Eidolons

Off early this morning, as I have to travel to the frozen North to give a seminar in a foreign land. Time, therefore, to pad this blog thing out with another poem. I haven’t posted much by Walt Whitman so now seems like a good time to correct the omission. This is called Eidolons, and it’s taken from Whitman’s famous and, at the time of its publication, controversial, collection of poems Leaves of Grass.

The word itself is from the Greek ειδωλον, meaning an image, spectre or phantom and, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (which Whitman would of course not have been using), it can have the additional meanings in English of a “mental image” or an “insubstantial appearance”, a “false image or fallacy”. It  also has the meaning of “an image of an idealised person or thing”, and is thus the origin of the word Idol.

Eidolons is written in Whitman’s characteristic free verse style, with a broad sweep and strong cadences which really should be read out loud rather than silently on the page.

I’ve heard it said that this poem is anti-scientific. I suppose it is, in some respects, but only if you think that science is capable of telling us everything there is to know about the Universe. I don’t think of science like that, so I don’t see this poem as anti-scientific. It celebrates world beyond that which we perceive directly and that which our minds comprehend. Our representations of true reality are eidolons because they are incomplete and imperfect and not, I think, because they are mere fallacies. Whitman is not saying science is wrong, just that it only gives us part of the picture.

Anyway, that’s why I think. Read for yourself and see what you think. But whether or not it is anti-science it is definitely about science. The references to professors, stars, spectroscopes and the like are all clear. He even seems to be having a pre-emptive dig at the multiverse theory!

I met a seer,
Passing the hues and objects of the world,
The fields of art and learning, pleasure, sense,
To glean eidolons.

Put in thy chants said he,
No more the puzzling hour nor day, nor segments, parts, put in,
Put first before the rest as light for all and entrance-song of all,
That of eidolons.

Ever the dim beginning,
Ever the growth, the rounding of the circle,
Ever the summit and the merge at last, (to surely start again,)
Eidolons! eidolons!

Ever the mutable,
Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohering,
Ever the ateliers, the factories divine,
Issuing eidolons.

Lo, I or you,
Or woman, man, or state, known or unknown,
We seeming solid wealth, strength, beauty build,
But really build eidolons.

The ostent evanescent,
The substance of an artist’s mood or savan’s studies long,
Or warrior’s, martyr’s, hero’s toils,
To fashion his eidolon.

Of every human life,
(The units gather’d, posted, not a thought, emotion, deed, left out,)
The whole or large or small summ’d, added up,
In its eidolon.

The old, old urge,
Based on the ancient pinnacles, lo, newer, higher pinnacles,
From science and the modern still impell’d,
The old, old urge, eidolons.

The present now and here,
America’s busy, teeming, intricate whirl,
Of aggregate and segregate for only thence releasing,
To-day’s eidolons.

These with the past,
Of vanish’d lands, of all the reigns of kings across the sea,
Old conquerors, old campaigns, old sailors’ voyages,
Joining eidolons.

Densities, growth, facades,
Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
Eidolons everlasting.

Exalte, rapt, ecstatic,
The visible but their womb of birth,
Of orbic tendencies to shape and shape and shape,
The mighty earth-eidolon.

All space, all time,
(The stars, the terrible perturbations of the suns,
Swelling, collapsing, ending, serving their longer, shorter use,)
Fill’d with eidolons only.

The noiseless myriads,
The infinite oceans where the rivers empty,
The separate countless free identities, like eyesight,
The true realities, eidolons.

Not this the world,
Nor these the universes, they the universes,
Purport and end, ever the permanent life of life,
Eidolons, eidolons.

Beyond thy lectures learn’d professor,
Beyond thy telescope or spectroscope observer keen, beyond all mathematics,
Beyond the doctor’s surgery, anatomy, beyond the chemist with his chemistry,
The entities of entities, eidolons.

Unfix’d yet fix’d,
Ever shall be, ever have been and are,
Sweeping the present to the infinite future,
Eidolons, eidolons, eidolons.

The prophet and the bard,
Shall yet maintain themselves, in higher stages yet,
Shall mediate to the Modern, to Democracy, interpret yet to them,
God and eidolons.

And thee my soul,
Joys, ceaseless exercises, exaltations,
Thy yearning amply fed at last, prepared to meet,
Thy mates, eidolons.

Thy body permanent,
The body lurking there within thy body,
The only purport of the form thou art, the real I myself,
An image, an eidolon.

Thy very songs not in thy songs,
No special strains to sing, none for itself,
But from the whole resulting, rising at last and floating,
A round full-orb’d eidolon.

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8 Responses to “Eidolons”

  1. I agree with you completely about the eidolons, in that we can only see reflections of them. His issue, I think, is with people who consider themselves able to see eidolons in their absolute, True form.

    I think he also believes it is important we remember this, because fetishes can often keep us from seeing beyond them.

  2. I defy anyone to read even a quarter of this poem out loud without choking… is it deliberately awkward and ugly-sounding?

  3. telescoper Says:

    I don’t find it at all awkward or ugly-sounding.

  4. You just have to use the high voice-head. Let it roll and thunder out. Scare the cats and children. etc.

    This is a weird one, though – I’m not used to seeing him with so many ropes strung around the canon.

  5. telescoper Says:

    It’s perhaps not so easy to bombasticate as, say, “O Captain my Captain”, but I think this one has a more interesting verbal texture to it.

    Eidolons appears very early in the edition of Leaves of Grass that I have but I have no idea whether that means that it is an early poem of Whitman’s. It may be, and that my account for some of its strangeness. It seems to me deliberately constructed to appear anxious to escape from its own form.

  6. telescoper Says:

    PS. I have no idea why the font spontaneously got smaller earlier today, but I changed it back anyway.

  7. Walt Whitman was definitely writing ahead of his time, hence his lack of recognition while alive. I think he was a seer, as artitsts can be, by which I mean he was able to see more than most of his contemporary world. He may have been on to something of the idea a later writer, and Noble Winner, Saul Below, had when he said we are immortal beings living a mortal life, and, in “Humboldt’s Gift” said we disappoint the dead, who visit us while we sleep, by not engaging with them. I think Whitman though we create our future selves (eidolans) while we live by our actions. He definitely seems to idolize the “other” beings.

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