Walt Whitman, the Epic Poet and Peter Doyle, the Streetcar Conductor and Muse

“Walt Whitman is the only established epic poet of America. He is the single American figure that both American and European artists and critics most often put in a class or throw into a category with Shakespeare, Dante and Homer.” (A. Carl Sandburg)

Walt Whitman and Peter Doyle were near-constant companions for seven years. Martin Murray has written that the “effects of [Whitman’s] friendship with Doyle may also be seen in the 1867 edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

In 1865, Walt Whitman was in the prime of his life. At 45, the great American poet was already an accomplished literary figure, having published several editions of Leaves of Grass, as well as other works. But even still, 1865 would prove transformative for Whitman: at some point early in the year, he was introduced to Peter Doyle, his longtime friend, lover, and “Calamus” muse.

Doyle was just 21 years old when he met Whitman in Washington D.C. – but age wasn’t the only dissimilarity in the relationship. While Whitman was a masterful writer and ardent Unionist, Doyle was virtually illiterate, a Confederate veteran and worked as a streetcar conductor. But despite the odds against them, the pair became great companions, a relationship that would last until Whitman’s death in 1892.

We selected two sections of the “Song of Myself,” from the edition that was changed to celebrate his love for Peter.

Today is the World Poetry Day.

Song of Myself

Section 46, 47

I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.

If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
And in due time you shall repay the same service to me,
For after we start we never lie by again.

This day before dawn I ascended a hill and look’d at the crowded heaven,
And I said to my spirit When we become the enfolders of those
orbs, and the pleasure and knowledge of every thing in
them, shall we be fill’d and satisfied then?
And my spirit said No, we but level that lift to pass and continue
beyond.

You are also asking me questions and I hear you,
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.
Sit a while dear son,
Here are biscuits to eat and here is milk to drink,
But as soon as you sleep and renew yourself in sweet clothes, I
kiss you with a good-by kiss and open the gate for your egress hence.

Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.

Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.

I am the teacher of athletes,
He that by me spreads a wider breast than my own proves the width of my own,
He most honors my style who learns under it to destroy the teacher.

The boy I love, the same becomes a man not through derived power, but in his own right,
Wicked rather than virtuous out of conformity or fear,
Fond of his sweetheart, relishing well his steak,
Unrequited love or a slight cutting him worse than sharp steel cuts,
First-rate to ride, to fight, to hit the bull’s eye, to sail a skiff, to sing a song or play on the banjo,
Preferring scars and the beard and faces pitted with small-pox over all latherers,
And those well-tann’d to those that keep out of the sun.

I teach straying from me, yet who can stray from me?
I follow you whoever you are from the present hour,
My words itch at your ears till you understand them.

I do not say these things for a dollar or to fill up the time while I wait for a boat,
(It is you talking just as much as myself, I act as the tongue of you,
Tied in your mouth, in mine it begins to be loosen’d.)

I swear I will never again mention love or death inside a house,
And I swear I will never translate myself at all, only to him or her who privately stays with me in the open air.

If you would understand me go to the heights or water-shore,
The nearest gnat is an explanation, and a drop or motion of waves a key,
The maul, the oar, the hand-saw, second my words.

No shutter’d room or school can commune with me,
But roughs and little children better than they.

The young mechanic is closest to me, he knows me well,
The woodman that takes his axe and jug with him shall take me with him all day,
The farm-boy ploughing in the field feels good at the sound of my voice,
In vessels that sail my words sail, I go with fishermen and seamen and love them.
The soldier camp’d or upon the march is mine,
On the night ere the pending battle many seek me, and I do not fail them,
On that solemn night (it may be their last) those that know me seek me.

My face rubs to the hunter’s face when he lies down alone in his blanket,
The driver thinking of me does not mind the jolt of his wagon,
The young mother and old mother comprehend me,
The girl and the wife rest the needle a moment and forget where they are,
They and all would resume what I have told them.

Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” from Leaves of Grass (: Norton, 1973)
Source: Leaves of Grass (final “Death-Bed” edition, 1891-2) (David McKay, 1892)

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