Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pioneers, O Pioneers!

There's a vaguely creepy Levis commercial out there, using parts of Walt Whitmans poem, "Pioneers, O Pioneers":

To my mind, the visual imagery associated here, completely misses the point. The images here are more of the "teenage rebellion" thing, when in fact "O Pioneers" is about an entirely different sort of coming of age and exploration: that of our young nation (officially just 30 years old at Whitmans birth, and 76 at the publication of "Leaves of Grass" - the first published appearance of O Pioneers! - in 1865).

The ad campaign, titled "go forth", similarly mangles Whitmans poem "America"; in fact in a more abrasive and jarring way, though to less effect and impact (it's not as arresting a poem either, which might be part of it).

The cinematography, and direction of both ads, are... almost angry, and to my mind reminiscent of various French brutalist cinema verite from the 60s and 70s... Clearly, the ad agency, and creative director are very impressed with themselves.

In any event, entirely inappropriate to Whitman.

Whitman has a quality of longing that almost bleeds out of his words; not just in this poem of course, in many of his poems. He seemed to veer wildly from unbridled hope, to despair, to passion; at times expressing imagery and concepts in the same poem that seem almost hysterically opposed...

Perhaps this is unsurprising, as it has been theorized he was bi-polar; but that seems a prosaic and entirely un-romantic explanation for the man who bridged transcendentalist romanticism and realism.

Reading, you can almost see him looking off into the distant sunset, dreaming of where we will go as a nation, as a people... and yet sad because he is already too old, too far settled in life (though never in soul) to be a part of it; or perhaps too fearful.

Whitman looks on the future with hope, and optimism, and enthusiasm for unbridled possibility... and yet at the same time, with an edge of... perhaps, dread; and certainly trepidation... and sometimes resignation, sorrow, or even resentment.

One can imagine him thinking "we can do so much, achieve so much, be so great; and yet I fear we will not, we will throw it all away".

No matter what however, even in examining the past, Whitman always seems to be looking into the future.

This multifaceted nature is perhaps most clearly illustrated in "O Captain, My Captain":
O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up--for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
... but this dichotomous expression is present in all his work to some degree or another.

There is a school of literary criticism and analysis out there that has; because of his apparent homosexuality or bisexuality, and his support various humanitarian and what at the time were viewed as "progressive" causes (notably the free soil movement); attempted to claim Whitman for the radical left.

Rubbish. Pure, utter, rubbish.

Whitman was in all things, an idealist. He believed in freedom, and humanity (however much abusive, and abused), and liberty. He believed in hope, and the betterment of man kind through the exploration and mastery of his nature and the world around him.

Whitman would no more support totalitarian collectivism, than he would fascism, or theocracy, or any other coercive restraint of human liberty, or human potential.

Whitman wasn't a socialist, or a communist, or a progressive, or a conservative... Whitman was a HUMANIST.

Just read, you'll see:

Pioneers! O Pioneers!
-- Walt Whitman

COME my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Have the elder races halted?
Do they droop and end their lesson, wearied over there beyond the seas?
We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We detachments steady throwing,
Down the edges, through the passes, up the mountains steep,
Conquering, holding, daring, venturing as we go the unknown ways,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We primeval forests felling,
We the rivers stemming, vexing we and piercing deep the mines within,
We the surface broad surveying, we the virgin soil upheaving,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Colorado men are we,
From the peaks gigantic, from the great sierras and the high plateaus,
From the mine and from the gully, from the hunting trail we come,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

From Nebraska, from Arkansas,
Central inland race are we, from Missouri, with the continental blood intervein'd,
All the hands of comrades clasping, all the Southern, all the Northern,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O resistless restless race!
O beloved race in all! O my breast aches with tender love for all!
O I mourn and yet exult, I am rapt with love for all,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Raise the mighty mother mistress,
Waving high the delicate mistress, over all the starry mistress,
(bend your heads all,)
Raise the fang'd and warlike mistress, stern, impassive, weapon'd mistress,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

On and on the compact ranks,
With accessions ever waiting, with the places of the dead quickly fill'd,
Through the battle, through defeat, moving yet and never stopping,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O to die advancing on!
Are there some of us to droop and die? has the hour come?
Then upon the march we fittest die, soon and sure the gap is fill'd.
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the pulses of the world,
Falling in they beat for us, with the Western movement beat,
Holding single or together, steady moving to the front, all for us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Life's involv'd and varied pageants,
All the forms and shows, all the workmen at their work,
All the seamen and the landsmen, all the masters with their slaves,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the hapless silent lovers,
All the prisoners in the prisons, all the righteous and the wicked,
All the joyous, all the sorrowing, all the living, all the dying,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Lo, the darting bowling orb!
Lo, the brother orbs around, all the clustering suns and planets,
All the dazzling days, all the mystic nights with dreams,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

These are of us, they are with us,
All for primal needed work, while the followers there in embryo wait behind,
We to-day's procession heading, we the route for travel clearing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Minstrels latent on the prairies!
(Shrouded bards of other lands, you may rest, you have done your work,)
Soon I hear you coming warbling, soon you rise and tramp amid us,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Not for delectations sweet,
Not the cushion and the slipper, not the peaceful and the studious,
Not the riches safe and palling, not for us the tame enjoyment,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Do the feasters gluttonous feast?
Do the corpulent sleepers sleep? have they lock'd and bolted doors?
Still be ours the diet hard, and the blanket on the ground,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Has the night descended?
Was the road of late so toilsome? did we stop discouraged nodding on our way?
Yet a passing hour I yield you in your tracks to pause oblivious,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Till with sound of trumpet,
Far, far off the daybreak call-hark! how loud and clear I hear it wind,
Swift! to the head of the army!-swift! spring to your places,
Pioneers! O pioneers!