Friday, 13 November 2009

'There Was a Child Went Forth' – Walt Whitman [1855]

I was thinking and conversing today about Montessori and Dewey and capitalism, as you do, and thinking about the importance in all good education of observation – of the senses, where it all starts – and thought of Walt Whitman’s brilliant observational poem posted below.

And searching for an online version to post here, I came across this great description of it on the Walt Whitman Archive website that I knew you’d all enjoy:

     “Called by Whitman ‘the most innocent thing I ever did’ and by Edwin Haviland Miller ‘one of the most sensitive lyrics in the language and one of the most astute diagnoses of the emergent self, this 39-line poem is a retrospective view describing the absorption of everything the poem's child beholds. Each sensation becomes ‘part of’ the child (a phrase repeated six times) and by implication foreshadows his maturation into the Whitman poet-persona.
    “Sandwiched between the poem's opening assertion that each experience ‘became part of’ the child and the closing line's recapitulation of the same idea, a compact catalogue records an astounding four dozen metaphorically-charged images or sounds that the child absorbs (in a phrase deleted in later editions) ‘with wonder or pity or love or dread’ (1855 Leaves). His development is shown objectively by interlinked patterns of space, colors, passing time, and social phenomena; subjectively by his developing cognitive powers.
    “Coincidentally or not, the poem illustrates the phrenological formula for educating the superior child by cultivating its powers of observing all surrounding phenomena. ‘The inductive method of studying nature, namely, by observing facts and ascending through analogous facts up to the laws that govern them is the only way to arrive at correct conclusions.’ (J.G. Spurzheim, Education: Its Elementary Principles Founded on the Nature of Man.)”

And with that by way of introduction, here it is:

There Was A Child Went Forth

mntsol3THERE was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part
         of the day,

Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.

The early lilacs became part of this child,

And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red
         clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,

And the Third-month lambs and the sow's pink-faint litter, and
         the mare's foal and the cow's calf,

And the noisy brood of the barnyard or by the mire of the pond-

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And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there, and
         the beautiful curious liquid,

And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads, all became part
         of him.

The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part
         of him,

Winter-grain sprouts and those of the light-yellow corn, and the
         esculent roots of the garden,

And the apple-trees cover'd with blossoms and the fruit afterward,
         and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road,

And the old drunkard staggering home from the outhouse of the
         tavern whence he had lately risen,

And the schoolmistress that pass'd on her way to the school,

And the friendly boys that pass'd, and the quarrelsome boys,

And the tidy and fresh-cheek'd girls, and the barefoot negro boy
         and girl,

And all the changes of city and country wherever he went.

His own parents, he that had father'd him and she that had con-
         ceiv'd him in her womb and birth'd him,

They gave this child more of themselves than that,

They gave him afterward every day, they became part of him.

The mother at home quietly placing the dishes on the supper-

The mother with mild words, clean her cap and gown, a whole-
         some odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by,

The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger'd, unjust,

The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,

The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture, the
         yearning and swelling heart,

Affection that will not be gainsay'd, the sense of what is real, the
         thought if after all it should prove unreal,

The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time, the curious
         whether and how,

Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?

Men and women crowding fast in the streets, if they are not flashes
         and specks what are they?

The streets themselves and the façades of houses, and goods in
         the windows,

Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank'd wharves, the huge crossing at
         the ferries,

20061028113220!Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_001 The village on the highland seen from afar at sunset, the river

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Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of
         white or brown two miles off,

The schooner near by sleepily dropping down the tide, the little
         boat slack-tow'd astern,

The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,

The strata of color'd clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint away
         solitary by itself, the spread of purity it lies motionless in,

The horizon's edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt
         marsh and shore mud,

These became part of that child who went forth every day, and
         who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

[Poem from the Walt Whitman archive. Paintings are Lilacs in the Sun by Claude Monet, and View of Delft by Jan Vermeer]


  1. That interview of Jerry Kirpatrick about "Montessori, Dewey, and Capitalism" was interesting until the end bit.

    What the discussion lacked was an understanding of the duality of purpose within any education system.
    1) To equip individuals with the knowledge and skills to realise their full potential (everything they can be).
    2) To supply trained people to positions required by different industries (cogs in the machine). Hosptials need doctors and nurses. Schools need teachers. Corporations need acountants, technicians... etc.

    These two perspectives are wheeled out for different audiences. If a school is recruiting students, then the first purpose is used. If the school is looking for spnsorship for a computer-lab, it is more likely to be in the form of the second.

    Montessori and Dewey were socialists and believed in democracy. Their methodologies were focused towards forming better citizens.

  2. Brian Scurfield13 Nov 2009, 10:33:00

    Dewey? He was an instrumentalist. Why do you like Dewey?

  3. Spurzheim Quoted:
    The inductive method of studying nature, namely, by observing facts and ascending through analogous facts up to the laws that govern them is the only way to arrive at correct conclusions.

    Observing the results of the double-slit experiment are facts (ie, observational undeniable facts), but had we humans established/reached the correct conclusions? I doubt it, at which on this particular instance, I agree with objectivists. The conclusion is (must be) wrong. But could that be the fault of induction because it led us to a wrong conclusion here?

  4. its so interesting article.... thanks for sharing this with us. i like it very much...


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