Old Chants


An ancient song, reciting, ending,
Once gazing toward thee, Mother of All,
Musing, seeking themes fitted for thee,
Accept for me, thou saidst, the elder ballads,
And name for me before thou goest each ancient poet.

(Of many debts incalculable,
Haply our New World’s chieftest debt is to old poems.)

Ever so far back, preluding thee, America,
Old chants, Egyptian priests, and those of Ethiopia,
The Hindu epics, the Grecian, Chinese, Persian,
The Biblic books and prophets, and deep idyls of the Nazarene,
The Iliad, Odyssey, plots, doings, wanderings of Eneas,
Hesiod, Eschylus, Sophocles, Merlin, Arthur,
The Cid, Roland at Roncesvalles, the Nivelungen,
The troubadours, minstrels, minnesingers, skalds,
Chaucer, Dante, flocks of singing birds,
The Border Minstrelsy, the bye-gone ballads, feudal tales, essays, plays,
Shakespere, Schiller, Walter Scott, Tennyson,
As some vast wonderous weird dream-presences,
The great shadowy groups gathering around,
Darting their mighty masterful eyes, forward at thee,
Thou! With as now thy bending neck and head, with
Courteous hand and word, ascending,
Thou! pausing a moment, drooping thine eyes upon them, blent with their music,
Well pleased, accepting all, curiously prepared for by them,
Thou enterest at thy entrance porch.

*

“Old Chants” was published on March 19th, 1891, in issue 10 of Truth alongside a lithograph and an interview conducted J. Alfred Stoddart. The poem was also reprinted in  the collection Good-bye My Fancy in 1891. “Old Chants” was then included in the “Deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass in 1892.

The poem responds to all the chanters and chants of the past. The speaker talks to Mother of all Muses about the muses of time and how he names them before the death of them. How she is pleased with his review of the greatest of all poets. “Old Chants” is an important poem in Whitman’s body of work because in it he acknowledges the debt of previous authors and works in creating an autochthonous literary tradition in the United States.

Bibliography and Further Readings Published Works: Periodicals, The Walt Whitman Archive; Published Works: Periodicals, The Walt Whitman Archive;Charles M. Oliver, Critical Companion to Walt Whitman: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work.

Credits Composed by Trisha Poitras, Fall 2018. Reading by Trisha Poitras.

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American Poetry and Poetics by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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