January 6, 2001

1. Rumi and Sufism

I recently saw a documentary on TV about Rumi, a Persian poet who lived in the 1200s. Rumi was born in Afghanistan (then part of the Persian empire), lived in Konya, a city in central Turkey, and wrote in Persian. His work has been translated into English by Coleman Barks (among others), and has achieved considerable popularity. Rumi’s admirers include Robert Bly (an American poet), and Deepak Chopra (an American doctor — born in India — specialist in alternative medicine and mind-body healing, bestselling author, and motivational speaker).

Rumi’s poetry is suffused with Sufism, Islam’s brand of mysticism. One might compare Rumi with Basho, the Japanese poet whose work is imbued with the spirit of Zen, the Far East’s brand of mysticism. A devotee of Sufism is called a dervish. Rumi’s friend and guru was a dervish named Shams; Rumi’s relationship with Shams is one of the most remarkable in the history of literature. Some people thought that Rumi’s devotion to Shams was excessive; Rumi’s followers and sons first drove Shams out of Konya, then later murdered him.

Rumi often found inspiration by rotating around a column, with one arm around the column. Rumi was the original “whirling dervish,” and his followers were organized into a sect called the Maulawiyah (or “whirling dervishes”). This sect still survives in Konya, and Rumi’s tomb is in their monastery.

Sufism believes that the essence of all religions is the same. (Rumi reached out to Jews, Christians, etc., and people of all faiths came to his funeral.) Like other brands of mysticism, Sufism says that God is within you, that God and the universe and you are one. Sufism sometimes spurned religious law, and sometimes clashed with orthodox Moslems. In my view, Sufism is close to Zen in its beliefs and attitudes. However, the flavor of Zen is more earthy, more plain, more unpoetic, than the flavor of Sufism. If you want a taste of Rumi, you might try The Essential Rumi or Birdsong: Fifty-Three Short Poems. If you want to learn more about Sufism, you might read the relevant chapter of Huston Smith’s work, The World’s Religions.

Another Persian poet, Hafiz, is as renowned as Rumi, and as popular today. Hafiz lived in Iran (Persia) during the 1300s. Like Rumi, Hafiz was a follower of Sufism, and his poetry is inspired by Sufism. He was translated into German in 1812, and inspired Goethe’s West-östlicher Divan (1819). Without going into further detail about Persian literature, I think it can safely be said that Persian literature is one of the richest of the world’s literatures.

2. Aphorisms

A. Politics A dismal science.

B. Law The extension of politics by other means.

C. Feng shui, English style:

This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air
Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
Unto our gentle senses.(Macbeth, I, 6)

D. In Chinese, feng shui means “wind water.” One might compare feng shui with the Chinese term for landscape painting: shan shui, meaning “mountain water.”

The roots of Chinese words are more readily apparent than the roots of English words; Chinese roots scarcely deserve to be called “roots” since they lie on the surface, in plain view. Take the days of the week, for example: Monday through Saturday are called Day One, Day Two, etc., up to Day Six. (Sunday is called Day of the Sun, or Day of the Sky.) Since Chinese names of days are so simple, one can’t speak of the “roots” of these terms. In English, on the other hand, the names of days are far more complex, and their roots are much deeper, stretching back to Roman and Germanic terms. Wednesday, for example, comes from the Germanic god Woden, and Friday comes from the god Frigga.

In Chinese, the names of months are also very simple; months are numbered one through twelve (Month One, Month Two, etc.). Something similar is found in English; September, October, November and December come from the Latin words for seven, eight, nine and ten. But these names aren’t for Month Seven through Month Ten. Since two months were named in honor of the emperors Julius and Augustus (July and August), the remaining months are mis-named, mis-numbered. September, for example, which comes from the Latin word for seven, is actually the ninth month, etc. Confusion worse confounded; the confusion caused by Latin roots is increased by the confusion of the Latin names themselves. If you ask an American student, “what is the root of September?” he isn’t likely to know, whereas a Chinese student would find the question so easy as to be meaningless.

A similar situation prevails with place names. Any Chinese student can tell you that Beijing means “north capital,” Nanjing “south capital,” Sichuan “four rivers,” etc., but how many American students know that Connecticut means “long tidal river”? American Indian names (like Connecticut) are mixed with French names (such as Vermont, “green mountain), Spanish names (such as Arizona, “arid region”), etc. What confusion, what obscurity compared to Chinese!

3. The Year 1000

I recently began reading a book called The Year 1000: What Life Was Like At The Turn Of The First Millennium: An Englishman’s World. It’s a charming, readable, interesting book. It aims to be popular, and sometimes tries too hard to be popular. It explains the simplicity of English grammar, that is, it explains why English doesn’t divide nouns into masculine and feminine, and doesn’t have the variety of word endings that we find in other European languages. Around 900 A.D., Viking invaders had taken control of much of England, especially eastern England. During the next few centuries, as the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons tried to communicate with each other, grammatical complications were gradually worn away.

The Celts (or Britanni, as the Romans called them), who settled in Britain before the Vikings, Anglo-Saxons or Romans, were pushed by the Anglo-Saxons to the western edge of Britain — Cornwall and Wales, sometimes called “The Celtic Fringe.” The Celts continued to inhabit Ireland and Scotland. The Celtic languages known as Gaelic and Welsh are still spoken in Ireland and Wales. Buck Mulligan, an Irish character in Joyce’s Ulysses, refers to an English character as a “Sassenach,” a derogatory term for Saxon, and Joyce says (drawing on a proverbial expression) that there are three things one must beware of: “Horn of a bull, hoof of a horse, smile of a Saxon.” The Celts occupied the British Isles around 600 B.C., the Romans occupied England around 50 B.C., the Angles and Saxons occupied England around 500 A.D., when the Romans had left, the Vikings occupied about half of England around 800 A.D., and finally the Normans occupied England around 1100 A.D. (after winning the Battle of Hastings in 1066).

Though Irish nationalists may see themselves as indigenous, and therefore as Ireland’s rightful rulers, their Celtic ancestors aren’t indigenous to Ireland or to any European country. The Celts came to Ireland quite recently (about 500 B.C.), dispossessing the previous inhabitants. Celtic languages are part of the Indo-European language family. The Celts have their roots in or near India, as do all European peoples. Mankind originated in Africa about 50,000 years ago, then migrated to the Middle East, the Indus Valley, and the rest of the world. Who is really indigenous? Are we not all usurpers?

4. Whitman

Our book discussion group, which meets monthly in Providence, Rhode Island, just finished reading Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the original 1855 edition (published by Penguin Classics). Whitman continued revising Leaves of Grass until his death in 1892, and the book eventually reached a vast size. The original edition, however, is only about 125 pages. One cannot read Leaves of Grass without feeling that Whitman is the most talented, the most powerful, the most original writer that America has produced. But the book is formless and often obscure; it’s not the most enjoyable-to-read of American books.

Whitman is considered the quintessential American writer, the writer in whom American literature first found its own voice. But like Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and others, Whitman wasn’t appreciated as much in his native land as he was abroad. Many of Whitman’s prominent 19th-century fans were English — Rossetti, Swinburne, etc. Perhaps the distinctively American character of Whitman’s work made it more appealing, more fresh, more different in England than in America. But there were a few of Whitman’s American contemporaries who appreciated his work, including Emerson and Thoreau. Emerson was the first to recognize Whitman’s genius, calling Leaves of Grass “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed....[I] have felt much like striking my tasks, and visiting New York to pay you my respects.”1

Whitman was born in 1819, two years after Thoreau and sixteen years after Emerson. Thoreau and Emerson both attended Harvard, but Whitman didn’t attend any college. At age 10, Whitman became a printer’s apprentice, and at 12, he began working in printing shops. Whitman’s parents were neither educated nor wealthy. In short, Whitman was what some people think (wrongly, in my view) that Shakespeare was: a great writer with little formal education, a great writer nourished by his own genius and his experience of the world, a great writer whose creativity was enhanced by his lack of education.

A. Whitman the Mystic

What first strikes the reader about Leaves of Grass is its mystical quality, its feeling of awe in the presence of the universe, its feeling of union with all of nature, its love for all of nature, even something as humble as “a spear of summer grass.” Thoreau noticed this mystical quality in Whitman’s work, and when Thoreau met Whitman in Brooklyn, he said that Whitman’s work was “wonderfully like the Orientals.” Thoreau asked Whitman if he had read the Oriental classics. No, he hadn’t.2

The mystical, Zennish character of Whitman’s work emerged from his own soul, from his own experience. Whitman apparently had a mystical experience “on a June morning in 1853 or 1854.... A sense of ineffable joy leading to the conviction that the seer has been released from the limitations of space and time and has been granted a direct vision of truths impossible to express.”3 Whitman’s mystical experience gave him a “miraculously fresh vision of familiar people and objects.” This is typical of a mystical experience, and reminds one of what Zen writers call “satori.” Leaves of Grass is the result of Whitman’s mystical experience; Whitman seems to refer to that experience in the following lines:

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning....
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge
     that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own;
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers....
     and the women my sisters and lovers.4

Like other mystics, Whitman takes a positive attitude toward life:

It seems to me that everything in the light and air ought to be happy;
Whoever is not in his coffin and the dark grave, let him know he has enough.5

This positive attitude sometimes rises into ecstasy:

I am he that walks with the tender and growing night;
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close barebosomed night! Press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds! Night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night! Mad naked summer night!6

Like a disciple of Zen, Whitman turns his attention not to the future or the past, but to the present moment:

I have heard what the talkers were talking.... the talk of the beginning and the end;
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge, and urge, and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.7

Whitman often takes the passive attitude of meditation:

I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear into myself....and let sounds contribute toward me....8
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease....observing a spear of summer grass.9

Like a Zen-inspired haiku poet, Whitman is often content simply to describe the world around him:

Off on the lakes the pikefisher watches and waits by the hole in the frozen surface,
The stumps stand thick round the clearing, the squatter strikes deep with his axe,
The flatboatmen make fast toward dusk near the cottonwood or pekantrees,
The coon-seekers go now through the regions of the Red river,
     or through those drained by the Tennessee, or through those of the Arkansas.10

There is nothing stiff or bookish in Whitman; he bares his soul, he speaks directly to the reader, at times he seems to reach out and touch the reader. More than any writer I know, Whitman expresses wonder at existence. Whitman’s wonder is often awakened by the sun, moon, stars, etc.:

That I grew six feet high.... and that I have become a man
     thirty-six years old in 1855....
     and that I am here anyhow — are all equally wonderful;
And that my soul embraces you this hour,
     and we affect each other without ever seeing each other,
     and never perhaps to see each other, is every bit as wonderful:
And that I can think such thoughts as these is just as wonderful,
And that I can remind you, and you think them
     and know them to be true is just as wonderful,
And that the moon spins round the earth and on with the earth is equally wonderful,
And that they balance themselves with the sun and stars is equally wonderful.11

Like all mystics, Whitman affirms death as well as life:

Great is life and real and mystical... wherever and whoever,
Great is death... Sure as life holds all parts together, death holds all parts together;
Sure as the stars return again after they merge in the light, death is great as life.12

Like Zen and like Nietzsche, Whitman is amoral:

What blurt is it about virtue and about vice?
Evil propels me, and reform of evil propels me.... I stand indifferent,
My gait is no faultfinder’s or rejecter’s gait,
I moisten the roots of all that has grown.13

B. Whitman and Nietzsche

Malcolm Cowley, who wrote the introduction to this edition of Leaves of Grass, points out that Whitman’s work resembles Nietzsche’s Zarathustra in its inspired, prophetic style. One of the poems that make up Leaves of Grass, “Song of the Answerer,” will sound familiar to readers of Nietzsche; in this poem, Whitman tells of a person who strikes a deep chord in other people:

The gentleman of perfect blood acknowledges his perfect blood,
The insulter, the prostitute, the angry person, the beggar,
     see themselves in the ways of him.... he strangely transmutes them,
They are not vile any more.... they hardly know themselves, they are so grown.14

Doubtless the person who “transmutes” prostitutes and beggars, the “answerer,” is Whitman himself. Nietzsche had the same experience as Whitman, saw himself as Whitman did. Whitman’s “answerer” is very much like Nietzsche’s “genius of the heart”:

“The genius of the heart who silences all that is loud and self-satisfied, teaching it to listen; who smooths rough souls.... Who guesses the concealed and forgotten treasure, the drop of graciousness and sweet spirituality under dim and thick ice.... The genius of the heart from whose touch everyone walks away richer... richer in himself, newer to himself than before.”15

Like Nietzsche, Whitman had a tendency toward megalomania, which was doubtless encouraged by Emerson’s laudatory letter. “In 1857 [Whitman] determined to become what he called a ‘wander speaker’ — ‘perhaps launching at the President, leading persons, Congressmen or Judges of the Supreme Court... the greatest champion America ever could know, yet holding no office or emolument whatever — but first in the esteem of men and women.’ Soon afterward he dreamed of founding a new religion, for which Leaves of Grass — expanded into 365 chapters or psalms, one to be read on each day of the year — would serve as a holy testament.”16 After reading this, one is surprised that Whitman apparently did not have any bouts of overt insanity.

C. Whitman the Patriot

Whitman loved his native land; Virgil did not celebrate Rome with any more enthusiasm than Whitman celebrated the United States.

“We walk the roads of Ohio and Massachusetts and Virginia and Wisconsin and New York and New Orleans and Texas and Montreal and San Francisco and Charleston and Savannah and Mexico.”

(Passages like this one have earned Whitman a reputation as a Maker of Lists.) One of the most memorable passages in Leaves of Grass is Whitman’s description of the exploits of John Paul Jones, the American naval hero:

Did you read in the seabooks of the oldfashioned frigate-fight?
Did you learn who won by the light of the moon and stars?
....Our frigate was afire.... the other asked if we demanded quarters?
     if our colors were struck and the fighting done?
I laughed content when I heard the voice of my little captain,
We have not struck, he composedly cried, We have just begun our part of the fighting.
....Toward twelve at night, there in the beams of the moon they surrendered to us.

Leaves of Grass is suffused with sexuality — homoerotic, hetero-erotic and autoerotic. Even when Whitman deals with a patriotic theme, he gives it a sexual atmosphere, as in these lines about George Washington:

when peace is declared,
He stands in the room of the old tavern.... the wellbeloved soldiers all pass through.
The officers speechless and slow draw near in their turns,
The chief encircles their necks with his arm and kisses them on the cheek,
He kisses lightly the wet cheeks one after another....
     he shakes hands and bids goodbye to the army.

Whitman never married, and perhaps never found his sexual identity. His confused sexual feelings caused (according to Whitman scholars) emotional upheavals, and these upheavals resulted in the paralytic stroke that Whitman suffered at age 52. But despite this stroke, Whitman’s mind remained sharp; the inspiration of his youth may have cooled, but his mental powers didn’t desert him.

D. Whitman and Shakespeare

Since Whitman lived in and around New York City, he had the opportunity to watch plays, operas, etc. He took full advantage of this opportunity, attending numerous Shakespeare plays, Italian operas, etc. He was passionately fond of music, and wrote in Leaves of Grass:

I hear the chorus.... it is a grand-opera.... this indeed is music!
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me,
The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
I hear the trained soprano.... she convulses me like the climax of my love-grip;
The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches unnamable ardors from my breast.

While Whitman’s own work was eminently democratic, and championed the common man, Whitman regarded Shakespeare as the exact opposite, as eminently aristocratic. He said that Shakespeare’s history plays were “conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation).... Everything possible is done in the Shakespeare plays to make the common people seem common — very common indeed.”17

Whitman rejected the conventional view that Shakespeare was from the middle class, that Shakespeare was from the small, country town of Stratford. “I am firm against Shaksper — I mean the Avon man, the actor.” Whitman remarked on the lack of evidence in support of the Stratford theory: “It is remarkable how little is known of Shaksper the actor.... The record is almost a blank — it has no substance whatever: scarcely anything that is said of him is authorized.”

Who, then, wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare? Whitman: “Only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works.” A wolfish earl like the 17th Earl of Oxford. Surely Whitman would have been a passionate champion of the Oxford theory, if he had lived to hear about it. The Oxford theory was discovered about 15 years after Whitman died.

In Whitman’s time, the chief alternative to the Stratford theory was the Bacon theory. Whitman was wise enough to remain an agnostic with respect to the Bacon theory — he neither accepted it nor rejected it. Whitman was also wise enough to understand how difficult it would be to overthrow the traditional view of Shakespeare: “The typical literary man is no more able to examine this question dispassionately than a priest is to pass on objections to the doctrine of the atonement, hell, heaven: not a bit more able: the scribblers are blind from the start.” Whitman said that Stratfordians used “dirty tricks” and ad hominem attacks to discredit their opponents; this is still true today. The Shakespeare controversy is a remarkable example of the weakness of academia, the weakness of the intellectual establishment.

Some people think that if Oxford had written the works attributed to Shakespeare, he would have wanted recognition, fame, glory. According to this argument, every writer longs for recognition. I don’t believe, however, that this desire is as universal, or as strong, as the proponents of this argument think it is. Some years ago (around 1930, if I’m not mistaken) an article called “The Death of Anon” appeared in an American magazine. According to this article, many articles were once signed “Anon” (anonymous), but this custom has died out. In our time, writers are hungrier for recognition than they once were, hence anonymous works are rarer than they once were. In our time, people are more eager to be individual, to be original, than they once were. In the Middle Ages, most creative work was anonymous — for example, the sculpture adorning Gothic cathedrals. A great artist, such as the creator of the works attributed to Shakespeare, may create for the love of creating, for the love of the subject. One artist who showed little desire for recognition is Van Gogh; when his brother, Theo, told him that an article about his work had been published, Van Gogh said, ‘I find that distressing, tell that writer not to write any more articles on my work.’

In 1998, there was a mock trial, Oxford vs. Stratford, with 12 jurors, and a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court (Stevens) presiding. The trial ended with the jury deadlocked 6-6. Stevens broke the tie by voting for Oxford. There were witnesses for each side. The witness for the Oxford side was Joseph Sobran. When the Stratford attorney asked Sobran how Oxford’s authorship could have been kept secret, Sobran said that, at that time, nothing could be printed without a license. The Stratford attorney “wondered how hundreds knew without a leak, to which Sobran replied, ‘I don’t know that hundreds cared, even if hundreds knew.’” How could the conspiracy of silence be kept up for 300 years? Sobran: “[Oxford] didn’t have to keep it going for 300 years. Once the tradition of his authorship had been broken, that’s when the theaters were closed by the Puritans in 1642, then no more had to be done.”18

The ascendancy of the Puritans, and their Civil War with the Royalists, caused the true identity of “Shakespeare” to be forgotten, just as World War I caused a delay in publication of the Oxford theory, just as World War II caused the Shakespeare controversy to be temporarily neglected, just as war always grabs people’s attention, and causes them to forget or neglect matters that once held their attention. Poe, who had been well known before the American Civil War, was forgotten after the war. Ruskin, who was all the rage before World War I, was neglected after it. I would argue that the West’s cultural tradition as a whole was forgotten and neglected (in part, at least) after the World Wars of the 20th century.

One of the casualties of the English Civil War was the truth about Shakespeare.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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1. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Penguin Classics, Introduction, p. ix back
2. see The Days of Henry Thoreau, ch. 17, §5, p. 373 back
3. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Penguin Classics, Introduction, p. xiii back
4. ibid, p. 28 back
5. ibid, p. 108 back
6. ibid, p. 45 back
7. ibid, p. 26 back
8. ibid, p. 51 back
9. ibid, p. 25 back
10. ibid, p. 39 back
11. ibid, p. 141 back
12. ibid, p. 145 back
13. ibid, p. 46 back
14. ibid, p. 131 back
15. Beyond Good and Evil, #295 back
16. Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition, Penguin Classics, Introduction, p. xxviii back
17. see “Walt Whitman on Shakespeare” by Paul A. Nelson, Newsletter of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, Fall, 1992. back
18. For a full account of this mock trial, see the Newsletter of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, Summer 1998. There was also a mock trial, in front of three Supreme Court justices, on November 25, 1987; it was televised on C-SPAN. back