06 August 2010

Whitman the psalmist

A literature professor told me a few years ago that the poetic structure and voice of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass was very close to that of the King James version of the book of Psalms. The King James Bible was the one book in everybody's house when Walt grew up and he was taught to read from it. Among the easiest books to read is Psalms, so he naturally became a psalmist in style. I have looked for confirmation of this idea intermittently and have not yet found a good source.

I decided to perform a short experiment. I examined one of my favorite Whitman passages, the last stanza in Song of Myself. Then I went to the Psalms, started at Ps. 23 and searched forward until I found one that was roughly the same length. This was fast as I chose Ps. 26 to be close. Then I counted the feet.

Song of myself, stanza number 52

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me—he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed—I too am untranslatable;
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me;
It flings my likeness after the rest, and true as any, on the shadow’d wilds;
It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air—I shake my white locks at the runaway sun;
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeathe myself to the dirt, to grow from the grass I love;
If you want me again, look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am, or what I mean;
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged;
Missing me one place, search another;
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

King James Psalm 26

1Judge me, O LORD; for I have walked in mine integrity: I have trusted also in the LORD; therefore I shall not slide.

2Examine me, O LORD, and prove me; try my reins and my heart.

3For thy lovingkindness is before mine eyes: and I have walked in thy truth.

4I have not sat with vain persons, neither will I go in with dissemblers.

5I have hated the congregation of evil doers; and will not sit with the wicked.

6I will wash mine hands in innocency: so will I compass thine altar, O LORD:

7That I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.

8LORD, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honour dwelleth.

9Gather not my soul with sinners, nor my life with bloody men:

10In whose hands is mischief, and their right hand is full of bribes.

11But as for me, I will walk in mine integrity: redeem me, and be merciful unto me.

12My foot standeth in an even place: in the congregations will I bless the LORD.


By my counts, Whitman Song of Myself stanza 52:

7 verses; syllables 22, 29, 39, 31, 29, 20, 26; total 203, average 29;

Psalm 26:

12 verses; syllables 29, 15, 18, 18, 22, 20, 20, 21, 15, 14, 24, 20; total 236, average 20.

This was a fun experiment. From two data points we cannot conclude Psalms is written in decameter and Leaves of Grass is written in pentadecameter, but it might be that Whitman did represent a shift of line lengthening, or a consideration of Psalms as being a book of poetry, first. At the time he began many poets were grooved upon the pentameter line, and poets as late as Alfred Lord Tennyson were concentrating on pentameter. The literature professor is not at all contradicted by my findings.

I have been playing with Natural Language Processing and it seems it would be feasible to construct a line analyzer and construct statistics in an automated fashion for all of the Psalms and Leaves of Grass and quantify this idea. I do not personally know any Natural Language Processing practitioners; perhaps this is a trivial exercise they all do in their first semester class.

As a public speaking exercise, I have been reading aloud from Psalms and Leaves of Grass. My teacher who told me about the resemblance also told me that the voice of Leaves of Grass is the voice of American public discourse. He said any time Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton or Barack Obama gave a speech, it echoed Whitman. He told me professional political speechwriters read Leaves of Grass over and over to use as a template. If one can internalize that voice, it will make his own voice more listenable. I have been doing these readings for around a year and a half, but have not noticed much effect yet.

One thing is unarguable. Whitman is the voice of the psalmist in that he lived one of those verses in Psalm 26--he told us all of God's wondrous works. At times it can seem as if Whitman was obsessed with Ps: 26.7.

That I may publish with the voice of thanksgiving, and tell of all thy wondrous works.

No comments:


Please see paragraphs 8.4, 8.5 in the Google Terms of Service document!

About Craig

My photo
Houston, Texas, United States
I have been living in the lovely neighborhood of Spring Branch in the great city of Houston since late in 2005. I started out with the idea of making this blog about my life in this neighborhood. That did not last long. Right now I am posting every five days on the alternating topics of literature, philosophy, psychology, and metaphysics. This project has been ongoing since July 27, 2010 and I believe it will continue for at least a few more months.