Walt Whitman, “The Runner”

The Runner
Walt Whitman

ON a flat road runs the well-train’d runner;
He is lean and sinewy, with muscular legs;
He is thinly clothed—he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists, and arms partially rais’d.


For the most part, I think our political leaders eloquent, but eloquence differs from what it was before. Nowadays, in order to speak of democracy, you have to start with the basics and build slowly. For example, you might explain how change works. You start by showing that the largest, grandest changes are impossible all at once, and instead emphasize the smaller deeds and realizations which did and did not turn out to be something more. Or you speak of values under assault. Instead of speaking in the abstract of moral decline, that regimes decay necessarily because of temporal distance from their founding, you speak of how values inform a people, sustain them, create a certain person we can look up to and continue looking up to. It can feel very elementary, and one might complain that it makes our leaders sound paternalistic, talking down to us a bit like parents or teachers must.

I don’t think anyone involved in this process lacks intelligence or expertise. Most people are very well-educated, and those who aren’t still show professionalism, earnestness, and a willingness to listen. What has collapsed is not an obvious failing of politicians or peoples; it’s a more subtle problem. In truth, the situation nowadays is what a lack of studying rhetoric, a lack of concentrated attention in education to public life does to a people. We have barely spent any time reflecting on how our society works before we’re confronted with people yelling at us to take a side. Our educational institutions justify themselves almost exclusively through success, the gain of an immediate practical good. When we do speak of governance, we speak of protecting and using our rights, which can sometimes create the trap that nothing else about politics need be known, practiced, or discovered. Without realizing what has happened, we’ve more vulnerable to the crudest sort of sophistry, the sort that promises free stuff by calling everyone else a thief.

Politics in one sense really is an art, a science: it requires a lot of knowledge to figure out how to compromise with people you don’t know and with whom you have to build trust. It requires at least as much knowledge when trust is lacking and you have to make a determination about relative strength, letting that inform your words and actions. The idea that anyone at any time and with any degree of skill could do this, that their simply being right is good enough, is insane. You have to commit to a role and decide that you’re going to grow in it. Maybe I’m just on twitter too often, but it feels a wonder that the republic has lasted as long as it has.

Whitman speaks democracy. He’s from another world where classics were the heart of education, where the study of rhetoric was central and everyone saw America as an exceptional experiment in self-governance. But even in his time, a higher consciousness of public things did not stop this country from tearing itself in two and shooting each other. His America had to relearn how it all works.

Maybe “The Runner” indicates the lessons were once somewhat subtler. “On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,” opens the poem. It took me a little while to realize that the most important word in this line is “flat.” The runner, another human being, is neither above nor below the speaker. He is “well-train’d,” but at what? Simply moving, an action more fundamental than wrestling or running timing routes.

Whitman marks subtly contradictory things in the figure of the runner. “He is lean and sinewy, with muscular legs” indicates built-up legs and a thinner torso. “Sinewy” on the whole, but not entirely proportional. His legs are far more powerful than the rest of his body. The effect, I feel, is that moving forward becomes slightly more important than an insistence on rational faculties. When Oedipus answers the riddle of the Sphinx, man standing upright, seeing ahead, makes the answer remarkable. An infant and old man do not quite have the same vision, the same grasp on their affairs.

This is not to say the runner is irrational, just that he’s more of a doer. His is a most natural doing, a consistency in a world complicated to the point of confusion. Working through “He is thinly clothed—he leans forward as he runs,” I take “thinly clothed” to refer to his almost being naked, hence my comment about being natural. Leaning forward as you run means throwing yourself wholly toward your object, not wasting momentum. Again, Whitman draws our attention to what the runner represents through conflicting elements; “thinly clothed” caught my eye as peculiar.

Those contradictions of a sort reach a peak in the final line: “With lightly closed fists, and arms partially rais’d.” In many other contexts, “lightly closed fists” does not represent strength. In a fight, it’s a great way to break your hand. “Arms partially rais’d” makes it sound like this natural, complete motion is incomplete. Of course, it is incomplete. The runner makes progress, and that very progress embodies itself in what we can term the “not quite.” He is not quite proportional, nor clothed, nor entirely powerful in legs and fists. And he cannot declare victory, i.e. raise his arms, just yet. His striving is what marks him as democratic man.

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