There are times when music fits the mood exactly. We all have those songs we reserve for romantic evenings, for long distance runs, for studying or writing. Just because I don’t enjoy military marches sitting alone at home does not mean I want anything less than hearty, full Sousa at Independence Day parades.
Few of us are so literate as to have a similar playlist of poets for each occasion. I certainly do not. There are, however, certain days and certain poets who seem to go together. Tiny doses of Walt Whitman work best for me, but if there is ever a day to enjoy a full portion of the poet-priest of Americana it is on what he called, “America’s choosing day”, the day his beloved national community casts its votes. Just as belief must sometimes overcome priest and church to reunite with the divine, so willing citizens step into the polling booth confessional to reaffirm their faith not in a candidate or a party, but in the democratic process itself.
So here is a Walt Whitman sampler for Election Day, 2014, a gift to partisans on every side. The first two call into question easy obedience; the last reminds us that now, as at the end of the Civil War, a nation must grow through adversity. And sandwiched in between is Whitman’s hymn to Election Day, 1884.
TO THE STATES (1860)
To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States, Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city, of this earth, ever afterward resumes its liberty.
Of obedience, faith, adhesiveness;
As I stand aloof and look there is to me something profoundly affecting in large masses of men following the lead of those who do not believe in men.
ELECTION DAY, NOVEMBER, 1884 (1884)
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show,
‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado,
Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing
Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream:
—This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day,
(The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,)
The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—
Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California,
The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict,
The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict,
Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all,
Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross:
—Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—while the heart pants, life glows:
These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships,
Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
LONG, TOO LONG AMERICA (1865)
Long, too long America,
Traveling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and
But now, ah now, to learn from crises of anguish, advancing,
grappling with direst fate and recoiling not,
And now to conceive and show to the world what your children
en-masse really are,
(For who except myself has yet conceiv’d what your children en-masse