"winders of the circuit of circuits"

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Sun Dec 28 07:02:57 UTC 2008

A poet I know who has been annotating Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself"
asked me if I could help explicate the meaning of the phrase "winders
of the circuit of circuits" in section 41 of the poem:

I do not despise you priests, all time, the world over,
My faith is the greatest of faiths and the least of faiths,
Enclosing worship ancient and modern and all between ancient and modern,
Believing I shall come again upon the earth after five thousand years,
Waiting responses from oracles, honoring the gods, saluting the sun...
Accepting the Gospels, accepting him that was crucified, knowing
     assuredly that he is divine,
To the mass kneeling or the puritan's prayer rising, or sitting
     patiently in a pew,
Ranting and frothing in my insane crisis, or waiting dead-like till
     my spirit arouses me,
Looking forth on pavement and land, or outside of pavement and land,
Belonging to the winders of the circuit of circuits.

One of that centripetal and centrifugal gang I turn and talk like
     man leaving charges before a journey.

I'm at a bit of a loss here -- It isn't clear what a winder of
circuits/circuit winder is supposed to be. (As best I can tell, the
Whitman literature doesn't have anything to say about this line.) If
it's a fixed collocation, it doesn't occur a whole lot in 19th c.
writing. Current citations for "wind a circuit" etc. seem to be
chiefly electrical, but that isn't likely to have been what Whitman
was getting at. It might simply mean "following a circuit (i.e., a
regular route among a round of places in succession), where 'wind' has
the sense of the related verb 'wend' ; cf the lines from the 1809
narrative poem "Gilbert," available on Google Books:

"So when day breaks Til tempt my fate no more,
  But wind the circuit which I've wound before."

In which case (particularly given the immediate context) this could
also be an allusion to an itinerant clergyman, I suppose. Anyway,
beyond that I'm stumped -- does anybody have any ideas on this one?

Geoff Nunberg

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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