My ties and ballasts leave me . . . . I travel . . . . I sail . . . . my elbows rest in the sea-gaps,
I skirt the sierras . . . . my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision.
Hoeing my onion-patch, and rows of carrots and parsnips . . . . crossing savannas . . . trailing in forests,
Prospecting . . . . gold-digging . . . . girdling the trees of a new purchase,
Scorched ankle-deep by the hot sand . . . . hauling my boat down the shallow river;
Prospecting, n. (from Oxford English Dictionary)
1. Mining. The action or practice of exploring a region in search of mineral deposits (esp. gold) or oil; the experimental working of a mine or reef.
1848 W. COLTON Jrnl. 18 Oct. in Three Years Calif. (1850) xxi. 292 Half their time is consumed in what they call prospecting; that is, looking up new deposits [of gold]. 1857 J. D. BORTHWICK Three Years California vi. 124 We abandoned it [sc. our claim], and went ‘prospecting’.
2. In extended use: the action of exploring or searching; the action of looking about for something.
1886 Proc. Royal Geogr. Soc. 8 633 We deemed it wise to anchor the Peace and do some prospecting in the rowing-boat..before we ventured further.
Whitman’s evocation of the prospecting and gold-digging in this section of “Song of Myself” serves a dual purpose. Whitman, at the time of writing this 1855 version of “Song of Myself” despised materialism – and so it would seem, Whitman would disagree with the idea of prospecting for gold. Yet, whether Whitman realized it or not, prospecting brought great expansion and possibility to America – and, ultimately, he may have regarded the movement as a positive one.
During the industry and technology booms of postwar America, Whitman became fascinated with technology’s potential to create the cultural unity he had always sought (Reynolds, Ch. 15). Often, the technology of his poems served as a metaphor for “eventual poetic and religious fruition (Reynolds 499).
As such, his notion of “prospecting” here in “Song of Myself” (nearly 20 years earlier than his affirmations of technology) can also act as a metaphor for Whitman’s purpose. In the context of the poem, “Prospecting…gold-digging…girdling the trees of a new purchase…” is contained within a long laundry list of the “vistas” following his newly-found freedom of movement and vision, “My ties and ballast leave me….I travel…./I am afoot with my vision”. While “prospecting” is a part of his vision, it could also be assumed that he is not watching the “prospecting,” but participating in it. In the line directly before this, Whitman’s “I” is “hoeing my onion-patch…” not watching someone else hoe an onion-patch.
If we deduce, then, that Whitman is prospecting – is he prospecting for gold? I’d argue not. The second definition offered by the Oxford English Dictionary, however, suits Whitman’s “Song of Myself” perfectly: “the action of exploring or searching; the action of looking about for something.” What Whitman is digging and exploring for is not gold, but himself in his vision of the world around him – the bits of “gold” that his vision may afford him so that he may better and more fully understand himself. The digging is into his soul. He is afoot, he is (a work) in progress.
A quick note on David Gilmore Blythe’s painting above: The painting is dated 1861-1863, and it turns out that Blythe shared more than one similarity with Whitman. Claire Perry in her book Young America: Childhood in 19th Century Art and Culture discusses that Blythe was one of the first Americans to use the “street child” as a subject – a trail-blazer much as Whitman was. What is also particularly “Whitman-ian” about it, is that in presenting the street child in the way he does, he’s rebelling against the typical English model that most American artists of the time were following. The English model would have presented the child as a charming beggar, whereas Blythe’s is very real, very lost, and very alone. Blythe, like Whitman, “confronted the viewer and challenged middle-class complacency” (117). While I originally chose this poem, entitled “Prospecting,” for it’s “crossroads” imagery that I felt fit Whitman’s message, it is clear that it has greater resonance than I imagined.
“Gold” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/>.
“Mining.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/>.
“Prospecting.” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com.proxy.libraries.rutgers.edu/>.
Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
Perry, Claire. Young America: Childhood in 19th Century Art and Culture. viewed through Google Books.
Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself (1855).” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996. 59.
Image 1: Alaska State Library photograph PCA 44-3-15 Sourdough in stream panning for gold (Skinner)
Image 2: “Prospecting,” David Gilmour Blythe (American sculptor & painter 1815-1865 <http://www.1st-art-gallery.com/thumbnail/156245/1/Prospecting.jpg>
Filed in Uncategorized No Responses yet