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An Unknown Sphere More Real Than I Dream’d

Saying “So Long” and Looking Toward More “Awakening Rays”

Sunset on a stormy night behind the Votivkirche in Vienna, Austria

This post is officially five days late, and I wish I had a better excuse than the one I am about to use, but it is the truth: I was busy saying “goodbye.” In the field of education, June is the month of “moving on.” Commencement celebrations abound, yearbooks collect signatures to wish parting members of the community “farewell,” and teacher “clean-out-the-year’s-worth-of-crap” days are mandated. While embroiled in the above festivities this June, I also had to move out of my school flat since I will no longer be working at that school in the coming year. Several of my international friends have also announced that they will be moving back to their respective countries. So, expecting the above collage of activity, I planned Walt Whitman’s poem, “So Long!”[1] for June.

What I did not expect was that the seniors decided to honor me with the role of key note speaker at their graduation. As I read through Whitman’s poem this week, I wished I had read it before I had delivered my address. So many lines speak to the theme I delivered to my seniors.

I observed, foremost, that Whitman is dying as he writes this last song that will cease to issue from him. He is claiming the ultimate end, the final goodbye: death. And yet he is not leaving us alone or without hope; his end is not the ultimate end for all of humanity. He enumerates several announcements of things to come as he takes his leave.

Before we delve into what he announces, three words intrigue me that begin Whitman’s last song: “conclude,” “announce,” and “consummations.” Whitman ironically begins with the word “conclude.” As a young child attending my much older sister’s college commencement, I made the mistake of assuming commencement meant “end or finality” since the ceremony marked the end of my sister’s formal education. However I failed to grasp that it was actually the beginning of her career and “adult” life. The irony Whitman uses here may lead the reader to make the opposite mistake: to think “conclude” means to begin. I am not sure that this word is as different from the mistaken definition as the Oxford Dictionary may suggest, because after Whitman “concludes,” he “announces.” Announcements are the formal bringing about of an action decided upon — a realization of a decision concluded, if you will. “I announce the graduating class of 2017!” — those words bring about and solidify the action; it has now become. When something becomes something else, two things occur: its old identity is concluded (one is no longer a high school or university student) and a new identity begins (one is a graduate of the said institution).

Concluding and announcing are later followed by another odd word: “consummations.” To consummate implies bringing something about like announcing, except it stresses action rather than labels and words. Now that I have been announced as a graduate, I must consummate the life of a graduate. Here is where my thoughts turned to the speech I gave my high school seniors on their graduation night. To conclude their high school experience, I asked them to consider what they would want to become. What do they want to be announced to be? What consummate actions would support the title or description the world will give to them?

Whitman describes how he thinks he will be remembered. He speaks in terms similar to Saint Paul in his epistle to the Philippians when he declares that he has “press’d through.” His speech also recalls the Preacher’s, King Solomon’s, words in Ecclesiastes when he speaks of a time and season for everything. Whitman recounts that he has sung “the body and soul,” “war and peace,” “life and death.” With such ancient, sage-like terms, we incline our ear to hear the last words of one whose wisdom mirrors that of biblical proportions. At this point, Whitman tells us that pressing through is not the only thing that life should encompass and “vanities of vanities! All is vanity!”[2] is not the battle cry of our existence. He also says that he sings of “birth, and [has] shown that there are many births.” He gives us no opposite to nativity. Birth is continual and persistent in life and there is no end to this phenomena — there is no end as things continually come to be. I put this challenge at the feet of my students as they ended their high school careers and laid to rest the high school student they had been for four years. Life is not about actions that begin and then end, like the fleeting life of an ant. Life consists of continually killing off what we were and being reborn into something better. We, as humans, aren’t supposed to “do” things in life; we are supposed to become something. Whitman also understands this concept as he makes his last announcements.

I announce natural persons to arise; I announce justice triumphant; I announce uncompromising liberty and equality; I announce the justification of candor, and the justification of pride. I announce that the identity of These States is a single identity only; I announce the Union more and more compact, indissoluble; I announce splendors and majesties to make all the previous politics of the earth insignificant. I announce adhesiveness — I say it shall be limitless, unloosen’d; I say you shall yet find the friend you were looking for. I announce a man or woman coming — perhaps you are the one, (So long!) I announce the great individual, fluid as Nature, chaste, affectionate, compassionate, fully armed. I announce a life that shall be copious, vehement, spiritual, bold; I announce an end that shall lightly and joyfully meet its translation; I announce myriads of youths, beautiful, gigantic, sweet-blooded; I announce a race of splendid and savage old men.
Universität Wien on the same stormy evening with the rays of the setting sun filtering through the clouds.

This is a large announcement and a rather powerful one. He speaks of the beginnings of several things: “natural persons,” “justice” reborn, and persevering “liberty and equality.” But in order that these things rise, there must be a death of other things — things that are “dissoluble,” “politics” of old, and “limits” to unity and friendship. The birth of the former things all return back to who a person is, not what a person does. One cannot do “natural,” they either are natural or are not. And though someone can technically do a just act, real justice is continual. If I treat one person justly and then scorn another, then I have actually treated the first person with favoritism and preference, which is the opposite of justice. The same argument holds true for liberty and equality. The second list Whitman brings up is a group of finite actions that bring about ends. Dissolving something is a permanent action done upon another object. (Once something is dissolved, it ceases to exist and can no longer “become” anything.) Politics and limits are tools that act on other objects and persons to curb or stop without inconveniencing the person who enacts them.

I am not suggesting that actions are meaningless, or that they are not a part of becoming, rather actions feed the person that one becomes. Whitman announces in his poem what he desires the people of this world, and particularly for him, the people of America, to become. But becoming is hard and toilsome. His announcement does not “make it so” — unlike Yule Brynner’s character in The Ten Commandments who claims, “So it shall be written, so it shall be done!”[3] The becoming is announced, but now it must be consummated by those who it has been announced about. Whitman has left his song “To ages and ages yet the growth of the seed leaving, To troops out of the war arising, they the tasks I have set promulging…” this announcement is left to them, and they must bring it about. The difficulty in becoming this announcement lies in the actions that must be carried out in order for the prophecy to be realized. Like I mentioned before, one is only just if every action is just. Unfortunately, the reverse is not true; one unjust act does make one unjust.

So if any negative action negates the whole of a positive characteristic, how shall one become the positive characteristics Whitman lays before us? Whitman’s poem is not about how one gets rid of the negative actions that corrupt his vision of (American) humanity. He is only a prophet speaking what he sees, though there are two aspects to his poem that could aid us in searching out for ourselves how to go about this transformation. First, he states back in the forth stanza that he has “press’d through in his own right.” For Whitman, there is something intrinsic in himself that leads him on to come to these conclusions that he announces. His “own right” has led him to sing the songs that he mentions. But how does one consummate the announcements that he has made? I will now step outside the poem for the second explanation. If we look at the idea of the poem as a whole, we see that Whitman’s poem is about giving a picture to us of a glorious mankind before he leaves this world. In the end he passes his song on to the “camerado” who holds him and whom he holds.

Remember my words, I may again return, I love you, I depart from materials, I am as one disembodied, triumphant, dead.

He has left himself and his vision to the one who is next. His vision is to be the guide of the one who holds his song. Guidance through his words could be a key to the becoming that which Whitman envisions. But this is truly conjecture based on surveying the poem from above and at a distance. Whitman does not give clear instructions on how one becomes what he envisions. However, he holds to his vision as a something that must be remembered, revisited, and returned to so that his spirit might speak through it.

Though June is filled with goodbyes and ends in my universe, but it is also in the middle of the calendar year and the beginning of the most coveted time in my world: summer break — a time of rest and renewal for the next school year. America’s birthday follows shortly after (as does Canada’s, France’s and several other nations). As we consider ends, we must also pursue beginnings. Like Whitman suggests, we must press through. Saint Paul adds to this idea by encouraging us to forget what is behind and press forward. Let us forget the actions that have hindered us in the past from becoming the just, uncompromising in equality, united, and compassionate characters we wish to become and search for guidance to throw off those preferential actions of injustice, dissonance, and unkindness. Let us put to death these actions and rise resurrected and reborn in our becoming!

[1] All block quotation are from: Whitman, Walt. “So Long!” Selected Poems, Dover, 1991, pp. 12–19.

[2] Ecclesiastes 1:2. The Bible. New King James Version, Thomas Nelson Bibles, 1997.

[3] Brynner, Yule, performer. The Ten Commandments. Paramount Pictures, 1956.

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