind of nonverbal language does nature “speak”? Or, as David Jacobson puts it differently in Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye, “What nature do we raise to presence?”(11).
In this essay, I will interpret scenes in Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from the 1855 “Song of Myself” in which Whitman allows nature to “speak” through his speaker’s silence and wonder, although not through any dialogue. For while there has been literature written on Whitman and oratory, as well as recent important work on Whitman in the context of humility and nature , there has been little written on Whitman and the aesthetics of silence and wonder in relationship to nature. Indeed, we can even go so far as to say that Whitman is so imbued with a wonder for nature that he imagines his voice as a kind of nature, one that has silence built into it. For when Whitman’s speaker is absorbed in wonder from certain activities – listening to the stevedores, say, or noticing a blade of grass – he performs in his poetry a kind of silence. But what is the relationship between wonder and silence? As we discuss below, the experience of wonder entails silence because 1.) we are somewhat passive conceptually during an experience of wonder (we silently absorb what is being experienced); 2.) we cannot exactly articulate the import of wonder (and therefore silence is a way of gesturing towards wonder without exactly articulating it); and 3.) the experience of wonder contains no traces of memory (and therefore that aspect of ourselves that involves memory is silenced).
Nature’s Valved Voice
It should not be surprising that Whitman joins in the 1855 “Song of Myself” a seemingly inexpressible wonder before nature with a silence that juxtaposes bizarrely with his oftentimes exultant and enthusiastic tone. Whitman is saying that nature at times compels him into silence, as if the very fact of nature convinces Whitman to behave likewise. If he cannot communicate what he knows from nature, what other recourse does he have other than a form of silence? (Of course, at other times nature compels Whitman into exultant praise of nature, as if nature has produced the opposite effect, a kind of linguistic ecstasy. ) Yet “Song of Myself” is rife with passages where Whitman, in observing nature, either lapses into silence or deliberately chooses to listen and not talk. Our first indication of this desire to emulate the silence and presence of nature comes in the second stanza of “Song of Myself,” where Whitman writes, “I loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.” It is interesting that Whitman is “observing a spear of summer grass,” but it is also interesting what comes after this observation. Whitman does not describe the blade of grass or offer any commentary. Discursiveness of the speaker, and therefore of the reader, is silenced. Instead, he allows the spear of grass to be seen, experienced, witnessed, noticed, observed, beheld, wondered at, by himself and the reader. He attends to the spear of grass, in the same way in which Theo Davis discusses the way in which Whitman bestows light and value upon what he notices. Then, as if in unspoken commentary on what has been seen, he says nothing more. His wonder is non-discursive; he allows the givenness of the image to speak for itself, like a proto-imagist or proto-phenomenologist. A few pages later, we return to this motif of the grass and a very fascinating form of silence, when Whitman writes,
Loafe with me on the grass….loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want….not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice (30).
It appears as though Whitman is inviting the reader to loaf with him on the grass, but in actuality Whitman is inviting his own soul to do such a thing. In the previous stanza, Whitman writes, “I believe in you my soul…the other I am must not abase itself to you, / And you must not be abased to the other.” In this scene involving lying out lazily in the grass, Whitman invokes the muse of his soul, asking his soul, as if it were a kind of bizarre musical instrument, to “loose the stop from your throat, / Not words, not music or rhyme I want…not custom or lecture, not even the best, / Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.” Mark Bauerlein writes about this passage,
Sound raised to the level of the “hum” of the “valved voice,” the “password primeval,” reintegrates “old and young,” “maternal as well as paternal,” “the wicked just the same as the righteous,” into a community of visionaries whose voices are lifted together in a “chant democratic” (3).
Here I wish to problematize the notion of “a community of visionaries whose voices are lifted together in a ‘chant democratic,’” for Whitman does not talk about voice in this passage in any manner that is conventional, and the very strangeness of his poetic formulation of his voice suggests something idiosyncratic, something not easily shared within a community. In a very strange way – and despite invoking his muse – Whitman does not want the voice of his soul to speak or express itself – he does not want words, music or even rhyme. He avoids discursiveness, and he avoids ordinary conceptual thought regarding his voice. He rather desires a “lull…the hum of your valved voice” – something suggesting both a conceptual inactivity and yet a cognitive activity.
This is also a beguiling passage because of the different ways in which we can read the words “lull” and “valved.” Lull as a verb relates to a soothing, a calming voice that leads one into sleep. Yet it also as a noun denotes an interval of quiet, a ceasing of activity, a form of interlude or pause. These different meanings of “lull” are direct opposites – in the first meaning, we are given to imagine a continuity, a ceaseless and unaware flowing between different states of mind. In the second meaning, we are presented with a discontinuity, an interruption, a hiatus or suspension. “Valved” can also connote two very different meanings. It can either refer to an opening or a closing, an allowing or an obstructing of a fluid – here, the fluid being Whitman’s voice. Therefore, when we read about the “lull” and “valved voice,” it is as though Whitman is attempting to articulate a very different and very paradoxical conception of the poetic voice, a voice that finds parallels with Whitman’s conceptions of nature as a form of overabundantly meaningful nonverbal communication.
Wonder and silence are built within the speaker’s notion of his voice, for these significantly attend Whitman’s attitude towards nature. Nature, like Whitman’s voice, is closed and open to us; nature, like Whitman’s voice, suggests both a continuity and a discontinuity, or as Christine Gerhardt has it, “an identification and a dissociation.” Whitman wants his voice to communicate in the manner in which nature communicates to him – without language, through silence, and through the wonder that nature evokes. Even the word “hum” is strange here. Whitman does not mean it musically, as he points out that he does not desire music at all. Rather, through the line “Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice,” Whitman is arguing for a voice-that-is-not-a-voice, a fluid or current that still manages to “hum,” something that is non-conceptual but cognitively felt. He wishes his voice to be a presence more than a voice, a language-less language.
Wonder and Silence
It might seem strange to suggest that the experience of wonder involves a passivity. And yet this seems to be an important aspect of the phenomenology of wonder, for while our cognitive faculties might be extremely intensified while we are experiencing it, to experience wonder in something requires as well a kind of conceptual passiveness or inactiveness, which allows the experiential content of what is being seen or listened to or read to penetrate or sink into the mind. This account of wonder is heavily indebted to Kant (the intensification of our cognitive faculties) and Schopenhauer (a passiveness, or, better yet, “the complete absence of ordinary conceptual thought,” as Janaway has it (70)). Indeed, one of the arguments of this essay is that Kant’s notion of the free play of imagination and understanding involved in aesthetic judgment, and Schopenhauer’s notion of “pure, will-less contemplation” are most germane for describing the internal dynamics of Whitman’s depictions of wonder in the 1855 “Song of Myself.” In other words, Whitman, like Kant in his Critique of the Power of Judgment, is often interested in what David Bell describes as “subjective, non-discursive mental experience” (Bell, 240) and the way in which this entails a “subjective, non-conceptual, spontaneous significance” (238). As Bell writes, speaking of the paradoxical status of the Kantian imagination as something both spontaneous and objective:
The freedom of the productive imagination, according to Kant, ‘consists precisely in the fact that it schematizes without a concept.’ To schematize without a concept is to discover in the diversity of sensory experience a felt unity, coherence, or order, which is non-cognitive and non-conceptual, but which is a necessary condition of the possibility of all rule-governed thought and judgment. One intuitive and accessible analogy for schematizing without a concept, I have suggested, is the successful coming to terms with a work of abstract expressionism; but the fully articulated model is couched in terms of our ability to enjoy a spontaneous, criteria-less, disinterested, presumptively universal, non-cognitive, reflective feeling that certain diverse elements of experience as such belong together, that they comprise an intrinsically satisfying whole in virtue of their seeming to have a point (though without it being the case that there is some specific point which they are judged to have) (238-239).
It’s important here that Bell points out that in Kant’s model, aesthetic judgment leads to a sense of import, or significance, “though without it being the case that there is some specific point which they are judged to have.” This is suggestive of a silence, an inability to fully or exactly articulate the significance or import of the reflective feeling.
This same dynamic – in which a feeling of significance dawns or erupts or happens, though it is difficult to articulate it exactly – has been commented on by Lewis Hyde in the context of the reader’s experience of Whitman’s catalogs, (though the dynamic should be applied as well to Whitman’s speaker’s own representations of his experiences of wonder towards the people and events he presents, for these presentations are non-discursive and suggest that the speaker, too, cannot exactly articulate the import of his catalogs, and so the people and events must stand for themselves). Hyde writes,
One of the effects of reading Whitman’s famous catalogs is to induce his own equanimity in the reader. Each element of creation seems equally fascinating. The poet’s eye focuses with unqualified attention on such a wide range of creation that our sense of discrimination soon withdraws for lack of use, and that part of us which can sense the underlying coherence comes forward…Whitman puts hierarchy to sleep. He attends to life wherever it moves….The contending and reckoning under which most of us suffer most of the time – in which this thing or that thing is sufficient or insufficient, this lover, that lover, this wine, that movie, this pair of pants – is laid aside (212-213).
Hyde is describing, in different terms, “a spontaneous, criteria-less, disinterested, presumptively universal, non-cognitive, reflective feeling that certain diverse elements of experience as such belong together.” As he writes, “that part of us which can sense the underlying coherence comes forward.” This sense of the “underlying coherence” suggests a sense of wonder at what is coming forward, a sense of wonder that is conceptually passive but cognitively active, and that involves a sense of significance or import that is difficult to articulate exactly.
Whitman, in other words, is often interested in “watching and wondering,” and this watching and wondering involves an awareness of the noncommensurability of things (30). But this desire to watch and wonder also seems to preclude the faculty of memory. As Philip Fischer points out, “we wonder at an object when in its presence the novelty of its features does not remind us of anything else,” suggestive also of a kind of cognitive silence (46). Indeed, for Fischer, “For the full experience of wonder there must be no description beforehand that will lead us to compare what we actually experience with what we were told…The object must be unexpectedly, instantaneously seen for the first time” (17). Therefore, “for wonder there must be no element of memory in the experience” (18). While this last assertion is problematic, for Whitman was presumably recalling (and creating) images when he wrote his catalogs, it does seem significant that, in these catalogs (and throughout most of the 1855 “Song of Myself”) there is little mention of the past. This is also suggestive of a silence: we are often simply and instantaneously presented with the given, without traces of memory – a transaction that is abundant with meaning though absent of discursiveness.
Whitman’s Aversion to Talk
We can also find instantiations of Whitman’s interest in wonder and silence through his aversion to talk. “Come now I will not be tantalized…” Whitman writes, for example, in one of the unnumbered sections of the 1855 Leaves of Grass, “you conceive too much of articulation” (53). In passage after passage of what came to be called “Song of Myself,” Whitman emphasizes a continuity and discontinuity within nature, a continuity and discontinuity that is often characterized in terms of how and where language seems to fail. “Logic and sermons never convince, / The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul” (56) – here there is a discontinuity between human nature, but a continuity between Whitman and the natural world that suggests the aesthetics of silence and wonder, which we also find in the lines – “Oxen that rattle the yoke or halt in the shade, what is that you express in your eyes? / It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life” (37). Or again, in the lines, “Do you guess I have some intricate purpose? / Well I have…for the April rain has, and the mica on the side of a rock has,” Whitman draws a line of continuity between himself, the April rain, and the mica, and yet the ellipses within the lines and the white space following the lines suggest a movement into silence and wonder, as if the articulation of the specific purpose of the rain and the mica could be gestured towards, though not fully articulated (45).
Indeed, for all the bombast, rhetoric and assertion of “Song of Myself,” the poem is haunted by strange elliptical caesuras, by the almost entire lack of dialogue, by the awareness of the way in which language appears to fail to communicate in the larger manner in which nature communicates to us. Put another way, Whitman’s fascination with, desire for, and experience of wonder in the poem precludes the possibility of dialogue, because the experience of wonder, as mentioned above, is primarily a conceptually inactive one on the part of the one experiencing it, and dialogue of course is not silent, but rather “talk” – what Louis Hyde equates in Whitman with “questioning and argument,” i.e. conceptual activities that come loaded with assumptions about the world (214). Hyde goes on to write, “I do not mean [Whitman] is silent – he affirms and celebrates – but his mouth is sealed before the sleepless, pestering questions of the dividing mind” (214-215). Hyde is right regarding Whitman’s aversion to “talk,” but he underestimates the possibility that one can affirm and celebrate through silence in language.
For these reasons, scholarship on Whitman and oratory can overestimate the role that speech plays in “Song of Myself.” There is no “Song of Myself” without language, and the scholarship on the role that oratory plays in Whitman’s poetry, for example, is incredibly persuasive. Still, if we look closer at this language, we find that it is often gesturing towards silence and questioning the utility of speech. Therefore, when Mark Bauerlein writes in “The Written Orator of “Song of Myself”: A Recent Trend in Whitman Criticism” that “Speech…becomes Whitman’s major tactical motif in “Song of Myself” that harmonizes and consolidates society into a unified ‘interpretive community,’” (2) one wonders about the gaps in this statement, the times in the poem when, as Bauerlein points out later in the same article, “a mystical silence overrules language,” suggesting harmony and consolidation, yes, but a silent harmony and consolidation, something stranger than conventional speech (5).
Examples of this silence abound, such as in the lines, “The little one sleeps in its cradle, / I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand,” or “The youngster and redfaced girl turn aside up the bushy hill, / I peeringly view them from the top” (33). Whitman looks “a long time” at the infant, or “peeringly view[s]” the youngster and the redfaced girl,” but he does not speak, call after the couple, or coo to the infant. We can feel his presence gazing at these people, a presence that is initiated by Whitman’s silent wonder at what he sees. He is reticent to speak; he is so absorbed by what he sees, and by the wonder it provokes, that he doesn’t even want to speak. For example, in a passage in which any sound would be expected, we read:
The big doors of the country-barn stand open and ready,
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon,
The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged,
The armfuls are packed to the sagging mow:
I am there…I help…I came stretched atop of the load,
I felt its soft jolts…one leg reclined on the other,
I jump from the crossbeams, and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps (34).
Even as Whitman “[rolls] head over heels, and [tangles his] hair full of wisps,” he does not shout out with joy, yelp in ecstasy, scream in delight or sound his barbaric yawp. The only approximation to sound we are presented with in this passage is layered over with the sense of touch and proprioception, in the “soft jolts” of the wagon, the seizing of the clover and timothy, and the tangling of the speaker’s hair “full of wisps.” Yet Whitman does not describe these sounds or these touches. The “soft” jolts of the wagon have less to do with volume and more to do with physical balance. In a passage so ostensibly exultant, full of a kind of enthusiastic labor, it is unsettling how silent the stanza is. One feels as though we are watching a poem on mute, expecting sound that does not emit. Christine Gerhardt has also taken up this passage, yet she focuses less on the absence of sound and more on the speaker’s downward movement and immersion into the hay and plants at the end of the stanza. She writes,
It is noteworthy here that the speaker, as he celebrates thick loads of hay and especially the “clover and timothy” that form the basis for this agricultural economy, moves downward from his elevated position, his superiority in difference, to immerse himself in “wisps” of hay and herbs. As such, he calls attention to the grass’s beauty and botanical diversity as much as its economic significance, filling the spaces imaginatively opened by the promise of section 6 to use “the produced babe of the vegetation” “tenderly” (69).
I agree with Gerhardt that Whitman does call attention to the dried grass’s beauty – especially in the line, “The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged,” which evokes an impressionistic, painterly mode of seeing – as well as the grass’s botanical diversity and economic significance. But there is also an undeniable strangeness to the passage, not mentioned by Gerhardt, that seems to have to do with silence and wonder at the sheer fact of experience, that experience is possible at all. The wagon does not creak; there is no mention of the people that the speaker helps, nor of what they might say. This absence of overt human presence (besides the speaker) augments the felt presence of the natural scene, making it vivid, and inflecting the natural world that is portrayed with a quality of givenness. This givenness of the world parallels Whitman’s wonder at the givenness of experience. He relishes nature so much that, as Gerhardt points out, he immerses himself in it. The openness and silence of the “big doors of the country barn,” then, might be seen as a metaphor for Whitman’s approach in this passage, the way in which he invites us into his poem to immerse us in the details of the given, to absorb our experience in and within these qualities. And again, it is as if Whitman is afraid to speak more than he is speaking already – as if even the slightest hint of superfluous dialogue might taint the qualities of the scene as given – its own unique and idiosyncratic flavor, its form of language without language, its intense and radical wonder.
These silent transactions that involve wonder pertain in “Song of Myself” to people as well. These transactions happen often in “Song of Myself.” We only have to look as far as Whitman’s description of the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” a marriage during which (at least in what we read) no one speaks, though the bride’s “father and his friends [sit] nearby crosslegged and dumbly smoking” (35). Yet one of the best and most important examples we find in “Song of Myself” of this representation of silence is in the bathers episode. Here, Whitman presents a remarkably intense continuity and discontinuity between the woman observing the bathers and the bathers themselves.
Although Whitman narrates the event in words, there are no words spoken during the event – nothing spoken by the woman, and nothing spoken by the bathers, (though we do hear of the laughter of “the twenty-ninth bather,” i.e. the woman herself, or a composite of herself and the speaker). Yet Whitman’s poetry is able to bring the nonverbal presence of this encounter to light. Indeed, Whitman describes a scene of intense and immense longing, absorption and wonder, in which certain dynamics of the scene correspond to our descriptions of Whitman and nature above: a transaction filled almost excruciatingly, abundantly with meaning; an intense absorption in what is being experienced on the part of Whitman, the lady, and the reader, suggestive of wonder, silence (and here erotic longing); a lack of commentary or discursiveness on what is being experienced; and a very remarkable imagistic vividness. The episode reads,
Twenty-eight young men bathe by the shore,
Twenty-eight young men, and all so friendly,
Twenty-eight years of womanly life, and all so lonesome.
She owns the fine house by the rise of the bank,
She hides handsome and richly drest aft the blinds of the window.Which of the young men does she like the best?
Ah the homeliest of them is beautiful to her.
Where are you off to, lady? for I see you,
You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room.
Dancing and laughing along the beach came the twenty-ninth bather,
The rest did not see her, but she saw them and loved them.
The beards of the young men glistened with sweat, it ran from their long hair,
Little streams passed all over their bodies.
An unseen hand also passed over their bodies,
It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.
The young men float on their backs, their white bellies swell to the sun…they do not ask who seizes fast to them,
They do not know who puffs and declines with pendant and bending arch,
They do not think whom they souse with spray (36).
I would argue that the key and climactic line of the passage is “An unseen hand also passed over their bodies, / It descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.” In this moment, the longing of the woman behind the blinds is intensely and imaginatively actuated; it reaches a loud though silent climax, and yet it is an “unseen hand.” The pathos of the unseen hand is augmented by the unheard voice of the woman. The presence of longing in the woman is conveyed by language that does not offer any commentary or dialogue, just as the bathers themselves are presented without dialogue. It is as if the conditions of meaningfulness that form her desire are contingent to a certain degree on being presented as opposed to being articulated. By going unarticulated, they become more powerful and poignant – their import becomes more significant. Moon writes about this passage,
In representing her wish to do so, the text releases this rich “lady” (Where are you off to, lady?”) from the constraints of gender and class which have hitherto relegated her to “twenty-eight years of womanly [which in this text, at least to begin with, is to say “lonesome”] life.” In the poem’s liminal space, she can have her “fine house” to “hide” in, but also fly out of it, “Dancing and laughing,” at the same time: “You splash in the water there, yet stay stock still in your room” (858).
As Moon points out, the woman is released “from the constraints of gender and class,” but she is also released from the constraints of language, of actually speaking to these men. It is as if her longing and wonder need a certain space to spread itself out, and this need is based to a certain extent on it going unarticulated, although it is presented to us, or presenced for and to us, by Whitman’s speaker. In the same way in which Whitman has been reticent to ruin his observed scenes with too much verbiage, the bathers scene also suggests that the woman is almost happier longing for the men than speaking to them. Therefore, when Moon writes that the passage “makes seen what is unseen (hidden or proscribed desire) through the substitution for it of language and writing,” he neglects to point out that this language and writing contains no dialogue. It is another nonverbal transaction, another scene of silent wonder in which nature is made to “speak.”
This paper is an attempt at illustrating how Whitman performs the difficult notion that “we know more from nature than we can at will communicate.” Whitman’s answer to Emerson’s line is silence and wonder, for these can then gesture at this phenomenon without articulating it. For this reason, we might say that Whitman, despite his lack of conviction in talk, believes we can communicate what nature communicates to us, but only indirectly and non-conventionally, through a form of presentation. Whitman is often therefore akin to a proto-phenomenologist, “bracketing” what he sees and presenting it to us. This bracketing and presentation produces in Whitman and the reader a feeling of wonder, and attendant upon this wonder is silence, because we cannot exactly articulate the import of the wonder, we are conceptually passive during an experience of wonder, and the experience contains no traces of memory. This may seem like an odd argument, especially coming after poststructuralism and its emphasis on language at the expense of what Michael Clune calls in Writing Against Time “an extra-textual reality.” As Clune writes, following an excerpt from Georges Poulet’s “Phenomenology of Reading,”
The rise of poststructuralism, with its twin commitments to the death of the author and the indeterminacy of the text, led to an eclipse of Poulet’s analysis of reading as the recovery of another form of life. For critics influenced by deconstruction, the figural and rhetorical properties of texts block the transmission of an extra-textual reality such as the author’s perceptual experience (29).
This essay is interested, however, in what Clune calls “the transmission of an extra-textual reality,” namely the sense of fullness, of wonder and delight, that Whitman transmits through his work. Whitman immerses us within his own attentional acts, even as he immerses himself into the scenes of his presentation, but he does not offer commentary on these acts. It is interesting, therefore, that Emerson writes in “The Poet” that criticism, “infested with a cant of materialism,” overlooks “the fact, that some men, namely poets, are natural sayers, sent into the world to the end of expression” (449). While Emerson presumably intends the primary meaning of “end of expression” to suggest the means or purposes of expression, he could not have been unaware of the other, secondary meaning of “end of expression” as suggesting something quite different, something that is interested more in the “sensuous fact” and less in commentary on this fact (447). Poets are sent into the world, we might read Emerson’s sentence, for and towards the “end of expression” – for moving towards aspects of expression that incorporate silence and wonder. These aspects are some of the important but neglected reasons readers continue reading Whitman centuries after the publication of the 1855 Leaves of Grass.
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