Have you seen Apple’s recent commercial for the iPad? It features a speech Robin Williams’ character gives in the old favorite of many English majors, Dead Poets Society.
I don’t know if this commercial is selling tablets, but it is doing wonders for Whitman’s poem “O Me! O Life!” (I have written about this poem previously here, and you can read the poem–and learn much more about Whitman–here.)
This is not Whitman’s most famous poem (or at least it wasn’t before this ad!), but it highlights one of the poet’s prominent themes: life is full of desperation, disillusionment, and pain, but we can and should embrace it anyway. His willingness to acknowledge and to celebrate existence, for its own sake, is what ultimately makes his poem different from the inspirational message Apple offers.
In the beginning of the poem, the speaker in “O Me! O Life!” not only feels overwhelmed by the “struggle ever renew’d,” but knows that he contributes to its meanness, as well:
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I,
and who more faithless?)
As the speaker contemplates the melancholy scene and his own failings, he interrogates his own life for an answer: “The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?”
In a typically Whitmanian move, the speaker’s life seems to answer the question, although the structure of the poem makes it unclear exactly who is speaking. Interestingly, the response does not deny anything that the speaker has said:
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
The answer to the “sad, recurring” question is stunning in its simplicity: “That you are here”—even with all of the foolishness—and “life exists,” even with all the “plodding and sordid crowds.” No matter what we do, “the powerful play goes on,” and, most importantly, “you [and we!] may contribute a verse.”
Thanks to Apple, many people are now reading the poem for the first time, and I wonder what they make of it. For in the end, Whitman’s text is different, and more radical, than the beautiful advertisement that employs it. Understandably, the commercial does not linger on all of the melancholy sights that inspire the speaker’s insistent questioning. Even more importantly, the quotation in the ad omits the speaker’s acknowledgment that he is no different from the faithless that so dishearten him.
If you look at the entire poem, in fact, Whitman spends most of his time elaborating upon the “poor results of all” that make the speaker [and us] question what good life is.
The answer is that life itself is good.
By contrast, the advertisement highlights the possibility of the final phrase, with Robin Williams repeating it and then restating its optional, “you may contribute a verse,” as the more imperative question: “What will your verse be?”
This is inspiring stuff. But in Whitman’s poem, the powerful play goes on, with or without us and our contribution, and it is a play made up of victories and defeats, engineering and art, law and literature. We may contribute our verse, and it can take countless forms. But in the end?
And, while that simple truth may not be as exciting, it is enough.