In May of 1891, photographer Samuel Murray accompanied the New York sculptor William O’Donovan to Walt Whitman’s home in Camden, N.J., Murray photographed Whitman as an aid to O’Donovan’s sculpting the poet: “they took hell’s times in all sorts of polishes,” Whitman groused, but he was excited about this profile portrait, admiring its “audacity” and its “breadth and beauty both,” calling it “an artist’s picture in the best sense.” Photo by Samuel Murray/Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution
Clive James wrote his poem, “Whitman and the Moth” during a 10 day stint at New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital. In 2010, James was diagnosed with leukemia and battling terminal emphysema when his friend, Canadian writer Adam Gopnik, brought him books to pass the time in the hospital. One of those books was “The Times of Melville and Whitman” by American literary critic Van Wyck Brooks.
“(Van Wyck Brooks) said this wonderful thing,” James recounted in a recent phone interview with Art Beat, “that Whitman had spent his last few weeks on Earth, his last time as it were, sitting beside a pond wearing nothing but his hat.”
“The idea struck me so much that I wrote a poem about it right there in the hospital.”
Whitman and the Moth
by Clive James
Van Wyck Brooks tells us Whitman in old age
Sat by a pond in nothing but his hat,
Crowding his final notebooks page by page
With names of trees, birds, bugs and things like that.
The war could never break him, though he’d seen
Horrors in hospitals to chill the soul.
But now, preserved, the Union had turned mean:
Evangelising greed was in control.
Good reason to despair, yet grief was purged
By tracing how creation reigned supreme.
A pupa cracked, a butterfly emerged:
America, still unfolding from its dream.
Sometimes he rose and waded in the pond,
Soothing his aching feet in the sweet mud.
A moth he knew, of which he had grown fond,
Perched on his hand as if to draw his blood.
But they were joined by what each couldn’t do,
The meeting point where great art comes to pass —
Whitman, who danced and sang but never flew,
The moth, which had not written Leaves of Grass,
Composed a picture of the interchange
Between the mind and all that it transcends
Yet must stay near. No, there was nothing strange
In how he put his hand out to make friends
With such a fragile creature, soft as dust.
Feeling the pond cool as the light grew dim,
He blessed new life, though it had only just
Arrived in time to see the end of him.
Reprinted from “Nefertiti in the Flak Tower: Collected Verse 2008-2011” by Clive James. Copyright © 2013, 2012 by Clive James. With permission of the publisher, Liveright Publishing Corporation.”
Clive James is a public writer, cultural critic, TV personality and an author of poems (he would prefer not to be called a Poet). An Australian by birth, James has lived in England since 1961. He has written five books of unreliable memoirs, and has several volumes of his essays, including most recently, “Cultural Amnesia.” His translation of Dante’s “The Divine Comedy” was also published this year. James’ website, clivejames.com provides not only an archive of his own writing, but a portal for other writers and critics’ work.