Ancient poets utilized the epic catalogue to enlarge scope, to implicate order, and, quite simply, to relish the inherent poetry of proper names through which the poets display their skill. From Homer and Virgil down to Shakespeare and Milton, with a crucial swerve through Whitman, the topos yields innumerable variations upon its core character. While the principle drive of epic catalogue is to multiply places, people, and lines toward greater magnitude, these same poets also develop a counter-trend that paradoxically situates this expansive magnitude within smaller spaces, and it is by this variant that the epic catalogue enters into popular American song. Here the evolving topos, better named the lyric catalogue (with the epic still latent in its DNA), continues to create and explore space, to order a complex world, to relish musicality, whether allegro or elegiac, and, in this late American incarnation, to define both America and the singing self.
Of Ships and Dogs: Early Catalogues
Here, as in so much of Western poetry, Homer originates and essentially defines the epic catalogue. In medias res, the opening book and a half of the Iliad focus on individuals pitched in conflict, most vividly Agamemnon and Akhilleus. Once Agamemnon has rallied the Argive troops to fight with renewed urgency, Homer pans away from these individuals bristling with energy to survey the beachhead where more than a thousand ships and nearly one hundred thousand troops have gathered. “Let me name only captains of contingents / and number all the ships” (Fitzgerald 2.578-79), the catalogue begins, and does just that for 29 contingents. Only the poet claims, and yet the first entry, for the Boiotians, includes 35 different proper names of captains and towns spanning 17 lines. Many of the polysyllabic names are inherently dactylic, grounding the hexameter. Boiotians itself appears twice, in the first and last lines, enveloping the unit. Other entries provide the bare minimum, for example: “Great Aias led twelve ships from Salamis / and beached them where the Athenians gathered” (2.657-58). Though a large character in multiple ways, Aias gets hardly more than a mention as in a list of dramatis personae. Terse or elaborate, the catalogue embellishes where it will.
The art and skill of the catalogue lies in intermixing seemingly casual asides that, upon further study, reveal keen strategy and poetic design. Supporting the narrative, the entry for Akhilleus and his fifty ships includes crucial reminders how Briseis came into his possession, and how he still smolders with rage (2.806-24). The ships themselves get little attention other than their number. When there is room for an epithet, the ships are simply described as “black”―except for those of Odysseus; his are uniquely described as decorated “with cheek paint at the bows” (2.756). While many places are simply named, the poet lingers, briefly yet tellingly, on Odysseus’ Ithaka “whose leafy heights the seawind / ruffles” (2.750-51), a beautiful image in itself and the first hint of the sequel that will follow, from adventures at sea to crucial olive trees.
Unified by geography, demography, leadership, grammar, and poetic devices, each of these units in the catalogue is further defined by numerical formula, most often deployed in conclusion―“and Elphenor’s black ships numbered forty” (2.643). In pleasing variety a few units begin with their numbering―“Tlepolemos, the son of Herakles, / had led nine ships from Rhodes . . .” (2.775-76). Understandably, Fitzgerald sets off each account in its own verse paragraph, but these 29 contingents do not stand separate and alone. Though the modern reader may not readily see it, the contingents gather in geographical groupings, as Willcock clarifies in his Companion to The Iliad (22-34). The first seven contingents, from Boiotia through Athens to Salamis (2.579-658), come from Greece north of the Isthmus of Corinth. The next cluster, from Argos to Elis (2.659-739), come from the Peloponnesus. The smallest cluster, aptly in the fewest lines, comes from Western Greece and the Western islands, from Doulikhion to Itolia (2.740-764). The clockwise trend is then disrupted by the Southern islands, as if Krete and Kos stand somewhat apart from the others, politically and culturally as well as geographically (2.765-805). Then the clockwise trend resumes and turns to Northern Greece, from Argos of the north to Mount Pelion (2.806-905). Homer maps out greater Greece, and then brings it all to bear on this single beachhead outside Troy.
As the gathered Greek forces advance toward Troy, the perspective flips, and in perfect keeping with the narrative moment, the Trojan troops muster under their respective commanders. The Trojan catalogue is far briefer, with fewer contingents and fewer lines, along with other notable omissions that in their absence serve to clarify just what constitutes a Homeric catalogue. The Greek catalogue is commonly called the catalogue of ships, but ships themselves do not prove essential to Homeric or epic catalogue―the Trojan account mentions none, though surely some of her allies would have come to Troy by ship. Also, the Trojan catalogue includes no numbers. The closest intimation of numbers comes in the first unit: “Tall, with helmet flashing, / Hektor, great son of Priam, led the Trojans, / largest of those divisions and the best” (2.980-82). Larger befits epic magnitude, but this larger is still smaller than the Greeks, as it becomes clear the Trojans are outnumbered in soldiers (though not civilians), and their briefer catalogue and smaller forces evoke the pathos of the outnumbered and the doomed.
What proves essential to the Homeric catalogue are the proper names of places and people, geography and demography. The Trojan catalogue, like its predecessor, is geographically ordered. It begins naturally with the Trojans themselves led by Hektor and Aeneas, as far as Mount Ida and the Hellespont (2.981-1012). Then, as Willcock notes (35-38), four further groupings follow: European allies (2.1013-1020); allies from the south shore of the Black Sea (2.1021-29); allies from north-central Asia minor (2.1030-37); and allies from the West coast of Asia Minor (2.1038-53). Each of these groupings radiates outward from Troy at the center. Balancing Hektor and Aeneas at the front of the list, the Trojan catalogue resonantly concludes with formidable warriors, with five proper names of place and person in a mere two lines: “Sarpedon led the Lykians, with Glaukos, / from Lykie afar, from whirling Xanthos” (2.1052-53), drawing the spoke taut back to the hub of Troy. Thus, the Greek and Trojan forces stand marshalled on both sides; in Book 3 they advance toward one another, and then Menelaus and Paris confront one another, individuals in vivid conflict, against the epic back drop of all these places and warriors.
The latter half of Book 2 of the Iliad is the epicenter of epic catalogue, so renowned that it tends to overshadow Homer’s smaller, less grandiose catalogues. When Akhilleus’ learns of Patroklus’ death and turns to his mother in his grief, Thetis knows that Akhilleus himself will die soon, and Homer catalogues 33 Nereids to magnify her grief. Strangely, most English translations, from Pope and Butler to Fitzgerald and Lombardo, simply transliterate the proper names, most of which would have been unusual as well to Homer’s original audience. Much of the poetry resides in their exoticism and mere sound, so Fitzgerald’s Nereids “who haunted the green chambers of the sea. / Glauke, Thaleia, and Kymodoke, / Nesaie, Speio, Thoe, Halie / with her wide eyes . . .” (18.42-45). Fagles, however, digs into the etymons and attempts a more ambitious translation, worth quoting at length for its full effect as catalogue:
And immortal sea-nymphs gathered round their sister, all the Nereids dwelling down the sounding depths, they all came rushing now— Glitter, blossoming Spray and the swells’ Embrace, Fair-Isle and shadowy Cavern, Mist and Spindrift, ocean nymphs of the glances pooling deep and dark, Race-with-the-Waves and Headlands’ Hope and Safe Haven, Glimmer of Honey, Suave-and-Soothing, Whirlpool, Brilliance, Bounty and First Light and Speeder of Ships and buoyant Power, Welcome Home and Bather of Meadows and Master’s Lovely Consort, Gift of the Sea, Eyes of the World and the famous milk-white Calm and Truth and Never-Wrong and the queen who rules the tides in beauty and in rushed Glory and Healer of Men and the one who rescues kings and Sparkler, Down-from-the-Cliffs, sleek-haired Strands of Sand and all the rest of the Nereids dwelling down the depths. The silver cave was shimmering full of sea-nymphs, all in one mounting chorus beating their breasts as Thetis launched the dirge: “Hear me, sisters . . .” (18.42-59)
Geography still pertains in a surprising way, not in clans and political jurisdictions but of landscape, or rather, seascape, merged right into the characters’ names. The internal organization of the catalogue is intriguing but elusive. The external order matters more here in its revisionary ratio to the Greek and Trojan forces marshalled in Book 2. These are female, subliminal Nereids, attuned to nature, who swim in beauty apart from the noisy clash of men. Yet here they rise and gather, magnifying, as catalogues do, in this case the grief of Thetis at the very threshold of the world from which they stand apart.
Whether written by the same author or just in the same spirit (let us call it Homer), the catalogues of the Odyssey in their echoes and variations build upon those of the Iliad. The first catalogue in the Odyssey, the athletes on Phaiakia, answers that of the Nereids. The gender switches back to men. As with the Nereids, the geography of the sea blends right into the names themselves. While the Nereid catalogue has largely resisted translation, these seafaring littoral names have not intimidated their translators. Perhaps the tone is easier―these names evoke not a haunted mingling of beauty and grief, but a lively sunlit athleticism somewhere between professional wrestling and salty small-town personalities, further brightened by a touch of humor. Fitzgerald begins:
many a young athlete now came forward with seaside names like Tipmast, Tiderace, Sparwood, Hullman, Sternman, Beacher and Pullerman, Bluewater, Shearwater, Running Wake, Boardalee, Seabelt, son of Grandfleet Shipwrightson. (8.116-20)
As the catalogue accumulates, the tone becomes increasingly light-hearted, in contrast not only to the otherworldly Nereids, just beneath the ocean’s glare, but also to the tragic grandeur of the Greek and Trojan armies gathered against each other. Let the games begin.
Still in Phaiakia, now within Odysseus’ account of his visit to the land of the dead, the narration verges in and out of catalogue. Once again the catalogues are sorted by gender, first the shades of famous women. As if aware of the device, Odysseus concludes this first catalogue with an ellipsis toward infinitude:
Maira, then, and Klymene, and that detested queen, Eriphyle, who betrayed her lord for gold . . . but how name all the women I beheld there, daughters and wives of kings? (11.378-82)
Arete, then Alkinoos, praise Odysseus’ storytelling (and so Homer coyly smiles upon himself), “You speak with art . . . you told as a poet would” (11.427-29). Odysseus then revisits the catalogue of warriors, now plangently as shades: Agamemnon, Akhilleus, Patroklos, Antilokhos, Aias and more. Book 11 concludes with its catalogue-ish survey of karmic punishments: Minos, Orion, Tityos, Tantalos, Sisyphos, expanding into a numberless multitude of whispering shades. Odysseus’ supple handling of epic catalogue constitutes a considerable portion of the poetic skill that Arete, Alkinoos, and generations of audiences and readers have so admired.
Homer, naturally, establishes the Homeric catalogue, and subsequent poets took note, immediately and ever since. On our way to contemporary America, let us observe just a few of the more important catalogues. Within a century or so of the Iliad and Odyssey first being inked, the Catalogue of Women, popularly attributed to Hesiod, paid homage, crudely in its title, though the larger work is more a loose compendium of myths spun from genealogies. But the section at the front of Book 5, the catalogue of Helen’s suitors, achieves a more thoughtful concentrated imitation. Famous names abound, and how they came to be there, tersely yet intriguingly, even Odysseus, who really had no intention of courting Helen, but whose mere name enhances the Homeric aura.
The Catalogue of Women has survived only in fragments. Six hundred years later Virgil secured the epic catalogue for posterity and did as much as Homer himself to carry the device into Western languages and ultimately English. Virgil masterfully organizes his catalogue, in its revisionary ratio to Homer, in context of its new setting, down to the smallest details. As Greek gives way to Latin, and Troy to Italy, and the second half of the Aeneid answers the Iliad (as the first half echoes the Odyssey), all the usual Virgilian revisions apply. When Aeneas and his few surviving ships arrive off the coast of western Italy, they are too few and already too familiar for a catalogue themselves, and the Aeneid only needs one catalogue anyhow. Book 7 turns inland to catalogue the Latin tribes, lands, and leaders as the resisting enemy; in turn they will become the core, diverse yet unified, of the Roman Republic and eventual empire. Within the single catalogue, Turnus, Aeneas’ chief rival, completes―almost―the rising sequence. With a Homeric alertness to gender and generosity to women, Virgil saves the final entry for Camilla, skimming swiftly over the plain. In perhaps Virgil’s deepest understanding of Homeric catalogue, he passes on the ships, naturally so as the local tribes already occupy the land and, as Homer himself already demonstrated, ships can be a useful element but are not essential to Homeric catalogue. But in their place Virgil does include a unifying material motif: weapons, swords and shields of course, but also javelins, slings, boomerangs. The motif of weapons not only unifies the contingents and their accounts, it integrates the catalogue to the epic as a whole, which begins famously singing of “arms and the man,” and concludes with a sword thrust past the provoking baldric.
One generation after Virgil wrote the official epic of the gleaming Roman empire, Ovid composed his own odd counter-epic, Metamorphoses, with its catalogue of dogs in the Actaeon episode. The major delight is in the dozens of homespun names, with whole lines dedicated to nothing but dog names, like Homer’s grieving Nereids or the athletes on Phaiakia. Attention to place names is subordinated but still very much present, including Crete, Sparta, Arcadia, Siconia, and Cyprus, as if the dogs were representative warriors from distant lands gathered around Thebes. And yet they are just dogs, real dogs, as the details remind, especially in Charles Martin’s delighting translation: “Trap (with that distinctive little white patch / right in the middle of his black brow)” (3.280-81). Ovid seems to ask, with confidence in his own answer, why cannot dogs be epic too (especially in our modern and colloquial sense of the word)? Homer and his Argos would agree―or does Yipper go too far?
[then] came Blackie, Shag, and two dogs of mixed Cretan-Spartan ancestry, Fury and Fang, a little one named Yipper, and many more too numerous to mention. (3.282-85)
With a Homeric exit, the catalogue has achieved its magnitude. In Ovid’s quirky elusive tone, the realistic and the affectionate are fricative against the fantastic and horrific. The catalogue is so charming that the reader almost forgets for a moment that Actaeon, transformed into a stag, is about to be ripped to pieces by his own dogs.
English Catalogue: Epic and Lyric
Adopting the Homeric catalogue to new matter and contexts, Virgil and Ovid, one for the main tradition, the other for playful innovation, carried it forward for all of Western literature, including English. Freshly engaged with Homer, deeply enamored with Virgil and Ovid, the English Renaissance abounds with catalogues. Prominent among them, Spenser’s catalogue of trees is often cited as the exemplar of English catalogue. I admire yet demur. Book 1 Canto 1 of the Faerie Queene does skillfully catalogue twenty kinds of trees, but the result is hardly Homeric. The names of the trees are elevated with capital letters, but no lands, tribes, leaders are named. Moreover, the appreciation for the trees, such as “The sayling Pine, the Cedar proud and tall . . . The builder Oake, sole king of forrests all” (1.1.6,8), conflicts with the moment in the narrative, the imminent danger of the “wandring wood [and] Errours den” (184.108.40.206). To Spenser’s credit, his seemingly potted piece does save his one less than positive characterization for last, “the Maple seldom inward sound” (220.127.116.11), to raise some doubt going forward that things are often not what they seem. Long ago the catalogue of trees had branched off from Homer, Hesiod, and Virgil, through Ovid (Metamorphoses 10) and Chaucer (Parliament of Fowls 176-82) to flourish once more here in the Faerie Queene. Spenser is writing epic, so his catalogue could be so described, but it has ceased to be, more narrowly, Homeric.
English Renaissance poetry features far more faithfully Homeric catalogues than Spenser’s trees. Surprisingly, the poet with the most expansive vocabulary in English never uses the word epic, although Shakespeare does compose an excellent one, the second tetralogy of history plays: Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V. At 13,326 lines in all, these four plays are longer than the Aeneid (9883 lines) and the Odyssey (12,109), and not far from the scale of the Iliad (15,693). More than mere numbers this Henriad tells the intersecting stories of the growth of a nation and a national hero. As for the catalogues, in council before the Battle of Agincourt, Charles VI marshals and magnifies his forces in resolve against England and Henry:
Up, princes, and, with spirit of honor edged More sharper than your swords, hie to the field! Charles Delabreth, High Constable of France, You Dukes of Orleance, Bourbon, and of Berri, Alanson, Brabant, Bar, and Burgundy, Jacques Chatillion, Rambures, Vaudemont, Beaumont, Grandpré, Roussi, and Faulconbridge, Foix, Lestrake, Bouciqualt, and Charolois; High dukes, great princes, barons, lords, and knights, For your great seats now quit you of great shames. Bar Harry England, that sweeps through our land With pennons painted in the blood of Harflew. (3.5.38-49)
Thus speaks France, one word for both king and country, just as Burgundy is both duke and dukedom. The Shakespearean innovation upon this Homeric catalogue is that after the stunning English victory, Henry revisits the list, no longer in grandeur and puissance but now in elegy, and of course now in his own voice, not Charles’, for his sometime enemies have become, as the tribes do in the Aeneid, one’s own people. The French dead include
princes, barons, lords, knights, squires, And gentlemen of blood and quality. The names of those their nobles that lie dead: Charles Delabreth, High Constable of France, Jacques of Chatillion, Admiral of France, The master of the cross-bows, Lord Rambures, Great Master of France, the brave Sir Guichard Dolphin, John Duke of Alanson, Anthony Duke of Brabant, The brother to the Duke of Burgundy, And Edward Duke of Bar; or lusty Earls, Grandpré and Roussi, Faulconbridge and Foix, Beaumont and Marle, Vaudemont and Lestrake Here was a royal fellowship of death! (4.8.89-101)
The identical opening lines of proper names align the lists. The addition of Christian names further personalizes the loss. In respect and sympathy toward the fallen French, Henry praises more generously and intimately than did Charles in his initial muster.
The gathering line of Henry’s catalogue―“Here was a royal fellowship of death!”―stands in counterpoint to his earlier exhortation toward his own troops, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60). And that few, in the governing idea though the word goes unrepeated, guides Henry into the ensuing elegiac catalogue for the English dead:
Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire; None else of name; and of all other men But five and twenty. (4.8.103-106)
Just as he bravely volunteered in battle, here too “brave York” is “leading the vaward” of the dead (4.3.131-32). The list is so brief it can only be considered catalogue not by size but by context, and as such it magnifies not numbers but plangency: so few, those unhappy few.
Shakespeare’s Homeric catalogues, epic and brief, hide somewhat within the drama. Milton more demonstratively plants his flag as the fulfillment of Homeric catalogue in English poetry, famously in the catalogue of demons in Paradise Lost, and, still more thoroughly, though often overlooked, in the kingdoms of the world in Paradise Regained. In the first, after Satan and Beelzebub survey the grim prospects of hell, Milton’s narrator Homerically declares, “Say, Muse, thir Names then known, who first, who last, / Rous’d from the slumber on that fiery Couch, / At thir great Emperor’s call . . . ” (1.376-78), and then does just that, swelling the ranks with a vast inclusive catalogue of fallen angels, now demons, who will take their names to come from the multitude of false gods ranging from Egypt to Euphrates, biblical and extrabiblical. Toward its end the catalogue extends to Greek mythology and just a touch of the Celtic. These two hundred lines run through one hundred proper names of places and personages set apart by italics, colored with a complex tone. The fallen angels’ correspondence to the Homeric warriors lends the former some of the tragic grandeur and pathos of the latter, while the demons cast a backward shadow upon the Homeric heroes and their whole culture as vainglorious and doomed, both Trojan and Greek.
The fallen angels in Paradise Lost constitute the most famous catalogue in English, but the catalogue in Paradise Regained may accomplish even more. Milton explores the fraught intersection of worldly pomp and Christian simplicity, of aggrandizing catalogue and Scriptural aphorism. The temptation of the kingdoms―in the wilderness Satan offers the kingdoms of this world, if Jesus will only worship him; Jesus of course declines―transpires in a mere four verses in Luke 4.5-8 (cf. Matthew 4.8-10). Milton renders this particular offer and refusal, narrowly, in a dozen lines in Paradise Regained (4.166-77), but the conflict animates hundreds of lines of epic catalogue spanning Books 3 and 4. Much of the catalogue is faithfully Homeric, referencing major names (Alexander and Scipio are Milton’s favorites); marshalling troops, in formation no less (e.g. 3.303-315); and amassing proper names of places, exotic and grandiloquent in themselves: “The great Seleucia, Nisbis, and there / Artaxata, Teredon, Ctesiphon” (3.291-92). The Miltonic innovation is to disperse and merge this catalogue of kingdoms into the debate between tempting proffering Satan and the resisting rebuking Son. Still more original, Milton extends this temptation to include the kingdoms of books and knowledge, and raising the grand names from kings and generals to still greater worthies such as Socrates and―who else?― Homer. Though the epic itself is “brief,” Paradise Regained has managed to enlarge the already formidable Homeric catalogue.
No one does grandeur better than Milton, but Milton also understood from Homer’s smaller catalogues of Nereids and Phaiakians, from Shakespeare’s terse yet plangent list of English dead, that sometimes less is more. In “Lycidas,” written when the epics to come were just ambitions in the imagination, Milton experimented with the lyric possibilities of the catalogue. This can be seen in the procession of mourners at Lycidas’ funeral: Phoebus Apollo, Arethusa, Alpheus, Mincius, Triton, Camus, the apostle Peter, each adorned with at least a characterizing phrase, sometimes several lines. A catalogue of flowers, like Spenser’s trees, follows (134-51), which then gives way to a more Homeric catalogue, blending person (Lycidas himself) and place. Lycidas has been lost at sea and his body may be foundering anywhere from the Hebrides down through the Irish Sea, past Land’s End (Bellerus), down to St. Michael’s Mount gazing south and west, toward France and Spain:
whether thou to our moist vows denied, Sleep’st by the fable of Bellerus old, Where the great vision of the guarded Mount Looks toward Namancos and Bayona’s hold. (159-62)
(Even contemporary American undergraduates with little sense of the geography marvel at the audible wonder in these lines.) The tragedy and horror that Lycidas’ irretrievable body might be in any of these places gives way to the triumphant sublimation that Lycidas is in all these places, beneficently, as the “Genius of the shore” (183). What Homer and Shakespeare tended toward and intuitively practiced, Milton has perfected, the lyric catalogue.
Catalogue Comes to America
Two centuries later Walt Whitman brought the epic catalogue to America as one of his central poetic devices. Whitman shows he knows his Homer though he does not always choose to follow. In a complex response to Homeric catalogue, he emulates, diverges, and restores. In a letter accompanying the submission in 1860 to Harper’s Magazine of the poem that would become “Chants Democratic (No.4)” and eventually “Our Old Feuillage,” Whitman explains,
The theory of “A Chant of National Feuillage” is to bring in, (devoting a line, or two, or three lines, to each,) a comprehensive collection of touches, locales, incidents, idiomatic scenes, from every section, South, West, East, Kanada, Texas, Maine, Virginia, the Mississippi Valley, &c. &c. &c.―all intensely fused to the urgency of compact America, “America always”―all in a vein of graphic, short, clear, hasting along―as having a huge bouquet to collect, and quickly taking and binding in every characteristic subject that offers itself―making a compact, the-whole-surrounding, National Poem, after its sort, after its own style.
The poem itself catalogues states, cities, and especially rivers, as Whitman seems to relish the freshness of those proper names. Similarly, “Starting from Paumanok” takes a Homeric and Miltonic delight in gathering exotically “syllabled” Native American names:
Okonee, Koosa, Ottawa, Monongahela, Sauk, Natchez, Chattahoochee, Kaqueta, Oronoco, Wabash, Miami, Saginaw, Chippewa, Oshkosh, Wall-Walla, Leaving such to the States they melt, they depart, charging the water and the land with names. (242-45)
Surprisingly, though he clearly understood their incantatory power, Whitman seldom catalogued America at length by its proper names. Whitman’s most Homeric catalogue of such names is found in “Salut Au Monde!” where, outside his usual project, he surveys and integrates the entire world (so the title), not just America.
Whitman preferred to catalogue things and above all people, and more commonly, contra Homer, he eschews proper names which could swell a scene or even develop into characters over the course of an epic. Rather, Whitman gathers occupations and types. For instance, “I Hear America Singing,” a brief and illuminating guide poem placed early in Leaves of Grass, catalogues a dozen occupations and vocations, a trope Whitman frequently reprises (see especially “Song of Myself” 15). Place and person are the central subjects of Homeric catalogue, as they are in Whitman, but his sense of person radically differs. What interests him is, first, the mystical unity of the nation, something never achieved in the prime Homeric catalogues, as those individuals and their pointed conflicts resist this complete synthesis. In Homer, Greece is not a unified nation, neither politically nor poetically. And the other person of most interest to Whitman is Whitman himself, who both mystically and physically embodies the diverse yet unified nation. This sense of person will become dominant in modern lyric catalogue.
In his handling of proper names Whitman swerves from the classic Homeric catalogue, but elsewhere he restores an essential element that Homer’s successors had largely forgotten. The first verb in the Iliad (in the Aeneid too), in the imperative no less, is “sing.” In later editions of Leaves of Grass as it grows to epic heft, the first verb―and the sustaining verb throughout―is also “sing”:
One’s-Self I sing, a simple separate person, Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse. (“One’s-Self I Sing” 1-2)
This “sing” is largely figurative. While some have sought to put Leaves of Grass to music, it is perhaps at best chanted. But this “sing” has served as inspiration, rather than exemplar, to a succession of composers, lyricists, and singers who found in Whitman the challenge to articulate and then sing a uniquely American song, though one acquainted and enriched with ancient poetics. Whitman facilitates what he himself hardly practiced. And through Whitman a whole tradition and topos of American song arrives where Milton was already waiting (Lycidas “knew himself to sing”), having come from another direction, the phenomenon of lyric catalogue, not only briefer than epic, but now truly melodically sung.
Nearly all countries have their songs, but partly as a new venture in governance, partly by its dynamic size, America has inspired a multitude of songs that harmonize the lyric and the epic. Pre-Whitman, in 1831 Samuel Francis Smith had already put new American lyrics to “God Save the Queen.” The new song, “My Country Tis of Thee,” proved versatile and enduring. Its emphasis on liberty inspired new abolitionist lyrics in 1843, and the tacit referent for mountains― “from every mountainside / let freedom ring”―moved right across the continent as the country expanded, from New England through the lower Appalachians, to the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada. A long generation later, Katherine Lee Bates, inspired by a journey to Pike’s Peak, made just that adjustment, celebrating the same western expansiveness over which Whitman marveled. From its first line to its last, “America the Beautiful” sketches an epic breadth of “spacious skies” spanning “amber waves of grain” and “purple mountains majesty,” the nation now truly extending “from sea to shining sea” (1895). Another generation further along, the mountains and seas again confer an epic scale in Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” “from the mountains to the prairies / to the ocean’s white with foam” (1918). The epic geography is inversely Homeric. The ancient Greek world is centered upon a sea surrounded by islands, coasts, and mountains; America spans a continent surrounded by waters. As the elements in this succession of American songs become repeated and predictable, Homer had already prescribed the solution, the particularity of proper names toward a true epic catalogue, not just of size but of distinctive individual parts gathered into a collective whole.
This fresh re-infusion of Homeric catalogue comes from a surprising direction. With communist sympathies, Woody Guthrie felt excluded from “God Bless America” and especially irked by Kate Smith’s version pervading the airwaves in the late 1930s. In response he composed “This Land Is Your Land.” He managed to rein in his more combative verses, excluding them from recordings, and what remained, even his silence on deity, is really not incompatible with “God Bless America.” Guthrie’s first stanza, what would become the song’s most famous, revitalizes the overly familiar topography with particularity:
This land is your land, this land is my land From California to the New York island, From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters; This land was made for you and me.
The second line has essentially re-written “from sea to shining sea,” as does the third, telling it somewhat slant. “New York island,” in the singular, often mis-sung as islands, is a wink to Whitman, if not Paumanok then Manhatta. And as in Whitman, places merge with person, the inclusive “you” and still more inclusive “me,” everyone who sings or listens, chiastically repeated from line one, as the possessives of “your” and “my” end in “you and me.” Though small in its first inklings, the topos of American lyric catalogue has begun.
Twenty years later lyric catalogue would thrive in the faster beats of the fifties and sixties. The lyric catalogue in the refrain of Chuck Berry’s 1958 song “Sweet Little Sixteen” is geographically jittery, but in the next year’s “Back in the U.S.A.” (yes, the point of departure for the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR”), Berry broadly sketched America by convenient quadrants of east and west, then from northern industrial cities down through the south, before settling at home in in the center of the nation:
New York, Los Angeles, oh, how I yearned for you Detroit, Chicago, Chattanooga, Baton Rouge, Let alone just to be at my home in ol’ St Lou.
The next stanza refreshes “sea to shining sea” while modernizing and urbanizing the landscape with contemporary features:
Did I miss the skyscrapers, did I miss the long freeway? From the coast of California to the shores of Delaware Bay You can bet your life I did, till I got back to the U.S.A.
The American lyric catalogue was refining itself and surging with new energies.
A few years later Geoff Mack re-magnified the American lyric catalogue back toward epic in “I’ve Been Everywhere” which rolls through 92 proper names of place in just a few speeding minutes. The organization is not very deep, and for catalogue under-developed, lacking the grace notes and terse profundities of Homer and Milton. In fact the Australian Mack had never been to America when he wrote his first version cataloguing Australia. With a template in place and atlas in hand, he rewrote the song for the far larger American market. From the singular Winnemucca of the opening stanza, the song segues from the old generalities of desert and mountain into an explosion of toponyms ranging from the familiar and important to the obscure and exotic. The organization is not geographical or thematic but linguistic and musical, the places gathered by -villes, -fields, -burgs, rocks, lakes and lacs, intensely rhymed, internal, external, identical, masculine, feminine, with nearly as many rhymes as beats, as in this aaaB / aaaB couplet:
I’ve been to Boston, Charleston, Dayton, Louisiana Washington, Houston, Kingston, Texarkana.
The sense of person is Whitmanian: all the places delineating the country meet in the singer who absorbs the names and their implicit experiences into the wholeness of his identity.
The modern audience is more likely to recall Johnny Cash’s 1996 version of “I’ve Been Everywhere,” among the more than a hundred recorded versions, but way back in 1962 Hank Snow had the first hit with the American version, to which “Dancing in the Streets” can be heard as a response, just as Woody Guthrie answered Irving Berlin and Kate Smith. Composed by Marvin Gaye, William Mickey Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter and most memorably recorded by Martha and the Vandellas in 1964, the song extends “an invitation across the nation,” though the places mentioned are relatively few―just seven toponyms to Mack’s 92. Significantly, the cities named all have substantial African-American populations. The final two cities stand apart. Detroit, the home of Motown Records, aptly receives the lyrical flair, “Can’t forget the Motor City.” Then the catalogue flies over the smaller Midwestern and Western towns that verbally spiced “I’ve Been Everywhere,” though most with little to no African-American community, to land in Los Angeles. But the song makes another notable omission, the racially embattled cities of the South. Little Rock, Atlanta, Birmingham go unmentioned. When Martha Reeves was asked if “Dancing in the Streets” encoded a call to racial revolution, she replied that it was just a fun “party song.” The general avoidance of the South (the exception of the exceptional New Orleans aside) largely confirms this, even as the song inclines, noncontroversially, toward Black communities and culture. As Langston Hughes responded to Whitman, “I, too, sing America,” “Dancing in the Streets” supplements what “I’ve Been Everywhere” had minimized or simply neglected.
At the same time Gaye, Henderson and Hunter were composing “Dancing in the Streets,” Martin Luther King was more aggressively cataloguing America, and―it is only a small stretch―doing so in song. Though neither dactylic hexameter nor iambic pentameter, King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has its own compelling rhythm and resonance, and its peroration rises through classic American song:
This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with a new meaning, “My country, ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim’s pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.”
Throughout the speech King had been naming states, and here he blends those state names with the landscape of mountains, so important to Smith, Bates and Berlin. The catalogues in “I’ve Been Everywhere” and “Dancing in the Streets” are rhetorically far simpler, often no more than lists. King restores the commentary that gives catalogue its evocative richness, and as he moves east to west he recalls the geography and history of the nation:
And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania! Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado! Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!
Like “Dancing in the Streets” he holds the south apart, not to avoid the complication, but emphatically kept for last, as the urgent place of racial conflict:
But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia! Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee! Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.
From these gathered places, the catalogue shifts to people in broad Whitmanian categories, as canonical patriotic American song blends into the Negro spiritual:
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”
The lyric catalogue can be variously beautiful or manic, and sometimes very serious.
By the mid-sixties, the American lyric catalogue, whether white or black, of Mack and Snow or of Berry and King, had become a familiar strategy in popular music, sometimes subtle and profound, other times, it seems, simply for the sheer energy. As for the latter, Steve Miller adapts “Dancing” to “Rock’n”: “from Phoenix, Arizona / All the way to Tacoma / Philadelphia, Atlanta, LA / Northern California where the girls are warm . . . .” The sequence makes little sense, not even as a tour itinerary; the delight is largely musical, as in “I’ve Been Everywhere,” as in certain lines of Milton and Homer. With multiple allusions to “Dancing in the Streets,” Huey Lewis similarly celebrates rock n’ roll “across the nation,” in a seemingly random sequence: “DC, San Antone and the Liberty Town, Boston and Baton Rouge / Tulsa, Austin, Oklahoma City, Seattle, San Francisco, too / Everywhere there’s music, real live music,” and finally “in Cleveland, Detroit.” The faithful “Heart of Rock & Roll” does not forget the Motor City.
Powerful even in its simplest expressions, the lyric catalogue can also be subtle, complex in tone, and self-aware as in Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” so delicately tinged with something like post-epic catalogue. Simon, who studied English literature at Queens College, references Frost, Dickinson and Donne in his early lyrics, and here the title and lyric drive suggest Whitman: the narrator has “come to look for America.” The actual “list” of particular places, however, proves few, even for a lyric catalogue: boarding a bus in Pittsburgh, hitch-hiking from Saginaw. The ratio is the opposite of “I’ve Been Everywhere”―that was nearly all places with scant embellishment; here few places are named, but the commentary and context are exquisitely developed, at once playful and lonely. Though centered upon a couple, the song does touch upon the magnitude that catalogue offers, the nearly innumerable cars, far more than a thousand ships, on the New Jersey Turnpike. But the drivers are nameless, and nothing gathers into a meaningful whole. Even the song’s central lovers, though we know their names (Kathy for sure and, let us assume, Paul), cannot maintain their intimacy. Simon’s “America” is not epic catalogue; it is hardly lyric catalogue; but it resonates more richly in context and awareness of those topoi, mother and child.
Lyric catalogue can be exuberant and prolific or lonely and elegiac, as Homer’s Nereids and Milton’s “Lycidas” had already foretold. In “Willin’” Lowell George alliterates a brief lyric catalogue: “I’ve been from Tucson to Tucumcari / Tehachapi to Tonopah.” These towns scattered across the Western desert, through the names themselves, evoke the loneliness of so much distance, so few people, still less connection. (Tucson was far less peopled fifty years ago; the other desert towns largely remain so.) The method and mood are like that of the poet “singing” for Lycidas whose body welters in the vast ocean, its own kind of desert place, “between Namancos and Bayona’s hold.” The American desert naturally lends itself to this kind of counter-catalogue of absence, acutely felt as the presence of absence, as in “Everywhere,” composed by Reid and Wiseman, popularly sung by Tim McGraw, who sees his estranged lover in
Albuquerque waitin’ out a blizzard Arizona dancin’ ‘cross the desert Watchin’ the sun set in Monterey Girl I swear just the other day you were Down in Georgia pickin’ them peaches In Carolina barefoot on the beaches.
The loneliness of the desert casts its shadow over the once shining seas. The vast land is unpeopled, the catalogue confounded. Linked by title, the frenzy of “I’ve Been Everywhere” has been mellowed by love, haunted by loss.
Contemporary American lyric catalogue need not always be ironic, elegiac, or in some way post-modern. One of the more prominent recent catalogues affirmatively journeys back through the long tradition of the topos. Consider Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.” His title recalls the lineage of “My Country Tis of Thee,” “America the Beautiful,” and “God Bless America.” While Guthrie composed against that tradition, Greenwood welcomes Guthrie as well, similarly setting forth his quadrants, east and west, north and south down the center of the nation: “From Detroit down to Houston / And New York to L.A.” Still more beautifully and originally, he pairs the trochees of Minnesota and Tennessee, less common choices, and then resolves Berlin and Guthrie:
From the lakes of Minnesota To the hills of Tennessee Across the plains of Texas From sea to shining sea.
Voiced in the singular “I,” just as Whitman would do, the song is succinctly expansive and inclusive, a gathering of multitudes. In these seemingly simple lines, while the lake country of Minnesota is predominantly white and Tennessee the home of country music, Detroit, in this tradition, implies Motown, while Houston reaches toward “the gulf stream waters.”
Greenwood sings in full awareness of the lyric American catalogue, a rich multi-layered harmony for those who have ears to hear. Among the many references, allusions, and points of contact, the connection to Guthrie is especially intriguing. One a self-avowed communist, the other a conservative Christian, Guthrie and Greenwood happily meet in both their love of America and their love of song, sharing the topos of lyric catalogue, with one another and with a multitude of poets and singers, from Homer and Virgil, through Shakespeare and Milton, down to Whitman and Martin Luther King, Geoffrey Mack and Marvin Gaye. The epic catalogue has always cultivated breadth and magnitude; across time it acquires height as well, in what Leonard Cohen calls “the Tower of Song,” as one song builds upon another, in this case, a catalogue of catalogues. In breadth, in height, in a vast multi-dimensional spaciousness, each new catalogue, whether epic or lyric, is a thing unto itself, a fresh dialogue with the others, and a contribution to a topos that continues to inform and enrich poetry and song.