Sunday, May 27, 2012

Whitman's "Reconciliaition"

Angus Fletcher, in his article on "Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass" in The New Literary History of America (1999, Greil Marcus & Werner Sollors, eds.), says of Walt Whitman's "Reconciliation" that it is "as powerful as anything [Whitman] ever wrote". (p. 312) (Fletcher mentions this, by the by, as a counter-example to the rule that Whitman's best poems tend to be his longer ones.) He quotes it, in its entirety. I'd never read that poem before (although some Whitman poems are among my favorite poems of all time, I've never read all of Leaves of Grass straight through), so I read it, liked it, and decided to put it up on this blog.

But I found something odd. Different sites with the text -- say, Barttleby's presentation of it and the ebook available on Project Gutenberg -- punctuated it differently, -- quite differently, in fact. It occurred to me that this might simply be the sloppiness of online texts; but since I also knew that Whitman rewrote his poems between the many editions of Leaves of Grass, I thought I better check out the originals. Fortunately that fabulous site has page images of the various different editions that Whitman put out of Leaves, so I could go straight to the source. And, indeed, the difference in punctuation do date to the difference between the editions.

I thought I'd show you both.

Here is the poem as printed in the 1867 edition of Leaves of Grass:

WORD over all, beautiful as the sky!
Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in
time be utterly lost;
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly
softly wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world:
…For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;
I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I
draw near;
I bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face
in the coffin.

-- Walt Whitman, 1867

And here is the poem as published in the so-called "deathbed edition" of 1891:

WORD over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be
utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly softly
wash again, and ever again, this soil'd world;

For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin—I draw
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the

-- Walt Whitman, 1891

If you want to see the actual page images, click on the links on Whitman's name and it will take you to the pages where you can see them.

So far as I can tell, there is only one difference in the actual words (as opposed to punctuation) of the poem: in the very last line, the 1867 version omits an "I" which can be understood. Thus, the 1867 version reads "I draw near;/I bend down and touch lightly...." where the 1891 version reads "I draw near,/Bend down and touch lightly....". Apart from that, the words are the same.

But, to me at least, they read as very different poems. The punctuation changes the rhythm, the focus, the tone, even (arguably) in places the plain meaning of the words. It's really quite astonishing. I've noted before how much punctuation can change the feel and meaning of a poem, but this is pretty dramatic.

I'd always thought that, for Whitman, you were pretty much covered if you had the first (1855) and the last (1891) editions of Leaves. But here is a real, significant, interesting change between two fairly late editions. -- O dear.

Which do you prefer? Why? Leave thoughts in comments.

And please insert here your preferred form of the pun (salt to taste) that this poem is called "Reconciliation" (meaning between the North and the South after the Civil War), and that this post is about reconciling two different versions of the same poem.

Update: this post accidentally posted while I was still writing it, so if you read it in its first few minutes, the ending may have changed and a few infelicities may have been corrected.

1 comment:

Nate said...

The punctuation in the first edition seems more halting, more hesitant. Perhaps this was his intent. I think the 1891 version generally flows better.

One 1891 change I don't like: even though the difference was probably dictated by space rather than conscious intent, I love the line break between incessantly and softly in the 1867 version.