Song of Our Game: The Ballad of Casey as imagined by Walt Whitman

“Bold, ambitious, brave, congrats!”  -- John Thorn, Official Historian of Major League Baseball

In the spring of 1888--as people from Maryland to Maine dug out of the Great Blizzard which had paralyzed the eastern seaboard--it was high time for Casey, or an equal hero of the baseball diamond, to find his way to literary nativity. In poetic retrospect, we can be thankful that Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry--said to be the chiefest among the Nine Muses--manifested herself in Ernest Thayer's study at 67 Chatham Street in Worcester rather than upon Walt Whitman's doorstep at 330 Mickle Street in Camden. But when Calliope made her appearance, was she not accompanied by her somber sister Melpomene--the Muse of Tragedy?

Walt Whitman 1819-1892

Song of Our Game in the Year of the Republic CXII

I

Bards for my own land only I invoke,

To sing of grass-grown fields where players disport themselves,

Whether costumed and gloved, or in pastures where children run barefoot,

Where crowds of Americans gather--of men swart and strong, of homestead and workshop-- of teamsters, mechanics, firemen--

And of women young or old, lightly and gaily adorned, faces freckled or wrinkled,

And of a day in springtime I call those bards to give a sure account.

II

Sing, you poets, sing not only of glorious victories, but also of the unnumbered

legions lost in dark Teutonic forests,

Or of galleons sunken in measureless deeps, disasters known or unknown,

beyond all remembrance or reckoning,

Sing of the games where victory and defeat were equally at stake,

And of the men who reached a base, not knowing and often doubting,

Whether their Captain and their camerado would find a way to bring them home:

What miracle could shift the whims of Fortune by a whisker's breadth?

III

The expression of a well-made batsman appears not only on his face

But in his limbs and joints, and curiously also in his walk,

The carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist and knees,

Dress does not hide the clean, strong, firm-fibred quality

          of his body through the cotton and broadcloth,

The clean-setting trowsers and waist-straps.

Do you think he could walk so pleasantly and well suited

          toward annihilation?

IV

The women notice and the gentlemen also take note,

Unconcealed is their admiration as he swings his bat,

With authority and potency he tests it, the striker

Like Adam in the morning, is not less the soul or more,

He is in his place--the flush of the known universe pulsing within him.

Where else should he strike, but here at the edge of all things and all times?

V

Now the hurler too poises with hands on hips, leaping,

Stretching, arm-curving and tightening his grip,

Soil-browned fingers clasping the fearsome projectile,

Borne on the rolling ocean of expectation, the crowd roaring

Approval, both men and women roaring

As through the storm a bolt of lightning blazes: Strike One!

VI

O furious! Confine them not, you Spirits of cloud and wind!

What is this that frees them so in storms, what do their shouts mean

Amid these lightnings and raging winds? The armies who exalt

Their striker, their Captain, engirth him and he engirths them;

They will not let him off till he goes with them, responds to them,

Discorrupts them, and charges them with the charge of the soul.

VII

Morose and full of guile, O camerados,

Defiant, dissatisfied, it was said our Captain was baffled and dispel'd,

And though I doubt not that orbs in their systems play their swift sports

          through the air on purpose,

While I doubt not that whatever can happen is provided for

          in the inherences of things,

Yet are not souls drowned and destroyed so? Is only matter triumphant?

Through a storm of imprecation speeds the spinning sphere: Strike Two!

VIII

Courage yet, my brother or my sister!

Keep on, intrepid soul! There is nothing that is quelled by one or two failures,

            or any number of failures;

Or by the indifference or ingratitude of the people, or by unfaithfulness,

The battle rages with many an alarm and frequent advance and retreat,

The named and unnamed heroes pass to other spheres--

Will there come a time in this Republic when there are no more

          memories of heroes or of martyrs?

IX

Scorn becomes him well,

          and appetite and defiance define our Captain well,

Pride is for him, and he brings every thing to the test of himself.

To drive free! To dash reckless and dangerous! To court destruction

           with taunts and jeers,

To rise to the moment with his inebriate soul! To be lost

            (if it must be so), but if so only to feed the remainder of life

With one brief hour of madness and joy!

In his head, the all-baffling brain--within it are the makings (and unmakings)

          of heroes.

X

Of those years and this day the bards have sung, of the great cities appearing,

          the masses turbulent, willful, as I love them,

Where the whirl, the contest, the wrestle of evil with good,

          the sounding and resounding keep on and on,

And of all lands sloping down here where the fresh free water

          of the great river flows;

Where at the ferry wharf I hear the cold dash of waves,

Where under gray discouraged skies I tread the mire unpaved,

Rise up, my Captain! Night has passed, this fearful dream

          shall fade at the Opening Day!

-- With gratitude to Walt Whitman (1819-1892), as edited by Richard C. Davis © All rights reserved 2020
 

Walt Whitman knew and celebrated the game of "base ball" as he had known it. From the 1840's he wrote admiringly about the game. Below I will re-post the excerpt from the essay by Major League Baseball's official historian John Thorn in his blog "Our Game" for Opening Day 2014, in which Thorn places the quotations both known and lesser-known by Walt Whitman about America's national game.

For some years I have tried to imagine what "Casey at the Bat" would have been like, if written by other bards and poets of his age. Since 2012 when I began laboring in the deep background of Ernest Thayer's life and work, I have occasionally been sidetracked by such whimsies (I have also tried to imagine what Macaulay's "Horatius" would have been like, if written by Ernest Thayer. As a result of that attempt I am now convinced that Thayer's version would have been far superior to the original! See "Horatius ad pontem" in "Two Peoples Divided by a Common Ballad.")

But the Whitman project was daunting, because as an admirer of Whitman's astonishing originality, I felt that a parody of his style would remain overshadowed by the author's mastery and tainted by irreverence. But this year, inspired by John Thorn and the perennial promise of Opening Day on March 26, 2020, I proposed to try a version of Whitman's "Casey"  that would use his own unique phrasing and even, for the most part, his words verbatim.

Whitman residence in Camden, New Jersey as it appeared in 1890

The words and phrases you read above, including some you may find surprisingly apt to "Casey," are approximately 80% unique to Whitman, drawn from verses in Leaves of Grass too numerous to cite (and certainly not to be found in the sequence I have given them). In retrospect, I think Whitman could have written a "Casey"-like poem, though he was not a balladeer in the sense that Thayer had learned traditional English and Scottish ballads in the classes of Professor Francis Child at Harvard. Though Whitman, to a degree I did not fully comprehend when I began this project, certainly shared with Thayer an affinity and appreciation for the ancients.

I have always assumed that it was Calliope--the muse of epic poetry--who whispered in Thayer's ear. But then I saw the great statue of Melpomene, sister-muse of tragedy, who reposes in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, and doubt assailed me. For look at the formidable cudgel in the right hand of Melpomene--far different from the tablet, stylus, and lyre favored by Calliope. This explains better than any metaphor the power of tragedy as well as the pain (and wisdom) she inflicts. A Gibson, Ruth, Mays, Williams--or Casey--might have envied such a weapon--but, as in the ancient folk tales, its power if wielded by someone other than its owner would not have yielded the desired results....

Should it be my destiny to meet either of these oft-emulated poets--or even their esteemed forerunner Macaulay-- in some distant grove of the Elysian Fields, I trust they will each forgive any irreverence in my modest mimicry.

By the way, the "Year of the City" dating Macaulay's imagined ballad, echoed by Thayer's "Ballad of the Republic" for the year 1888 is a poetic conceit shared by both authors. I've explained their related purposes for this curiosity in my blog post "Why the Ballad of the Republic?" But in this year's Whitmanesque version, the Year of the Republic is dated to 1888, in other words, 112 years following the birth of the Republic at Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

Now...how might Emily Dickinson have written "Casey at the Bat?"

"Opening Day" from March 30, 2014 post for his blog Our Game by John Thorn

According to Horace Traubel in With Walt Whitman in Camden (March 28-July 14, 1888), published in 1906, Whitman said to him, “I like your interest in sports — ball, chiefest of all — baseball particularly: baseball is our game: the American game: I connect it with our national character. Sports take people out of doors, get them filled with oxygen — generate some of the brutal customs (so-called brutal customs) which, after all, tend to habituate people to a necessary physical stoicism. We are some ways a dyspeptic, nervous set: anything which will repair such losses may be regarded as a blessing to the race.”

This remark is generally paraphrased by those wishing to quote the juicy phrases. Maybe we can blame Douglass Wallop for first “helping” Whitman. Annie Savoy and Ken Burns are among the legions who have followed down this path. The famous “snap, go, fling” quote also came from the Traubel book: “Well — it’s our game; that’s the chief fact in connection with it; America’s game; it has the snap, go, fling of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our institutions; fits into them as significantly as our Constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life.”

Here’s another Whitman anthem for Opening Day. Truncated, it is today famous as the opening lines of Ken Burns’s Baseball (1994). Here is the young Whitman’s full commentary, from the Brooklyn Eagle, Thursday, July 23, 1846.

CITY INTELLIGENCE

“Brooklyn Young Men. — Athletic exercises. — In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball. We wish such sights were more common among us. In the practice of athletic and manly sports, the young men of nearly all our American cities are very deficient — perhaps more so than those of any other country that could be mentioned. Clerks are shut up from early morning till nine or ten o’clock at night — apprentices, after their days’ works, either go to bed, or lounge about in places where they benefit neither body or mind — and all classes seem to act as though there were no commendable objects of pursuit in the world except making money and tenaciously sticking to one’s trade or occupation. Now, as the fault is so generally of this kind, we can do little harm in hinting to people that, after all, there may be no necessity for such a drudge system among men. Let us enjoy life a little. Has God made this beautiful earth — the sun to shine — all the sweet influences of nature to operate — and planted in man a wish for their delights — and all for nothing? Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms, and the dust and corruption of stagnant places, and taste some of the good things Providence has scattered around so liberally.

THE GOOD GRAY POET

“We would that all the young fellows about Brooklyn were daily in the habit of spending an hour or two in some out-door game or recreation. The body and mind would both be benefited by it. There would be fewer attenuated forms and shrunken limbs and pallid faces in our streets. The game of ball is glorious — that of quoits is invigorating — so are leaping, running, wrestling, &c. &c. To any person having the least knowledge of physiology, it were superfluous to enter into any argument to prove the use and benefit of exercise. We have far too little of it in this country, among the ‘genteel’ classes. Both women and men, particularly the younger ones, should be careful to pass no day of their lives without a portion of out-door exercise.”

  #OurGame #BalladoftheRepublic #CaseyattheBat #WaltWhitman #OpeningDay2020 @thorn_john @Ed_Achorn #OpeningDay #SongofOurGame @WhitmanArchive 

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