I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood

Walt Whitman photo

I see that the elementary laws never apologize

I know I am deathless.

I know this orbit of mine cannot be swept by a carpenter’s compass.

I know I shall not pass like a child’s carlacue cut with a burnt stick at night.

I know I am august,

I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood.

I see that the elementary laws never apologize

(I reckon I behave no prouder than the level I plant my house by, after all.)

by Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819 – March 26, 1892)
from Song of Myself
first passage of Leaves of Grass
image – Marion Doss

Inconsequential and Stuck in my Mind

The Big Message parts of this excerpt soaked right in. I read it quickly to proofread, slowly for understanding, then again to let it steep like tea… and again after stirring in a little milk of understanding and the sweet sugar of how poetry feels in the mouth when read out loud.

I stumbled on one thing. Did you, too? Are any of you like me? If you are, you have to know: what is a carlacue? Where does this “carlacue” word come from?

Take a look at what I found from part of a reader’s letter that was published in a 1898 literary review.

There used to be a French coin called un ecu, corresponding in value to two shillings English, or fifty cents American; and in French Canada one still frequently hears the words un ecu used instead of “fifty cents.” In the early days in Canada the English sixpence was very common, and the habitants called it quart d’ecu, a quarter of an ecu. The English-speaking country people corrupted this into “carlacue” (or rather “carlicue”), and often used the word in a secondary sense to signify a trifle or a thing of little value – e.g., “I don’t care a carlicue.” “It is not worth a carlique.” The corrupted word was afterwards carried to the United States, and it there underwent further alterations of spelling as well as of meaning.

Literature: an international gazette of criticism, Volume 3
September 17, 1898

A carlacue is the same as a curlicue. I always thought that the word curlicue came from putting “curly” together with “Q,” resulting in a visual cognate for the shape of a really curly curl. It seems that the “curly Q” came about much later in the game.

Neat, huh? A “carlacue” was a little nothing even before it was Americanized into being a curly little Q of hair in Whitman’s poem.

Layered meanings are nice in poetry. (Yes, I am smiling.) I wonder if Whitman knew that the word came from a defunct coin. The etymology information is from only six years after his death. What a nice juxtaposition: an inconsequential bit of cold, hard, immutable coin and the forever-precious, blow-away-softness of a child’s wayward curl, all in the same word.

If anyone reading this is a linguist who can confirm these charming factoids, please speak up. And, is this slang still used in French Canada?

The Voyager, Influenced

In my travels, in search of understanding this bit of Whitman, I ran across a few mentions of his work in the journals of Jack Kerouac. As soon as I saw that Kerouac had mentioned Whitman, I could see them on the road, riding off across the country together, side by side on the bench seats of some old land yacht of a car, philosophizing and pondering. Makes perfect sense.

Kerouac notes on this transcript dated 1940 that the first five lines are a version of Walt Whitman’s (from the long opening poem of the 1885 edition of Leaves of Grass, later titled “Song of Myself”) and the remainder of the poem is his writing. In a journal entry from June 4, 1941, Kerouac writes: “Again got up late. Read more Whitman – great man, regardless of what they say. True, he may be an old sensuous wolf, but his philosophy of individualism cannot be beat – although his democracy is inapplicable. […] Here’s something from Whitman that is deathless:

I know I am august
I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate
     itself or be understood,
I see that the elementary laws never
     apologize.

Also, about man:
     WHO GOES THERE?
          HANKERING, GROSS, MYSTICAL, NUDE…

My next reading will be London & Wolfe.”

In 1950 Kerouac wrote to New England poet Rosaire Dion-Levesque, who had published a French translation of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: “Whitman was my first real influence; it was on the spur of reading Whitman that I decided to cross the country.”

Jack Kerouac’s journal
from Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Other Writings
commentary by Paul Marion

“Who goes there? Hankering, gross, mystical, nude,” isn’t Kerouac. It’s from the beginning of this excerpt from Whitman’s Song of Myself. It could almost be part of Ginsberg’s Howl.

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4 Responses to “I do not trouble my spirit to vindicate itself or be understood”

  1. Diane Says:

    I am a French teacher in addition to being a new fan of your site. I have never heard of an “ocu” but the term écu is very easily recognizable to anyone who reads French.

  2. E. A. Able Says:

    Oh, my. Good catch. One of my ecus was an ocu. I obviously do not have familiarity with French, or I would have caught my misspelling. I’ll change it now.

    An “ocu” and an “écu” look about the same, from the perspective of someone who is almost completely ignorant of French. I would be one of those English-speaking country people who ball-parked spelling and nudged the word along to another meaning.

  3. E. A. Able Says:

    One more thing!

    Diane, I just added a link to Wikipedia’s écu page, but chose not to accent the “e,” because the original citation (also American) neglected the accents.

    This is so much more interesting with the background information. Thank you!

  4. Karen Says:

    I love your site also. I love words and learning there meanings. When I see a word IDNK I look it up too and am always amazed what it’s meaning adds to the content I am reading. For me words are pure delight.

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