July 15, 2002
In 1855, a middle-aged man by the name of Walt Whitman self-published a collection of poems he entitled Leaves of Grass. While not a success upon its release, it has, of course, become one of the iconic texts of American literature. Whitman’s work has always resonated with me for a variety of reasons: he was a champion of the working classes, a fierce opponent of slavery, and an advocate for equality between men and women. But the biggest reason Whitman remains among my favorite poets is his celebration, as he put it, of the love of comrades.
At our commitment ceremony, my partner and I skipped the bible passages, choosing instead this Whitman poem:
We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going, North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying, elbows stretching, fingers clutching,
Arm’d and fearless, eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning, sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priest alarming, air breathing, water drinking,
On the turf or the sea-beach dancing,
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statues mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.
Given the era in which he lived, it’s understandable that when asked if the “comradeship” which he celebrated was meant to represent physical love between men, Whitman, alarmed, claimed to have six illegitimate children. Sadly, Whitman’s ideal of comradeship was one that seemed to elude him in his own life. His relationship with an illiterate Irish civil war veteran named Peter Doyle often drove him to despair. In his journal he wrote “TO GIVE UP ABSOLUTELY & for good, from the present hour, this FEVERISH, FLUCTUATING, useless UNDIGNIFED PURSUIT of 16.4 – too long (much too long).” The “16.4” was Whitman’s private code: P’s the sixteenth letter in the alphabet, D the fourth, and when put together, they are Peter Doyle’s initials.
Still, when I revisit the Calamus cluster in Leaves of Grass, I feel confident that Walt Whitman, “Old Graybeard," would be happy to discover his work a feature of so many commitment ceremonies today. And I hang on to the hope that Walt and 16.4 -- wherever they may be -- are happy.