U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Walt Whitman’s Carnivalesque: A Poem for Dark Times

Whitman in the 1850s

Searching for a fitting post for this surreal week, which will see Donald Trump’s inauguration, I stumbled upon an oft neglected Walt Whitman poem that seems to capture the carnivalesque spectacle we will behold over the next four years. Unlike Bakhtin’s carnivalesque however, this episode will most likely not prompt a challenge to the powers that be, but will rather help retrench and revanche longstanding power structures in American society.

Quite fittingly perhaps, Whitman released this poem, first entitled “Poem of the Proposition of Nakedness,” in 1856 for the second edition of Leaves of Grass, as his beloved nation was disintegrating before his eyes. This was the year that saw the election of James Buchanan, widely thought of as one of the worst presidents in the country’s history. It was also the year of Senator Charles Sumner’s infamous caning and of bloody clashes in Kansas between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces over the future of the West.

I am by no stretch of the imagination knowledgable about American poetry, or poetry in general for that matter, and have always had a hard time understanding verse. From the little I know of Whitman however, this poem appears to deviate quite wildly from his usual sanguine sentiments about America and life in general, which is probably one of the reasons he shied away from it in later years. I will stop here from offering any further insights about the poem, for I think it speaks for itself much better than I could ever hope to:

Poem of the Proposition of Nakedness (in later versions entitled “Respondez”) (1)

RESPONDEZ! Respondez!

Let every one answer! Let all who sleep be

waked! Let none evade—not you, any

more than others!

Let that which stood in front go behind! and let

that which was behind advance to the front

and speak!

Let murderers, thieves, tyrants, bigots, unclean

persons, offer new propositions!

Let the old propositions be postponed!

Let faces and theories be turned inside out! Let

meanings be criminal as well as results!

(Say! can results be criminal, and meanings

not criminal?)

Let there be no suggestion besides the suggestion

of drudgery!

Let none be pointed toward his destination!

(Say! do you know your destination?)

Let trillions of men and women be mocked with

bodies and mocked with souls!

Let the love that waits in them, wait! Let it die,

or pass still-born to other spheres!

Let the sympathy that waits in every man, wait!

or let it also pass, a dwarf, to other spheres!

Let contradictions prevail! Let one thing con-

tradict another! and let one line of my poem

contradict another!

Let the people sprawl with yearning aimless

hands! Let their tongues be broken! Let their

eyes be discouraged! Let none descend into

their hearts with the fresh lusciousness of

love!

Let the theory of America be management, caste,

comparison! (Say! what other theory would you?)

Let them that distrust birth and death lead the

rest! (Say! why shall they not lead you?)

Let the crust of hell be neared and trod on! Let

the days be darker than the nights! Let

slumber bring less slumber than waking-time

brings!

Let the world never appear to him or her for

whom it was all made!

Let the heart of the young man exile itself from the

heart of the old man! and let the heart of the

old man be exiled from that of the young man!

Let the sun and moon go! Let scenery take the

applause of the audience! Let there be

apathy under the stars!

Let freedom prove no man’s inalienable right!

Every one who can tyrannize, let him tyran-

nize to his satisfaction!

Let none but infidels be countenanced!

Let the eminence of meanness, treachery,

sarcasm, hate, greed, indecency, impotence,

lust, be taken for granted above all! Let

poems, judges, governments, households,

religions, philosophies, take such for granted

above all!

Let the worst men beget children out of the worst

women!

Let priests still play at immortality!

Let death be inaugurated!

Let nothing remain upon the earth except

teachers, artists, moralists, lawyers, and

learned and polite persons!

Let him who is without my poems be assas-

sinated!

Let the cow, the horse, the camel, the garden-bee

—Let the mud-fish, the lobster, the mussel,

eel, the sting-ray and the grunting pig-

fish—Let these, and the like of these, be

put on a perfect equality with man and

woman!

Let churches accommodate serpents, vermin, and

the corpses of those who have died of the

most filthy of diseases!

Let marriage slip down among fools, and be for

none but fools!

Let men among themselves talk obscenely of wo-

men! and let women among themselves talk

obscenely of men!

Let every man doubt every woman! and let every

woman trick every man!

Let us all, without missing one, be exposed in pub-

lic, naked, monthly, at the peril of our lives!

Let our bodies be freely handled and examined

by whoever chooses!

Let nothing but love-songs, pictures, statues, ele-

gant works, be permitted to exist upon the earth!

Let the earth desert God, nor let there ever hence-

forth be mentioned the name of God!

Let there be no God!

Let there be money, business, railroads, imports,

exports, custom, authority, precedents, pallor,

dyspepsia, smut, ignorance, unbelief!

Let judges and criminals be transposed! Let the

prison-keepers be put in prison! Let those

that were prisoners take the keys! (Say!

why might they not just as well be trans-

posed?)

Let the slaves be masters! Let the masters

become slaves!

Let the reformers descend from the stands where

they are forever bawling! Let an idiot or

insane person appear on each of the stands!

Let the Asiatic, the African, the European, the

American and the Australian, go armed against

the murderous stealthiness of each other! Let

them sleep armed! Let none believe in good-

will!

Let there be no living wisdom! Let such be

scorned and derided off from the earth!

Let a floating cloud in the sky—Let a wave of

the sea—Let one glimpse of your eye-sight

upon the landscape or grass—Let growing

mint, spinach, onions, tomatoes—Let these

be exhibited as shows at a great price for

admission!

Let all the men of These States stand aside for a

few smouchers! Let the few seize on what

they choose! Let the rest gawk, giggle

starve, obey!

Let shadows be furnished with genitals! Let

substances be deprived of their genitals!

Let there be immense cities—but through any of

them, not a single poet, saviour, knower, lover!

Let the infidels of These States laugh all faith

away! If one man be found who has faith,

let the rest set upon him! Let them affright

faith! Let them destroy the power of breed-

ing faith!

Let the she-harlots and the he-harlots be prudent!

Let them dance on, while seeming lasts! (O

seeming! seeming! seeming!)

Let the preachers recite creeds! Let the preach-

ers of creeds never dare to go meditate upon

the hills, alone, by day or by night! (If one

ever once dare, he is lost!)

Let insanity have charge of sanity!

Let books take the place of trees, animals, rivers,

clouds!

Let the portraits of heroes supersede heroes!

Let the manhood of man never take steps after

itself! Let it take steps after eunuchs, and

after consumptive and genteel persons!

Let the white person tread the black person under

his heel! (Say! which is trodden under

heel, after all?)

Let the reflections of the things of the world be

studied in mirrors! Let the things them-

selves continue unstudied!

Let a man seek pleasure everywhere except in

himself! Let a woman seek happiness

everywhere except in herself! (Say! what

real happiness have you had one single time

through your whole life?)

Let the limited years of life do nothing for the

limitless years of death! (Say! what do

you suppose death will do, then?)

And might I add: let the next four years not be as bad as we think they might.

[1] Copied from: http://www.whitmanarchive.org:8080/published/LG/1856/poems/30

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