Friday, May 31, 2019

Happy Birthday Walt!

Cover to As  a Strong Bird on Pinions FreeToday is Walt Whitman's 200th birthday. When his spirit is not checking out the produce aisle in the supermarket with Allen Ginsberg, he sometimes pays us a visit. You see, in 1872, he was brought to Dartmouth by the United Literary Societies to deliver a poem on Class Day, and wherever Whitman visited a little of his body electric remains.

The poem he read was a new one, written especially for the day: “As a Strong Bird on Pinions Free.” It fit the mood of commencement: it starts by imploring America to move forward and discover its true art and science, building on the past, but uniquely American in its future:
As a strong bird on pinion free,
Joyous, the amplest spaces heavenward cleaving,
Such be the thought I’d think to-day of thee America,
Such be the recitative I’d bring to-day for thee
Then it goes on:
Thee in thy future;
Thee in thy only permanent life, career—thy own unloosen’d mind—thy soaring future.
Thee as another equally needed sun, America—radiant, swift-moving, fructifying all.
First page of As a Strong Bird on Pinons Free
All of that expansive hope and progressive freedom! Whitman’s words would have been such a departure from what had been pounded into the students’ heads the previous four years. When they had entered Dartmouth in 1868, they were faced with a set curriculum with no electives. Freshmen year, they studied Latin, Greek, Mathematics, History; as sophomores, those were joined by a class in modern languages focused on French grammar, Civil Engineering, Rhetoric, and Natural History; Junior year introduced Philosophy and Physics; while seniors enjoyed a class in Anatomy and Physiology and a class in German. American culture was ignored, and God forbid any modern literature would be included from any country. Walt must be amazed when he walks across the Green today.

Note at bottom of poem that it was read at Dartmouth Commencement, 1872
If you want to hear more about his visit, check out our Hindsight is 20/19 podcast episode "Poet 17.50." To see the poem, ask for Rare PS3207.A1 1872.

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