OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

Today’s poem is one often encountered by high school English students in the United States, though it may be less frequently seen in other English-speaking countries.

It is by the poet, novelist and teacher Roy Helton (1886-1977), who was born in Washington, D.C., but resided mainly in Pennsylvania.

In spite of his urban upbringing and residence, he also spent much time in the Appalachian regions of South Carolina and Kentucky — places settled in early days by immigrants from the British Isles.

The Education Manual (EM 131) — put out by the United States Armed Forces Institute — says of him in its Volume 1, which deals with “Modern American and British Poetry”:

Roy (Addison) Helton was born at Washington, D. C., in 1886 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1908.  He studied art — and found he was color-blind.  He spent two years at inventions — and found he had no business sense.  After a few more experiments he became a schoolmaster in West Philadelphia and at the Penn Charter School in Germantown …

…Helton became intimately connected with primitive backgrounds, spending a great part of his time in the mountains of South Carolina and Kentucky.

Of today’s poem, it says:

Old Christmas Morning” is a Kentucky Mountain dialogue in which Helton has introduced an element rare in modern verse.  Told with the directness of an old ballad, this drama of the night twelve days after the universally celebrated Christmas unfolds a ghost story in which the surprise is heightened by the skillful suspensions.

Appropriately, Helton wrote the poem in Kentucky dialect.  Though it may be over-explaining for some readers,  I will nonetheless thoroughly define the dialect words for those who may know English only as their second language.

Before we begin, you should know that due to use of a different calendar, Christmas used to be celebrated in early British colonial America on January 6th.  In 1752 the Gregorian Calendar was adopted by Britain and its colonies — including America — which meant that the date of Christmas shifted earlier to December 25th.  In spite of the change, many people kept the memory of the original date of celebration as “Old Christmas,” as opposed to the new December 25th celebration.  Given the conservative nature of the hill people of the southeastern United States, it is not surprising that the memory of the old date was retained, along with some of its traditional beliefs and superstitions.  Some considered “Old Christmas” the true Christmas, and even continued to celebrate on the old date as late as the 20th century.

The poem is a dialogue between two  hill women in the Appalachian mountains of the state of Kentucky.  As usual, I will take it stanza by stanza.  We begin when one woman finds another at her door in the dark hours early on the morning of “Old Christmas” — January 6th.

OLD CHRISTMAS MORNING

“Where are you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

The housewife asks the other woman where she is coming from so early in the snow.  And she asks her “what’s them pretties you got in your hand…?

In Kentucky mountain dialect, a “pretty” or “purty” is a word with several meanings, but in general it is something that is pretty, like flowers, or little ornamental objects or decorations, etc.  In the form “play-pretty,” it means a child’s toy.  Here I like to think that in spite of the winter snow, Lomey Carter is carrying something that looks like flowers.

She also asks Lomey, “…where you aiming to go?”  — meaning “Where are you intending to go?”

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

She invites the woman at her door to step inside the house, using the term of endearment “Honey.”  She politely and apologetically adds that, though it is Old Christmas morning, she does not have much to offer her guest to eat in hospitality — perhaps a little of something sweet and some corn bread, and a little ham and such things.

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

In spite of her simple food offerings, she urges Lomey to come inside the house.  She adds that “Sally Anne Barton” — meaning herself — is hungering after Lomey’s face.  By that she means she has missed seeing her face and having her company and conversation.  Sally asks her to wait a moment while she lights a candle, because it is still very early and the house is dark inside.  And as she attempts to light the candle, she tells her guest, “Set down!  There’s your old place.”  By “set down” she means “sit down.”  And in saying “There’s your old place,” she lets the reader know that these two women used to be close friends, so close that Lomey had her own accustomed place to sit in when she came visiting at Sally’s house.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

Sally asks Lomey where she has been so airly/early in the morning.  Lomey replies that she has been to the graveyard, up by the trace/footpath in the salt lick meadows.  A salt lick is a place where mineral salts are found in the ground or near a spring.  They were important because animals — both wild and domestic — need salt, and will seek out a salt lick — so called because there the animals lick up the salt.  Many salt licks exist in Kentucky, and there is even a town called Salt Lick.  So Lomey is speaking of meadows where a salt lick is found.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

Sally tells Lomey that “Taulbe ain’t to home this morning“, or in standard English, “Taulbe is not at home this morning.”  Taulbe — pronouncedTall-bee and usually spelled Taulbee — is a surname found in Kentucky and elsewhere in the Appalachians, but it can also be used  — like here — as a first name.

Sally adds that she is having trouble trying to “scratch up a light,” that is,  trying to get a match to light so that she may light the candle with it.  She explains that the dampness in the air gets into the heads of the matches, which makes them hard to ignite by scratching them on a rough surface.  So not being able to light a candle, she says, “I’ll blow up the embers bright.”  She will blow on the hot coals remaining in the fireplace, to get a little light from them to illuminate the dark room.

Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

Lomey tells Sally she need not bother trying to blow up the embers, because Lomey will not be stopping/staying.  She adds that she still has a long way to go.  We shall see the significance of this “long way to go” later.

Sally asks, “You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter, up on the graveyard hill?”  By that she is really asking, “Did you see anything at the graveyard up on the hill?”

What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.”
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.

Lomey replies by asking, “What should I see there?”, and Sally tells her that “sperits do walk last night.”  She is repeating the belief that on the night before Old Christmas, ghosts and spirits walk about.

Lomey replies that “there were/was an elder bush a-blooming while the moon still give/gave some light.”  Traditionally the elder is considered a bush with supernatural qualities, and for it to bloom on Old Christmas in the midst of winter cold, is a supernatural event — heightened here by its being seen in moonlight.  That flowers might bloom at midnight on Old Christmas was a traditional folk belief.  And we may consider that these blooms relate to the “pretties” Lomey carries.

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?
One thing more I saw:

Sally agrees that such an unusual thing can happen at the time of Old Christmas, and she also repeats the folk belief that at midnight, the critters /creatures in the barn will kneel in the straw, which originally was believed to happen in honor the birth of Jesus.  Sally asks Lomey if she noticed anything else in the graveyard, and Lomey replies that she saw one more thing:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.
“What did he say?”
He stooped and kissed me.
“What did he say to you?”

This stanza tells us that Lomey’s man — her husband — had earlier been murdered by Sally’s husband Taulbe.  Now we know why Sally told her earlier in the poem that Taulbe was not at home:  it would be safe for Lomey to come in while he was away.  Lomey says that she saw her husband — meaning the ghost of her husband — in the graveyard, with his head still bleeding from the bullet wound Taulbe had given him.

Sally asks what the ghost said, and Lomey replies, “He stooped and kissed me,” but does not answer Sally’s question, so Sally repeats it.  Lomey then answers:

Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.

Lomey tells Salley that the ghost said, “Lord Jesus forguv/forgave your Taulbe,” but he also said “another word” — something else, very softly, when he kissed her.  And that was the last thing she heard him say.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

Sally repeats what she told Lomey earlier — that Taulbe ain’t/is not to/at home this morning.  Lomey responds by saying she knows that, because she kilt/killed him coming down through the meadow where Taulbe kilt/killed her man/husband.  She explains:

I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun

And kilt him as he come past.

Lomey met Taulbe on the meadow trace/footpath when the moon were/was fainting fast, that is, close to fading or setting.  She had the rifle of her dead husband, and she shot and killed Taulbe as he passed by her.

Sally responds, and Lomey answers:

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.

Sally says she heard two shots, not one.  Lomey explains the second shot:  “‘Twas/it was his”.  Taulbe shot Lomey before he died.  Here we may assume that Lomey’s ghost husband’s last and soft “word” to her was essentially that though Jesus may have forgiven Taulbe, Lomey’s husband did not, and wanted him dead.  And finally Lomey reveals to Sally that she too is a ghost, and that Sally will find both Lomey’s body and that of Taulbe lying together dead when daybreak brings light to the scene.

 

So that’s it.  This poem is a ghost story based on one of the bitter grudges that sometimes turned into family feuds and killing in the Appalachian mountains.  It is very reminiscent of the Child Ballads, old songs of England and Scotland that were sometimes also passed down in the folk musical traditions of the Appalachian immigrants from those regions.  They are called the Child Ballads because they were collected in the latter half of the 19th century by Francis James Child.  They often dealt with love and death and murder.  In this similarity we see how cleverly Roy Helton formed his poem, and his use of a regional dialect — also found in the Child Ballads — adds to the effect, making the poem seem older than it is.

Now you will recall that early in the poem, Lomey Carter says she won’t be stopping, because she still has a long way to go.  That refers to an old belief that on death the soul must make its long journey into the afterlife.  There is a similar view in the old English poem in Yorkshire dialect titled “Lyke Wake Dirge.”

In explaining this poem, I mentioned a town in Kentucky named Salt Lick, and it is perhaps an interesting side note that according to local belief, the Polksville Cemetery at Salt Lick is one of the most haunted in the state.

For ease of reading, here is the whole poem at one go:

“Where you coming from, Lomey Carter,
So airly over the snow?
And what’s them pretties you got in your hand,
And where you aiming to go?

“Step in, Honey: Old Christmas morning
I ain’t got nothing much;
Maybe a bite of sweetness and corn bread,
A little ham meat and such,

“But come in, Honey! Sally Anne Barton’s
Hungering after your face.
Wait till I light my candle up:
Set down! There’s your old place.

Now where you been so airly this morning?”
“Graveyard, Sally Anne.
Up by the trace in the salt lick meadows
Where Taulbe kilt my man.”

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning . . .
I can’t scratch up a light:
Dampness gets on the heads of the matches;
But I’ll blow up the embers bright.”

“Needn’t trouble. I won’t be stopping:
Going a long ways still.”
“You didn’t see nothing, Lomey Carter,
Up on the graveyard hill?”

“What should I see there, Sally Anne Barton?”
“Well, sperits do walk last night.”
There were an elder bush a-blooming
While the moon still give some light.‘”

“Yes, elder bushes, they bloom, Old Christmas,
And critters kneel down in their straw.
Anything else up in the graveyard?”
One thing more I saw:

I saw my man with his head all bleeding
Where Taulbe’s shot went through.
“What did he say?” “He stooped and kissed me.
“What did he say to you?”

Said, Lord Jesus forguv your Taulbe;
But he told me another word;
He said it soft when he stooped and kissed me.
That were the last I heard.

“Taulbe ain’t to home this morning.”
I know that, Sally Anne,
For I kilt him, coming down through the meadow
Where Taulbe kilt my man.

I met him upon the meadow trace
When the moon were fainting fast,
And I had my dead man’s rifle gun
And kilt him as he come past.

“But I heard two shots.” “‘Twas his was second:
He shot me ‘fore be died:
You’ll find us at daybreak, Sally Anne Barton:
I’m laying there dead at his side.

LEAVING OUR DAILY LIVES TO RETURN ANEW: ROBERT FROST’S BIRCHES

There are few trees so beautiful in the snow of winter as the birch, with its paper-white bark highlighted with slashes of black. The American poet Robert Frost wrote a very well-known poem about birches in winter. Reading it is like listening to the musings of a New England farmer, but of course Robert Frost is only “rural” on the surface. He was really a very sophisticated writer, and it is this combination of the apparent simplicity and rusticity of a farmer combined with an obviously deep mind that gives us the particular pleasure we find in reading Frost’s poetry.

As usual, I will divide the poem into segments for convenience:

BIRCHES

When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the line of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.

The poet, out in the woods in winter, has observed the slender birch trees bending this way and bending that, unlike the straight, upright stance of other trees around them, trees with bark that seems, in winter, much darker than the white, leafless birches. He tells the reader, as though just speaking conversationally, that when he sees the birches leaning over instead of standing straight, he likes to pretend to himself that some country boy has been swinging them. Why? Because, of course, it is a pleasant thought that reminds him of his own childhood, and also sets him to musing about other things.

But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay.
Ice-storms do that. Often you must have seen them

Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.

Our poet, though he likes to imagine and pretend, is nonetheless also a realist; he knows that the birches do not really lean because a boy has been swinging them. The true reason is that the birches are bent down in winter ice storms. An ice storm is a rain that falls into a colder layer of air and freezes on whatever it touches, which in a forested area is trees. They become coated with a heavy, silver-white layer of shining ice, which is why when I was a boy, people used to call such an ice storm a “silver thaw.” It is very beautiful, but can also be damaging because the weight of the accumulating ice can break branches. Nonetheless, a good ice storm is a very lovely sight, particularly when the sky clears and the sun shines upon a glittering world.

If there is a wind, it moves the branches, causing their ice coating to click as they tap one another, and the sunlit ice takes on various tints and colors as the “stir,” that is, the movement of the ice-coated branches, cracks and crazes the ice. “Crazes” here means that it creates a network of fine line cracks all over the icy surface. Frost calls the ice coating “enamel,” likening it to the melted glass laid over metal and other bases in the making of jewelry and other objects, a craft called enamelling.

Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow-crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.

As the sun warms the ice-coated branches, It gradually begins to melt the area where ice and branch meet, and so the ice begins to fall from the branches like “crystal shells,” as the outer ice casing loosens and breaks away. The loosened ice fragments fall and shatter and slide about on the frozen, hard crust of the snow that covers the ground beneath and around the trees. Frost likens the heaps of ice casings fallen from the branches to “heaps of broken glass” to be swept away, but of course that is another poetic fancy. He says there is so much of this ice “broken glass” on the snow that one would think the “inner dome of heaven” had fallen.

This notion of heaven (the sky) as a transparent dome is very ancient. It is the view of the world found in the Old Testament, where if one looked up into the sky, one could see through the transparent, round dome that covered the earth into the blue “waters above the firmament,” a kind of sea of waters held up by the transparent dome, the supposed reason why the sky is blue. Of course Frost did not believe such a “glass” dome really existed, he just considered it a pleasant fanciful notion, like his pretending that a boy had been swinging the leaning birches.

They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:

Have you noticed how Frost keeps alternating from poetic imagination to factual reality? First he talks of birches bent down by a boy swinging them, then he says that is not the real reason why birches bend; then he goes into another fantasy about the transparent, glassy dome of heaven having fallen, and the shining debris needing to be swept away, and now he is back to talking again about why ice storms make birches lean. The heavy load of ice encasing them in an ice storm bends the birches down to “the withered bracken,” that is, the dry and withered ferns. And, he says, the birches do not seem to actually break, but nonetheless, once they have been bent over for quite some time in an ice storm that lasts a long while, they never are again able to “right themselves,” that is, they are never able to stand up straight once more, but continue to grow in a leaning position.

And now Frost alternates from reality back to poetic fantasy again:

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.

Years after the ice storm that has weighed the birch trees down, bending them over toward the ground, one may still see, in spring and summer and autumn, the trunks of the birches bent over in the woods, trailing their leaves on the ground. And here the poetic fantasy is that the birch trees are like country girls with long hair, who after they have washed it, get down on their hands and knees and throw their long hair over their heads to spread it out and dry it in the warm sunlight. Comparing the leaning birches trailing their leaves to girls on hands and knees drying their hair spread out upon the ground is of course a simile, as we can easily see from the use of the word “like.” When we say one thing is “like” another, we are using simile (pronounced SIM-il-lee). When we say one thing IS another, we are using metaphor. Frost used metaphor earlier in the poem, when he said the fallen ice was “heaps of broken glass to sweep away.”

But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
(Now am I free to be poetical?)

Frost tells us plainly that he knows he is alternating between truth and poetic fancy, and now that he has taken care of the “truth” about ice storms causing birches to lean, he says to the reader, “Well, now that that obligation to truth has been fulfilled, am I now free to just be poetic? Of course we really know that he has been going back and forth between “truth” and poetic fancy all along. But now he launches into a more detailed description of his poetic fancy that leaning birches are so because a boy has been swinging them:

I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.

I grew up in the country, so I know well how the play of country boys is often what they can find for themselves, whether in summer or in winter. And Frost likes to think that this swinging of birches was a form of self-entertainment found by some isolated country boy for amusement to break the monotony of his daily chore of taking the cows out to pasture or bringing the cows back home.

One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer…

Frost’s imaginary boy, playing by himself, liked to pretend the birches were opponents in battle that he could attack and “subdue,” that is, overcome and conquer by bending them down with his own weight. He would climb them until the slim trunks bent under his weight, and ride them down to the ground, over and over again, until all the tree-firm stiffness was “beaten” out of them, and not a single one stood straight and tall, not a single one was left unconquered. That is Frost’s fantasy, based on what country boys really do.

And now Frost discusses swinging technique:

He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.

The country boy knew that he could not swing his feet out too soon, because if he was holding too low onto the tree trunk, his weight would not bend it down to the ground. So he had to carefully and patiently climb to the more slender part of the tree, the top branches, climbing carefully so as not to bend it too soon, climbing with the same care one would use to fill a cup up with liquid to the maximum it could hold.

Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.

Having reached just the right height on the birch tree, the boy, still holding onto the top of it, would fling his feet outward, the momentum of it helping to suddenly bend the tree so low that the boy’s feet would touch the ground.

Now, having discussed all of this, both reality and fantasy and even the technique of swinging birches, Frost begins his poetic and philosophical point:

So was I once myself a swinger of birches;
And so I dream of going back to be.

The poet says that he (as a boy), was just such a swinger of birches (reality), and so he dreams of going back to being a swinger of birches again (fantasy), though the second time metaphorically. And here is how he sees himself as a future swinger of birches:

It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.

When one is weary of daily life as an adult, and all the thought and bother it requires, when life becomes difficult and confusing, like a forest in which there is no path to follow, and when life’s pains and trials get to be too irritating, like walking through cobwebs that stick to and itch on one’s face, and “one eye is weeping” from a twig having struck it (symbolizing the sorrows and sadness of life at times), then Frost tells us what he would like to do to get away from it all for a time:

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

The poet wants to get away from all the trials and troubles and sorrows of life for a while, but only for a while. Then he wants to come back refreshed and renewed, to start over again.

May no fate wilfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

Frost does not want the forces that control the world and life to intentionally misunderstand what he wants; he is no defeatist. He does not want to leave the world by some drastic method, such as committing suicide or dying and leaving the earth permanently. No, he loves the world too much for that. He just needs a break. Earth, he says, is the right place for love. By “love,” he is speaking of the love of the ordinary things of the world, of forests and paths and trees and cows and farms and simple life and simple relationships. And for those, he tells us, earth is the right place; he does not know of any afterlife where such things might be better. So he does not want to abandon life permanently. He just needs to get away from it for a while, to regain his perspective and strength.

I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.

This, of course, is just the poet’s fantasy. He says that he would like to “go,” that is, to depart this life (whether temporarily or in death) and leave the world, by climbing up a tall birch tree, just as he did when he was a boy. He would leave earth in that way, climbing carefully higher and higher, farther away from life and the world, until finally he had gone as far as the tree would bear him, and then it would bend its top and set him down back in life and the world again, and that, the poet says, “would be good both going and coming back.” Why? Because leaving would be a pleasure, and returning refreshed and renewed would be a pleasure too.

And that, the poet tells us, is why being a swinger of birches, though simple, is such a pleasant thing. One could do much worse in life than be willing to leave things occasionally for a refreshing break of sorts, then coming back to them again and seeing them anew, beginning one’s life anew.

In my view, that is a good way to live. When one becomes too attached to things, too troubled by the difficulties of daily life, it is good to get away for a time, to climb away from them for some moments or hours or days or months of simple pleasure and renewal, and then one can come back again and see things anew, start life a different way. Life, that way, can be a constant process of rebirth (whether literal or metaphorical) into a better life. But the trick in this is coming back to life with a different perspective than that which caused one to leave it. And that requires one to examine one’s life, the direction in which one is going, one’s goals and objectives. And if we find we are on the wrong path, then when we come back from our swinging of birches, we must chart a new course, change our lives for the better, we must start over again, as though for the first time.

David

O ME! O LIFE!: WALT WHITMAN’S ANSWER

Life, as we all know, has its ups and downs.  Normally the ups are slight, the downs are slight, but we all go through phases, whether days, months, or even years, when things just do not seem to go right at all.  That can be very wearing on the human spirit.

Bread line - Dayton (LOC)
(Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

In such circumstances we begin to notice all that is bad or amiss, not only in the people around us but in ourselves.  It all begins to seem a bit overwhelming.  Our faith in humanity is shaken, as is our faith in ourselves.  Walt Whitman went through such times, and wrote this poem expressing concerns with self (O me!) and with existence in general (O life!) — thus its title, O Me!  O Life!

I will discuss it in parts:

O ME! O life!… of the questions of these recurring;
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish;
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)

Whitman not only ponders but deeply feels the questions associated with one’s being and with the life of which one is a part, the great questions that keep recurring.  He thinks of the masses of people around him, the “endless trains of the faithless,” meaning the long lines of people who betray our hopes and expectations of them.  He thinks of the cities full of foolish people (they existed then, they exist now), and he considers how he is constantly reproaching himself for not living up to his own notions of what he should be and how he should act in the world.  He sees all the other foolish, faithless, fallible human beings, and he considers himself no better, no less foolish and faithless than they.

Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d;
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; 
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined;

He thinks of how our eyes — both physical and spiritual — crave “vainly” (in vain) for light that will brighten our darkened lives and enable us to somehow see some meaning in it all, some redeeming significance.  He thinks of the “objects mean,” which we may take not only as the craving of humans for things that do not last and do not satisfy, but also as the unworthy objects (objectives) of our striving, goals that do not seem ultimately worth our toil to achieve them.

He considers the “struggle ever renewed,”  of our constant efforts and labors to gain this or that thing, this or that position in the world, or merely to survive, to have food on the table and a roof over our heads.  And he ponders the “poor results of all,” how things just do not seem to turn out the way we would like, how even the most valued of prizes seem to lose their glitter once they are achieved.  And he thinks of the “plodding and sordid” crowds he sees all around him — the people caught in the rat-race of life, the people who have made it by standing on the backs of others, the many more who have failed in one way or another or feel they have failed, those who have not made it and have given in to numbness of spirit or dismal despair.

He thinks of the “empty and useless years” people spend in their often vain pursuit of this or that goal, of their frustration in not achieving it; of the wasted years of lives seemingly without achievement or purpose or point.  And he counts himself among them, feels a part of them,  “with the rest me intertwined.”

All of this brings up the great recurring questions.  What is it all about?  What is my place?  Do I have one?

The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?

The question comes to us over and over again:  in the midst of all the striving and disappointments and sordidness and meanness of life, what good is there in it all, of what use is it for the poet himself to exist, what point is there?

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Whitman gives us and himself a simple answer:

Answer.

That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

He tells us that existence itself is the reason for being — that life exists is in itself enough, and that in this life we have identity — we are who we are.  Among all these masses there is one named Walt Whitman, and he is an actor in the great play that is life, that vast, ongoing poem that is life; and each human, like Whitman, will contribute a verse to it.  Every individual life, in whatever direction it goes, whether viewed as success or failure by others or by one’s self, is a verse in that poem of multitudes.  That we all play our parts and contribute our lines, Whitman tells us, is enough.

I always remember a ’60s cartoon in which a supposed sage is asked, “What is the answer to the secret of the universe?”  And the reply is, “The answer to the secret of the universe is not to ask stupid questions.”

David