Poems About Life: Main Homepage   Nature Poetry and the Human World, link. Nature's elements: water, rocks, plants. Identified as Lake Saimaa in Finland.



We Two—How Long We Were Fool’d

by Walt Whitman

WE two—how long we were fool’d!
Now transmuted, we swiftly escape, as Nature escapes;
We are Nature—long have we been absent, but now we return;
We become plants, leaves, foliage, roots, bark;
We are bedded in the ground—we are rocks; 5
We are oaks—we grow in the openings side by side;
We browse—we are two among the wild herds, spontaneous as any;
We are two fishes swimming in the sea together;
We are what the locust blossoms are—we drop scent around the lanes, mornings and evenings;
We are also the coarse smut of beasts, vegetables, minerals;
We are two predatory hawks—we soar above, and look down;
We are two resplendent suns—we it is who balance ourselves, orbic and stellar—we are as two comets;
We prowl fang’d and four-footed in the woods—we spring on prey;
We are two clouds, forenoons and afternoons, driving overhead;
We are seas mingling—we are two of those cheerful waves, rolling over each other, and interwetting each other;
We are what the atmosphere is, transparent, receptive, pervious, impervious:
We are snow, rain, cold, darkness—we are each product and influence of the globe;
We have circled and circled till we have arrived home again—we two have;
We have voided all but freedom, and all but our own joy.

 


"We Two—How Long We Were Fool’d"
by Walt Whitman:
Ecstatic Identification With Nature

WE two—how long we were fool’d!
Now transmuted, we swiftly escape, as Nature escapes;
We are Nature—long have we been absent, but now we return;

With these words, Walt Whitman begins a remarkable poem that captures something about the connection between mysticism and poetry. But these first words in the poem also leave readers in the dark about what Whitman is talking about. Who are the "we two" he refers to? How were they fooled? What does it mean to say they are "transmuted" and that they "escape, as Nature escapes" or that they are Nature?

As the poem progresses, some of its meaning becomes clearer, as the speaker describes how he and a partner metamorphose into a series of forms from nature. They become plants, animals, and minerals, including "two predatory hawks" that "soar above, and look down." Then the transmutations take on a larger scale and become less obviously tangible as they turn into suns, clouds, and seas. They become atmosphere that is "transparent, receptive, pervious, impervious," and waves "rolling over each other and interwetting each other" -- descriptions that suggest they are part of the interpenetration of things. Finally, as the two are described as becoming snow, rain, cold, and darkness, we are told that they are "each product and influence of the globe," meaning they are both effect and cause in the vast and interconnected realm of nature.

The speaker describes these transformations in the present tense as if they are literally taking place. But given what we know about Whitman, and what we see in the total poem, it seems likely that the inspiration here is a state of mystical identification with nature. Perhaps this state was embodied in a vision of some sort in which the poet experienced himself as being the forms of nature. But, either way, Whitman is creating a poetic fiction in which we become nature's forms, to depict a state of identification with nature.

If the poem was in fact inspired by one or more mystical experiences, it might explain the title -- "We Two—How Long We Were Fool’d" -- and the opening, which include the lines: "We are Nature—long have we been absent, but now we return." In other words, they were fooled into believing they were separate, limited, and individual, when really they are connected to nature in a state of ecstatic union.

If this was inspired by mystical experiences, it also helps explain the end:

We have circled and circled till we have arrived home again, we two,
We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy.

In other words, by identifying with the parts of nature, they have arrived at a state in which they realize that they are nature, and that they are free like nature, until everything but their essence -- freedom and ecstasy -- has been shed from the self.

But who is the other person that the speaker says he has shared this experience with. Is this, in fact, an experience with a romantic partner, perhaps, as suggested by the vivid description of the two of them as waves "rolling over each other and interwetting each other"?

One answer is contained in a footnote to the 1900 edition of Leaves of Grass, where the poem appears. It says that, in the earlier 1860 edition, the poem didn’t begin with the word "We," but with the phrase -- “You and I—what the earth is, we are, We two.” Here, the speaker might be addressing someone else as "you." But it seems likely that the speaker is addressing you, the reader, or at least a fictionalized version of you. You are the speaker's partner, soaring through nature, becoming each thing in turn, until you and the speaker shed everything but freedom and joy.

So what we have here is mystical poetry that describes how you experience a joyous partnership with the poet (or speaker) and have a breakthrough in which you and he realize that you are all the world. Even though this version of the poem doesn't clearly say that "we" refers to you and the speaker, it leaves the option open. And you can also experience it that way through your own identification with the speaker and what he describes.

-- Ken Sanes


Nature Poetry and the Human World
Poems About Life: Main Homepage

You are welcome to send me an email at
letters at kensanes.com
Please see
this page for image information.
Copyright © 2010-2011 Ken Sanes