Lord Byron (George Gordon Byron) (1788-1824)
and Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
The opportunity to compare the British Romantic poet Lord Byron and the American Mystic/Transcendentalist poet Walt Whitman allows a comparison of a P-B context with the context of P-A. Each poet is an expression of his worldview and is necessarily limited as well as inspired by the narrative that contains him.
Romantics live in a world that is by definition “imaginative but not practical and not based on fact.” This romantic “sub-paradigm” of P-B, then, is problematic because we know that the most successful people who have lived on the planet were those who best understood the nature of reality and lived life in a practical way. In short, they were able to create for themselves an experience of happiness and meaningful self-expression in the present moment.
Lord Byron, as we shall see, created for himself an inordinate amount of suffering while expressing his anguish with beautiful poetry. He begins life, as we all do, with the delusional identity that has him believing that his body, his mind and his emotions are who he is. This identification with the body is revealed in his poetry as a neurotic focus on aging, death and disease.
When the life of a young cousin is taken by the “King of Terrors” he visits her tomb and expresses his grief in Epitaph on a Friend.
What fruitless tears have bathed thy honour’d bier!
What sighs re-echo’d to thy parting breath,
Whilst thou was struggling in the pangs of death!
Could tears retard the tyrant in his course;
Could sighs avert his dart’s relentless force;
Could youth and virtue claim a short delay,
Or beauty charm the spectre from his prey;
Thou still hadst lived to bless my aching sight,
Thy comrade’s honour and thy friend’s delight.[i]
In the poem To Caroline, it is the ageing process and disease that has him “reacting” against the principle of impermanence and creating anxiety about the future, once again all created by identifying with the body:
That age will come on, when remembrance, deploring,
Contemplates the scenes of her youth with a tear,
That time must arrive, when, no longer retaining
Their auburn, those locks must wave thin to the breeze,
When a few silver hairs of those tresses remaining,
Prove nature a prey to decay and disease.[ii]
In our failure to choose to live our lives in the context of P-A, we find that we are mesmerized by the guilt, shame and regret of the past or threatened by the imagined future. We dread with anxiety that which will never come to pass unless we insist on creating it. Byron is often melancholy both longing for some lost Paradise that he imagined existed in his youth or longing to recreate his Eden by the romantics’ “impractical imagining.” From his poem The First Kiss of Love:
Some portion of paradise still is on earth,
And Eden revives in the first kiss of love.[iii]
And yet Byron’s intuition regarding the existence of an innocent state and the yearning to return to paradise is not after all impractical or unattainable. He longs for Simple Reality and “feels” it as his natural state in epiphanies common to us all.
Speaking of lyrics written for musical accompaniment in Byron’s Hebrew Melodies, Frank Magill (author of our reference book Masterpieces of World Literature) senses the mood, “From the beginning, Byron’s lyrics are pervaded by this sense of the passionate exile’s desire for the sanctuary of love and beauty, a sanctuary reminiscent of all that the fallen world has lost.”[iv]
Unfortunately, in the culture that he was born into, Byron cannot find support or a process for discovering his sanctuary, his natural state, and eventually grows weary of seeking it. His poem So We’ll Go No More A Roving expresses his waning energy in 1817:
For the sword outwears its sheath
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.[v]
The energy required to maintain the false-self survival strategy, the delusion of P-B, can lead to what we might call spiritual exhaustion. Written only a few months before his death at age 36, his poem To the Countess of Blessington Byron expresses this weariness:
I am ashes where once I was fire
And the bard in my bosom is dead;
What I loved I now merely admire,
And my heart is as grey as my head.[vi]
To one degree or another, life in P-B is characterized by a “victim mentality” whether it is that of a romantic poet or a performer of twangy, “woe is me” country music. The victim perspective in the case of Byron resulted in wonderful romantic poetry but also a life of misery for the sensitive young poet.
The compassion (not romantic love or sentimentality), the beauty, and the innocence that we seek is always present within us, not “out there.” What Byron, the quintessential Romantic, failed to attain is available to all of us and Simple Reality makes it possible. Our next poet, Walt Whitman lived within a different narrative and that made all the difference.
Walt Whitman was profoundly influenced by Emerson’s transcendental worldview which also shaped his identity and behavior. “Whitman’s persona in the poems—like the poems themselves—became a crucible for apotheosis, wherein any division between subject and object would be resolved, all categories fused into one; that oneness was to be voiced by the transcendent persona’s self.”[vii]
In other words, Whitman lived within the worldview defined as Oneness not merely close to nature, but “as nature.” Many 19th century Americans lived close to nature and were, unlike Europeans, very self-reliant. Agrarian life on the frontier required it and transformed the settlers and farmers who lived there.
Whitman was the first American poet to write as an American not an American writing in the European form and style. He was liberated from the constraints of the European version of P-B and soared high above the common landscape.
“From childhood to adulthood, the ‘Walt Whitman’ in Leaves of Grass has developed his identity through a metaphysical merging with everything around him, as the poet makes clear in the tenth poem ‘There Was a Child Went Forth.’”
There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he looked upon and received
with wonder or pity or dread,
that object he became
And that object became part of him for the day
or a certain part of the day
or for many years or stretching cycles of the years.[viii]
Whitman was transcending his false self in his poetry and in the way he lived his life, his life had become a meditation. “Such a ‘child,’ whether eight or eighty, ‘who went forth every day,’ realizes immortality insofar as he slips free of the shackles of personality, [and] enters into a timeless union with all around him.”[ix]
What was necessary for the freedom to enter Oneness was the rejection of institutionalized religion and Emerson helped Whitman with that. “Transcendentalism expressed a desire to mend the supposed split between God and man in order to glorify God-Man, and they insisted that Christ be seen as a historical personage, a man, and—though wiser—no more or less godlike than other humans.”[x]
Whitman in his poetry and in his life climbed the highest peak a human can scale. He experienced the reality of the present moment. “I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am the encloser of things to be.”[xi] Whitman embodied the spirit of those Americans who lived on the frontier, which was officially closed in his lifetime (1890), and “created a revolutionary form of poetry.”[xii]
He did much more than that because he embodied an identity and a behavior that showed us how we can learn to live on this planet in harmony with the rest of Creation. No poet could ever envision and express greater beauty than that.
[i] Magill, Frank N. [ed.]. Masterpieces of World Literature. New York: Harper. 1989, page 474.
[ii] Ibid., pages 474-475.
[iii] Ibid., page 475.
[iv] Ibid., page 476.
[vii] Ibid., page 453.
[x] Ibid., page 454.
[xi] Ibid., page 455.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.