Something that people might not know about Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the 19th century author of the frequently assigned feminist short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper”, is that she was also a poet. In her lifetime she published well over 500 poems. One of them is titled “Whatever Is.”
“Whatever Is” imagines an unmediated encounter with existence—an encounter free from the filters of “preconceived ideas”, “ancient myths”, and “each fiction old and dear”.
Does this make Gilman’s poem a decidedly didactic and atheist poem, a kind of rationalist manifesto that recalls George Orwell’s famous saying: “To see what is in front of one’s nose requires a constant effort”? In other words, is this poem about prejudice, particularly religious prejudice, where people “stick to what they think—won’t hear / Whatever is” and it becomes a necessity to “choke each fiction old and dear/ Before the modest facts appear”?
Or might we read the poem, not in atheist terms, but as simply a poem expressing an ironic longing for an unintellectual encounter with life—with “whatever is”? And if this is all that the poem is doing, would we call Perkins’s stance naive realism—a belief that the world can really be experienced by humans unmediated by language and thoughts?
When you think about it, is it really possible to have a direct encounter with life, such as animals governed by instinct seem to have? Or are humans, by their very nature, condemned to be caught in the mind’s “heavy dough” of concepts, ideas, and language? Might, in short, this poem be an expression of longing for a Garden of Eden relationship, an existence that is simply not available to Hamlet-like humans plagued, unlike other living things, by ever-running thoughts?
In any case, the poem raises all sorts of surprising and interesting possibilities, and here it is. I hope you enjoy it. It’s a real jewel:
Whatever is we only know
As in our minds we find it so;
No staring face is half so clear
As one dim, preconceived idea—
No matter how the fact may glow.
Vainly may Truth her trumpet blow
To stir our minds; like heavy dough
They stick to what they think—won’t hear
Our ancient myths in solid row
Stand up—we simply have to go
And choke each fiction old and dear
Before the modest facts appear;
Then we may grasp, reluctanct, slow,