Let’s say memorable. I was searching for the right word to perfectly describe the first time I read Walt Whitman’s Eidolons. The word is hard to find. The mind keeps switching between, monumental, memorable, a tectonic shift, life changing, instructive. But, let’s stick to memorable. Looking back at it now, it is a distant cousin, both in substance and effect upon me, to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. If I didn’t read Plato’s Republic first, Eidolons by Walt Whitman would probably be a pillar of my being and worldview that the Allegory of the Cave became.
Eidolons is a greek word that means ghost or spirit.
After reading the poem once, I probably read it ten times in a row. It was equally beautiful and hard to accept. I was taken by what I then thought to be a very stoic approach to everything that is, was or will be. Everything is an illusion, a ghost, something that appears to us now as it is. Blink and you might see something else. Blink twice it will perish. I remember spending a week or ten days , just observing people, wondering what their base, first, Eidolon of their beings might be. It was the worst time to have a first date, but I had one, blind date even. The heavy makeup was a bad start, and I never really got back to reality. She was very talkative about herself, as people tend to do when we are nervous or anxious. And all I kept wondering was how old are these Eidolons, these ideas she has of herself. Was it old, was it new? Was it something she thought I wanted to hear?
I made the naïve mistake of equating things with fleeting nature with meaninglessness. But I was wrong. The poem tells that us to be humble in our conclusions, to shun away arrogance, to be courageous around doubt. And love those fleeting moments, value everything that appears in your life. But never, under any circumstances, make anything into absolutes, into gods. Because even the gods themselves are Eidolons, created in a particular time and place.
Here is the full poem, from the second edition of Leaves of Grass, available for free on Project Gutenberg:
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,)
Ever the mutable,
Ever materials, changing, crumbling, re-cohering,
Ever the ateliers, the factories divine,
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,
These with the past,
Of vanish’d lands, of all the reigns of kings across the sea,
Old conquerors, old campaigns, old sailors’ voyages,
Densities, growth, facades,
Strata of mountains, soils, rocks, giant trees,
Far-born, far-dying, living long, to leave,
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,
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.