Crossing Brooklyn Ferry

“Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is one of Whitman’s most anthologized works, and not without good reason. It is one of the shortest, most succinct statements of his poetic vision, but it can also be read as a justification of art itself. It attempts to show how common experiences and our perception of those experiences, as conveyed by the artist, unite us no matter who we are, where we are, or when we live.

On its simplest level it suggest how art can give us a sense of commonality with an artist, or a people, who have been dead for thousand of years. On a higher level, it argues that we are all united through Nature, the Oversoul, precisely because we are all suspended in this “eternal float of solution.”

1

FLOOD-TIDE below me! I watch you face to face;
Clouds of the west! sun there half an hour high! I see you also face to face.

Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!
On the ferry-boats, the hundreds and hundreds that cross, returning home, are more curious to me than you suppose;
And you that shall cross from shore to shore years hence, are more to me, and more in my meditations, than you might suppose.

Whitman begins tying together Nature (fast-flowing water, clouds, sunrise), the people crossing on the ferry boat, and the people who will be crossing on ferry boats in the future. At this point it is the motion that most links them, the moving water equating to the people moving on the water.

2

The impalpable sustenance of me from all things, at all hours of the day;
The simple, compact, well-join’d scheme—myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme:
The similitudes of the past, and those of the future;
The glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings—on the walk in the street, and the passage over the river;
The current rushing so swiftly, and swimming with me far away;
The others that are to follow me, the ties between me and them;
The certainty of others—the life, love, sight, hearing of others.

Others will enter the gates of the ferry, and cross from shore to shore;
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide;
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east;
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high;
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring in of the flood-tide, the falling back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

We are all sustained by these things, though we are but part of the scheme of things, not the whole. These beautiful sights that sustain us, these “glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings,” are shared by the poet and the “others that are to follow.” Fifty years or even many hundreds of years later, other people will share exactly this same experience when they board the ferry and make the same trip. They, too, will share the beauty of the sunset and the flood-tide of the water. Sharing this beauty irrevocably ties us together.

3

It avails not, neither time or place—distance avails not;
I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence;
I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;
Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I too many and many a time cross’d the river, the sun half an hour high;
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls—I saw them high in the air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and left the rest in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the south.

I too saw the reflection of the summer sky in the water,
Had my eyes dazzled by the shimmering track of beams,
Look’d at the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,
Look’d on the haze on the hills southward and southwestward,
Look’d on the vapor as it flew in fleeces tinged with violet,
Look’d toward the lower bay to notice the arriving ships,
Saw their approach, saw aboard those that were near me,
Saw the white sails of schooners and sloops—saw the ships at anchor,
The sailors at work in the rigging, or out astride the spars,
The round masts, the swinging motion of the hulls, the slender serpentine pennants,
The large and small steamers in motion, the pilots in their pilot-houses,
The white wake left by the passage, the quick tremulous whirl of the wheels,
The flags of all nations, the falling of them at sun-set,
The scallop-edged waves in the twilight, the ladled cups, the frolicsome crests and glistening,
The stretch afar growing dimmer and dimmer, the gray walls of the granite store-houses by the docks,
On the river the shadowy group, the big steam-tug closely flank’d on each side by the barges—the hay-boat, the belated lighter,
On the neighboring shore, the fires from the foundry chimneys burning high and glaringly into the night,
Casting their flicker of black, contrasted with wild red and yellow light, over the tops of houses, and down into the clefts of streets.

Neither time, nor place, nor distance can separate the poet from those who share the same experience. We are tied together by our shared feelings when we look at the river and sky, when we stand on deck fascinated by the fast flowing water, and when we lookup at the seagulls circling overhead. And amidst all this beauty if we look carefully enough we can see our reflection in the water and see “the fine centrifugal spokes of light around the shape of my head in the sun-lit water,” a virtual “halo,” our own aura of glory. Our common experience of all the things that make up this ride tie use together.

4

These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you;
I project myself a moment to tell you—also I return.

I loved well those cities;
I loved well the stately and rapid river;
The men and women I saw were all near to me;
Others the same—others who look back on me, because I look’d forward to them;
(The time will come, though I stop here to-day and to-night.)

In case you missed it, or even if you didn’t, “These, and all else, were to me the same as they are to you.”

5

What is it, then, between us?
What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?

Whatever it is, it avails not—distance avails not, and place avails not.

Even hundreds of years cannot truly separate us.

6

I too lived—Brooklyn, of ample hills, was mine;
I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan Island, and bathed in the waters around it;
I too felt the curious abrupt questionings stir within me,
In the day, among crowds of people, sometimes they came upon me,
In my walks home late at night, or as I lay in my bed, they came upon me.

I too had been struck from the float forever held in solution;
I too had receiv’d identity by my Body;
That I was, I knew was of my body—and what I should be, I knew I should be of my body.

We have both felt the same questions about who we are and about our universe. We both were born and thereby separated from the Oversoul, the “float forever held in solution,” forced to identify with this body, not with the eternal Oversoul.

7

It is not upon you alone the dark patches fall,
The dark threw patches down upon me also;
The best I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious;
My great thoughts, as I supposed them, were they not in reality meagre? would not people laugh at me?

It is not you alone who know what it is to be evil;
I am he who knew what it was to be evil;
I too knitted the old knot of contrariety,
Blabb’d, blush’d, resented, lied, stole, grudg’d,
Had guile, anger, lust, hot wishes I dared not speak,
Was wayward, vain, greedy, shallow, sly, cowardly, malignant;
The wolf, the snake, the hog, not wanting in me,
The cheating look, the frivolous word, the adulterous wish, not wanting,
Refusals, hates, postponements, meanness, laziness, none of these wanting.

What’s more, we both have fallen upon dark times and shared evil thoughts, “knitted the old knot of contrariety,” and done things we are ashamed to admit.

8

But I was Manhattanese, friendly and proud!
I was call’d by my nighest name by clear loud voices of young men as they saw me approaching or passing,
Felt their arms on my neck as I stood, or the negligent leaning of their flesh against me as I sat,
Saw many I loved in the street, or ferry-boat, or public assembly, yet never told them a word,
Lived the same life with the rest, the same old laughing, gnawing, sleeping,
Play’d the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,
The same old role, the role that is what we make it, as great as we like,
Or as small as we like, or both great and small.

Whitman, too, was friendly and outgoing, playing “the part that still looks back on the actor or actress,” the role that makes us question who we really are.

9

Closer yet I approach you;
What thought you have of me, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance;
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born.

Who was to know what should come home to me?
Who knows but I am enjoying this?
Who knows but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

It is not you alone, nor I alone;
Not a few races, nor a few generations, nor a few centuries;
It is that each came, or comes, or shall come, from its due emission,
From the general centre of all, and forming a part of all:
Everything indicates—the smallest does, and the largest does;
A necessary film envelopes all, and envelopes the Soul for a proper time.

Whitman, in writing this poem, has thought as much about you as you now think about Whitman. Perhaps somewhere Whitman is still enjoying the fact that you are reading his poem. It is not just Whitman and you who come together, though, for everyone comes from the “general centre of all” enveloped by a “necessary film.”

10

Now I am curious what sight can ever be more stately and admirable to me than my mast-hemm’d Manhattan,
My river and sun-set, and my scallop-edg’d waves of flood-tide,
The sea-gulls oscillating their bodies, the hay-boat in the twilight, and the belated lighter;
Curious what Gods can exceed these that clasp me by the hand, and with voices I love call me promptly and loudly by my nighest name as I approach;
Curious what is more subtle than this which ties me to the woman or man that looks in my face,
Which fuses me into you now, and pours my meaning into you.

We understand, then, do we not?
What I promis’d without mentioning it, have you not accepted?
What the study could not teach—what the preaching could not accomplish, is accomplish’d, is it not?
What the push of reading could not start, is started by me personally, is it not?

Nothing could be more wonderful to Whitman than this scene crossing to Brooklyn, this scene that ties him to each of us. Now, by truly sharing this scene with Whitman, you too are forever linked to him, linked to him in a way that explanations and sermons could never convey, linked to him in the same way you are to any great artist who portrays a beautiful moment you have shared with him.

11

Flow on, river! flow with the flood-tide, and ebb with the ebb-tide!
Frolic on, crested and scallop-edg’d waves!
Gorgeous clouds of the sun-set! drench with your splendor me, or the men and women generations after me;
Cross from shore to shore, countless crowds of passengers!
Stand up, tall masts of Mannahatta!—stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn!
Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!
Suspend here and everywhere, eternal float of solution!
Gaze, loving and thirsting eyes, in the house, or street, or public assembly!
Sound out, voices of young men! loudly and musically call me by my nighest name!
Live, old life! play the part that looks back on the actor or actress!
Play the old role, the role that is great or small, according as one makes it!

Consider, you who peruse me, whether I may not in unknown ways be looking upon you;
Be firm, rail over the river, to support those who lean idly, yet haste with the hasting current;
Fly on, sea-birds! fly sideways, or wheel in large circles high in the air;
Receive the summer sky, you water! and faithfully hold it, till all downcast eyes have time to take it from you;
Diverge, fine spokes of light, from the shape of my head, or any one’s head, in the sun-lit water;
Come on, ships from the lower bay! pass up or down, white-sail’d schooners, sloops, lighters!
Flaunt away, flags of all nations! be duly lower’d at sunset;
Burn high your fires, foundry chimneys! cast black shadows at nightfall! cast red and yellow light over the tops of the houses;
Appearances, now or henceforth, indicate what you are;
You necessary film, continue to envelop the soul;
About my body for me, and your body for you, be hung our divinest aromas;
Thrive, cities! bring your freight, bring your shows, ample and sufficient rivers;
Expand, being than which none else is perhaps more spiritual;
Keep your places, objects than which none else is more lasting.

Turning back at the river once again, Whitman reaffirms the beauty that ties us together and urges “the baffled and curious brain” to continue to question, knowing that intellect alone can never understand the truths that have been revealed here. Go back to your everyday life, but consider whether Whitman may not “in unknown ways” still be sharing this experience with you, for it is this experience itself that lies at the heart of our realization that we are one.

12

We descend upon you and all things—we arrest you all;
We realize the soul only by you, you faithful solids and fluids;
Through you color, form, location, sublimity, ideality;
Through you every proof, comparison, and all the suggestions and determinations of ourselves.

You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers! you novices!
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward;
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us;
We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us;
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also;
You furnish your parts toward eternity;
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

All these things we see are really “dumb ministers,” silent conveyers of the Oversoul through their beauty. Once we have seen them truly for what they are, signs of the infinite universe, we can never get enough of them and can never again be fooled into believing they are just material objects. Though we do not understand them, we carry them with us forever as they carry us towards eternity.

Loren Webster

Sands at Seventy

I sometimes hesitate to pick up Whitman’s poetry because it’s difficult to get into it easily. For one thing, too many of his poems are long poems, and, if the truth be known, I dislike long poems with a few, but very few, notable exceptions.

Second, I have to force myself to wade through many of his poems. For one reason or another, they just don’t appeal to me. Too many of them seem to go on and on, perhaps reminding me of the Old Testament’s long lists that soon become meaningless.

There is another, very different reason I hesitate to pick him up, though. Once I do start reading him I find it difficult to put him down. Every time I pick him up, I find another poem I like very much, a poem I don’t even remember reading before. There is always something new to find in Whitman.

Some have criticized Whitman because he is overly optimistic. And, as pointed out by Emerson in his essay on transcendentalists, transcendentalists are “idealists.” Idealism by its very nature would probably be described as overly optimistic. Personally, though, I consider it nearly a blessed miracle that anyone coming from Whitman’s background could exhibit such enthusiasm for life.

R.W.B. Lewis points out that “Two of Whitman’s brothers were diseased, one of them eventually dying in an insane asylum and the other (who was also a drunkard) married to a woman who became a prostitute. Yet another brother was a congenital idiot; and one of Whitman’s sisters suffered from severe nervous melancholy.”

It may well be that Whitman himself showed signs of being a manic-depressive, but it sometimes occurs to me living in this modern age that that may well be the only rational approach to an age that offers so much and ends up delivering so little, an age that allows us to nearly instantaneously visit all the wonders of the world while it steadily destroys them, an age that encourages us to indulge every whim and in doing so ends up debasing our very souls.

So, the charge of being overly optimistic may be justified in Whitman’s most popular poems, but, in fact, some of Whitman’s greatest poems, like “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” focus on life’s sorrow, not on his vision of self enlightenment.

“I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing” is one of the “new” poems I found while reading Whitman this time. I guess it has become relatively popular in some circles, though I doubt those circles include high school texts, because it is offered as proof of Whitman’s love for another man. That seems like old news to me, and largely irrelevant, but I like the poem because it reminds me of my own loneliness at times in life and of our need for others:

I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

I saw in Louisiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it stood there uttering joyous leaves of dark green,
And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wondered how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,
And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it, and twined around it a little moss,
And brought it away, and I have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly love;
For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana solitary in a wide flat space,
Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend or lover near,
I know very well I could not.

The simple picture of a mighty oak standing alone in a field is one that most people can identify with and is a familiar symbol of strength, but it takes on added dimension when we think of it as a symbol of a man standing alone. It would, indeed, take a strong person to go on being joyous in life while living in isolation. Perhaps it is admirable to stand alone, but most of us long for companionship, unwilling to stand alone. The narrator’s loneliness seems clear in lines like “It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends, / (For I believe lately I think of little else than of them,) and in the final irony of the last lines “Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend or lover near, /I know very well I could not.” since Whitman probably had to deny such friendship in order to remain viable as a poet in the 19th Century.

And in some of Whitman’s last poems in the section entitled “Sands at Seventy” we find even more signs that even Whitman’s enthusiasm was subject to life’s trials and tribulations just as our life is:

AS I SIT WRITING HERE.

AS I sit writing here, sick and grown old,
Not my least burden is that dulness of the years, querilities,
Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering
ennui,
May filter in my daily songs.

Sounds to me a lot like an old man writing a blog and trying desperately to be interesting even when there’s little of interest happening. To expect not to have these feelings, though, would be the surest sign of delusion.

“To Those Who’ve Fail’d” reminds me a lot of Emily Dickinson’s more famous “Success is counted sweetest:"

TO THOSE WHO'VE FAIL'D.

TO those who've fail'd, in aspiration vast,
To unnam'd soldiers fallen in front on the lead,
To calm, devoted engineers- to over-ardent travelers- to pilots on
their ships,
To many a lofty song and picture without recognition- I'd rear
laurel-cover'd monument,
High, high above the rest- To all cut off before their time,
Possess'd by some strange spirit of fire,
Quench'd by an early death.

Perhaps “in aspiration vast” even refers to Whitman himself, for his life’s work Leaves of Grass never attained the acclaim he dreamed of, but at the very least it’s recognition of those who have failed though their dreams were high, recognition that failure is at least as real a possibility as success.

“Halcyon Days,” though, recognizes that despite unsuccessful love, despite a lack of wealth and honor, despite a lack of victories in politics or war, there are moments in old age when life is still blissful. These summer days in our winter of discontent probably seem happiest of all precisely because they follow days of “glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui.” Perhaps they are happy days due to the simple recognition that a life lived to the fullest provides its own reward.

HALCYON DAYS.

NOT from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor'd middle age, nor victories of politics or
war;
But as life wanes, and all the turbulent passions calm,
As gorgeous, vapory, silent hues cover the evening sky,
As softness, fulness, rest, suffuse the frame, like freshier, balmier
air,
As the days take on a mellower light, and the apple at last hangs
really finish'd and indolent-ripe on the tree,
Then for the teeming quietest, happiest days of all!
The brooding and blissful halcyon days!

Loren Webster

Behold this Compost! Behold it Well!

One of my favorite Whitman poems is “This Compost” published in the second edition of Leaves of Grass, one year after the original version. Perhaps I’m so fond of it merely because it is a metaphor I like to use in my own life. When things go bad, or relationships fail, I like to think that those things go in the compost heap of life to create better soil for future relationships, for nothing you learn from is ever truly wasted.

Ever since I studied organic gardening and started a compost heap, I’ve been amazed with the regenerative power of nature. Life and death are wrapped together in Nature’s regenerative cycle:

1

SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest;
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?

Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day—or perhaps I am deceiv’d;
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.


2

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.

What chemistry!
That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever.
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the orange-orchard—that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.


3

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

Perhaps out of fear, we ignore how much death is a part of life. As Whitman points out, we are surrounded by death. The ground is strewn with corpses, whether corpses of people, animals, or plants. It’s doubtful that a square inch of land has escaped this inevitability. If death were as awful as we would make it out to be, the world would, indeed, be irrevocably polluted. Whitman effectively uses the words we commonly use to describe death, words like “carcasses,” “foul liquid and meat,” “sour dead” to recreate our disgust at death.

Why doesn’t the land sicken with so many corpses? How have they all been disposed of? Where have all the foul elements gone? Surely, if one were to turn over the soil one could find some sign of these foul elements.

Instead, the soil has been turned into a fine compost, a compost that makes all things thrive rather than wilt. Winter’s deaths serve as nutrients for this year’s spring as Whitman shows with a series of images of spring and early summer. The new wheat emerges through the chaff of the old wheat. The bean emerges through the garden mold. The summer growth is pure, no matter what the source.

Though many have forgotten the value of compost, nature’s chemistry is at work constantly renewing the earth. Given time, even polluted waters become clean and fresh. The very fruit of the earth is proof of the earth’s bounty despite man’s leavings. The leaves of grass grow lusher where last year’s corpses fell.

Perhaps the real miracle is that man is not terrified, not Awe-struck, by the earth’s ability to convert such wastes to new life. Perhaps, though, it is the “job” of poets like Whitman and Hopkins to make us see the miracle of rebirth. Whitman’s image of an earth turning “harmless and stainless on its axis” seems to foreshadow the shots from space that later helped to promote the Gaia project, though such a project was inspired not from Whitman’s faith that the earth will eternally restore itself, but from fear that man’s leavings will eventually overwhelm the ecosystem that makes such “divine materials” possible.

There’s a fine line between hope and despair. Environmentalists like myself are often driven to despair by the apparently irreparable damage that modern man has done to the earth. Without the inspiration of poets like Whitman we might well just give ourselves up to that despair. But the optimism, idealism, if you will, gives us the faith that we need to keep up the battle to save the environment before it is too late.

Loren Webster

All Truths Wait in All Things

Perhaps one of Whitman’s greatest descriptions of man’s connection to the Oversoul is found in part 30 of “Song of Myself:”

All truths wait in all things,
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,
They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,
The insignificant is as big to me as any,
(What is less or more than a touch?)

Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.

(Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so,
Only what nobody denies is so.)

A minute and a drop of me settle my brain,
I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps,
And a compend of compends is the meat of a man or woman,
And a summit and flower there is the feeling they have for each
other,
And they are to branch boundlessly out of that lesson until it
becomes omnific,
And until one and all shall delight us, and we them.

The Zen-like, “All truths wait in all things” rivals Blake’s famous lines “To see a world in a grain of sand, /and heaven in a wildflower,/ hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour” in its simplicity and profundity. Both remind us of the imminence of God in his creation if only we are attuned to it.

The key word “wait” is reinforced in the next lines, suggesting that we must be receptive to the truths or they will remain undiscovered for they do not “hasten their delivery.” Neither are the truths hidden, though, because they do not “resist” delivery or require “obstetric forceps.” No “hidden guides” are required to find these truths; they stand ready for any willing to see.

Those who rely on philosophers’ logic or ministers’ sermons to reveal “hidden truths” are missing the point, for these truths are self-evident to “every man and woman.” They are not hidden between the pages of books, but stand in clear sight for any ready to see them. Neither secret knowledge or faith can reveal these truths; only a true openness to what is there will do that.

If we pause and consider who we truly are, for we are but a mirror of Nature, we shall realize the miracle of the earth where “soggy clods” can become “lovers and lamps.”

In Whitman’s world, the flower that dwells on the summit of the mountain feels connected with it, and that feeling branches out endlessly, providing us with a lesson on Nature’s unlimited power to create. When we have learned the flower’s lesson, nature will delight us and we Nature.

Loren Webster

I Witness and Wait

Those of us who are parents or those of us who believe it takes a village to raise a child will find much to consider in Whitman’s “There was a Child went Forth:”

THERE was a child went forth every day;
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became;
And that object became part of him for the day, or a certain part of the day, or for many years, or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass, and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird,
And the Third-month lambs, and the sow’s pink-faint litter, and the mare’s foal, and the cow’s calf,
And the noisy brood of the barn-yard, or by the mire of the pond-side,
And the fish suspending themselves so curiously below there—and the beautiful curious liquid,
And the water-plants with their graceful flat heads—all became part of him.
The field-sprouts of Fourth-month and Fifth-month became part of him;
Winter-grain sprouts, and those of the light-yellow corn, and the esculent roots of the garden,
And the apple-trees cover’d with blossoms, and the fruit afterward, and wood-berries, and the commonest weeds by the road;
And the old drunkard staggering home from the out-house of the tavern, whence he had lately risen,
And the school-mistress that pass’d on her way to the school,
And the friendly boys that pass’d—and the quarrelsome boys,
And the tidy and fresh-cheek’d girls—and the barefoot negro boy and girl,
And all the changes of city and country, wherever he went.

His own parents,
He that had father’d him, and she that had conceiv’d him in her womb, and birth’d him,
They gave this child more of themselves than that;
They gave him afterward every day—they became part of him.

The mother at home, quietly placing the dishes on the supper-table;
The mother with mild words—clean her cap and gown, a wholesome odor falling off her person and clothes as she walks by;
The father, strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust;
The blow, the quick loud word, the tight bargain, the crafty lure,
The family usages, the language, the company, the furniture—the yearning and swelling heart,
Affection that will not be gainsay’d—the sense of what is real—the thought if, after all, it should prove unreal,
The doubts of day-time and the doubts of night-time—the curious whether and how,
Whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?
Men and women crowding fast in the streets—if they are not flashes and specks, what are they?
The streets themselves, and the façades of houses, and goods in the windows,
Vehicles, teams, the heavy-plank’d wharves—the huge crossing at the ferries,
The village on the highland, seen from afar at sunset—the river between,
Shadows, aureola and mist, the light falling on roofs and gables of white or brown, three miles off,
The schooner near by, sleepily dropping down the tide—the little boat slack-tow’d astern,
The hurrying tumbling waves, quick-broken crests, slapping,
The strata of color’d clouds, the long bar of maroon-tint, away solitary by itself—the spread of purity it lies motionless in,
The horizon’s edge, the flying sea-crow, the fragrance of salt marsh and shore mud;
These became part of that child who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.

It’s not too difficult to believe that the first object a child looks at becomes part of him. I’m still influenced by the first thing I encounter in the morning. Reading a particularly disturbing story about the conservatives in the morning paper can ruin my whole day, while seeing Mt. Hood shining in the distance can make my morning commute a joy. Little wonder, then, that a child’s memory of a beautiful spring and a first harvest can influence his view of the world. Needless to say, a child’s parents will have a much greater influence on the child. God bless the child whose parents love him completely; God save the child whose parents neglect or abuse him. What do we think happens to a boy when he becomes a man if his father was “strong, self-sufficient, manly, mean, anger’d, unjust?”

Trying to live without love would make anyone question “what is real” and wonder what it would be like “if, after all, it should prove unreal.” I constantly wonder “whether that which appears so is so, or is it all flashes and specks?” Reality has a way of changing as our perspective changes. Considering what has happened to my stock portfolio in the last year or so, much of what seemed certain a few years ago seems like mere “flashes” in the pan today.

Luckily, though, we can still turn to Nature to seek comfort and truth. Nothing shows life's consant flux better than “the hurrying tumbling waves,” and “the long bar of maroon-tint, away solitary by itself” suspended in "the spread of purity" gives a sense of beauty and calm that can help to counter even the worst childhood.

In one sense, at least, we are the child “who went forth every day, and who now goes, and will always go forth every day.”

Perhaps, though, we may also be like the “Me” that Whitman describes in section 4 of “Song of Myself:”

Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward and
city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors old and
new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or loss
or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations,
Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful news,
the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again,
But they are not the Me myself.

Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it.

Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with
linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.

The first half of the poem seems quite similar to “There was a Child went Forth.” Psychologists do argue that the formative years are the most important years in determining a person’s personality. Everyone knows that Generation X’ers have been shaped by the very computers they use, right?. And, is there really any doubt that we can judge a man by the size of his banking account, or at least by the amount of the credit line on his VISA card? What kind of man can’t make a decent living? These are precisely the kinds of things most people judge others on, aren’t they? Sadly enough, they may even be the standards we use to judge ourselves.

If so, you are underestimating yourself, for I believe that the “Me myself” Whitman refers to here, the “amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary” self is the true self. It is what some would call man’s soul. It is, at least, a higher self that we may occasionally glimpse in passing, though, unfortunately, we can seldom stay in touch with it.

Occasionally when I’ve hiked too far and I’m wondering how the hell I’m going to get back before dark, “Me myself” looks down at Loren, says, “You’re in deep shit now, aren’t you” and laughs a huge belly laugh, knowing that only Loren has a problem.

Occasionally I sense this self when I’m reading or writing, though I am more apt to sense it when I am doing my yoga or have been hiking high in the mountains for most of the day.

So, which I am I ? Unfortunately, I suspect I spend much of my life as the child who goes forth each day becoming what he sees, a victim of my times, a slave to convention and conformity. Hopefully, though, I am both, both the everyday man who lives his life in his time and the Me myself who is “Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering at it,” aware that “nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so” and that my life, and everyone else’s, is sacred, whether we live that way or not.

Loren Webster

A Man to Awaken Wonder

With a sixth grade education New York poet, Walt Whitman, whipped the literati of the world down a new path of fresh poetic imagery and thought.

Today the list of those artists and the arts he has influenced is long and revered. His stature was slow to build during his lifetime, but Whitman himself would not be astounded at his far reaching influence even today. His Ego and the belief in the “ME” would simply recognize his durability as the continuation of the Soul.

At the age of 36, after working as a printer, journalist, and school teacher, Whitman self published a small volume of poems within a book he entitled Leaves of Grass, the first poem of which he eventually titled “Song of Myself.”

Certainly not praised as the “intoxicated poet” Emerson was calling for, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, according to his harshest critics was full of “noxious weeds,” “offensive,,,impious, obscene, hectoring, and ludicrous.” He was called a “gesticulating satyr... who “roots like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts,” his work “rank witch-grass, fit for the furnace.”

Not a very propitious beginning...

The most objective contemporary critic, appearing in the New York Daily Times, November 1856 feared

“...that the time is not yet come for the nakedness of purity. We are not yet virtuous enough to be able to read your poetry aloud to our children and our wives. What might be pastoral simplicity five hundred years hence, would perhaps be stigmatized as the coarsest indecency now, and--we regret to think that you have spoken too soon.”

“With all this muck of abomination soiling the pages, there is a wondrous, unaccountable fascination about the Leaves of Grass...No country save this could have given birth to the man. His mind is Western--brawny, rough, and original...the egotism of intellectual solitude.”

“This man has brave stuff in him. He is truly astonishing. The originality of his philosophy is of little account, for if it is truth, it must be ever the same, whether uttered by his lips or Plato’s....Mr. Whitman is novelty itself....Its manly vigor, its brawny health, seem to incite and satisfy....We are much mistaken if, after all, he does not yet contribute something to American literature which shall awaken wonder.”

Thus Walt Whitman began his career as a poet, causing wide circles in the pond of American literature.

For his critics, the first line of his first poem in Leaves of Grass was an indication of his irritating style.

“I celebrate myself”--this unknown would also go on to celebrate his Ego, laud the common worker, disparage education, create very sensuous if not downright sexy images.

How dare he?

Several themes run through “Song of Myself.” Perhaps the most important is the concept of the soul and the oneness of all elements of life to which we belong. Emerson rightly commented that Whitman’s poetry was a wonderful mixture of the Bhagvat Gita and the New York Herald.

The second line of the poem reflects the universality so prominent in Eastern religion.

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

And off we go...

The first stanza ends with

I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The “it” here is the atmosphere of the cosmos, that which the speaker finds “for my mouth forever--I am in love with it .”

Me, the Ego, the eternal and universal. The self, the soul, the “Kosmos,” as Whitman called himself, becomes the speaker in the poem, representing the poet as well as the reader, the time and space in which we find ourselves. The Boston Oracle wrote about his theme, “Man embraces and comprehends the whole. He is everything, and everything is him.”

The smoke of my own breath;...
the beating of my heart, the passing of blood...
The sniff of green leaves...
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice,...
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;...
the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun...
have you reckon’d the earth much?...
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?...
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;...
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

In the beginning we are given notice that the speaker will not offer answers to life’s perplexing problems. Rather, he will identify the cosmos in which we float; within that ether we must find our own way. And if we are really listening, we can accept and even gain comfort from our present lives.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now...

Clear and sweet is my Soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my Soul...
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent,...
Not an inch, nor a particle of an inch, is vile,...
I am satisfied--I see, dance, laugh, sing:

The fourth stanza offers another explanation of the Self. Whitman writes that his life, his relationships, the news of the day are not him.

People I meet--the effect upon me of my early life, or the ward and city I live in or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, author old and new
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliment, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,...
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary;...
I believe in you, my Soul...

In addition to being criticized for his philosophy of the Self, Whitman also drew scowls for his sensuous imagery. Stanza five no doubt was not selected to be read to the family. Remember this was 1856:

I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning;
How you settled your head athwart my hips, and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth;

This may be the space to discuss Whitman’s sexuality. A college professor of mine once introduced his lecture with “Yes, Whitman was homosexual.” The partner in stanza 5 could be male or female. Whitman did form very close relationships with several men over the course of his life, but he never stated his sexual preference, creating a lasting interest in part of his life that is really not our business. Heterosexual or homosexual labels are deflections and as such are irrelevant.

Stanza six is an insight into the kind of teacher Whitman may have been. He begins by remembering a child’s question, “What is the grass?” He answers

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven...
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves...
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers...
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;...
All goes onward and outward--nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Whitman continues on the subject of death.

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform his or her, it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots;
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and very one good;
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth, nor an adjunct of an earth;
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself;
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)

Another theme, Whitman’s affection for the common laborer, the men who worked outdoors, the women who raised babies is obvious and another source of dismay for his class conscious critics. He praises

The little one...
The youngster and the red-faced girl
The suicide
The blab of the pave, the tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders...
the driver...
the fury of rous’d mobs;...
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside...
The meeting of enemies...
The excited crowd
the over-fed or half-starv’d
of women taken suddenly, who hurry home and give birth to babes...
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here--what howls restrain’d by decorum...
I mind them or the show or resonance of them--I come, and I depart.

Men’s daily labors are described in sensuous detail, and on a spiritual level, Whitman participates in their lives. First the farmer...

The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready;
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon...
I am there--I help--I came stretch’d atop of the load;
I felt its soft jolts--one leg reclined on the other;
I jump from the crossbeams, and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.

Alone, far in the wilds and mountains, I hunt,
Wandering, amazed at my own lightness and glee;

The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud...

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl...
On a bank lounged the trapper--he was drest mostly in skins--his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck--he held his bride by the hand;
She had long eyelashes--her head was bare--her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach’d to her feet.

Whitman also included a particularly poignant encounter he had with a runaway slave.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside;
I heard his motions crackling...
I saw him limpsy and weak...
and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet...
gave him some coarse clean clothes...
remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness...
remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles...
(I had him sit next me at table--my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.)

Prepared he was to defend his guest.

The effrontery of a self published poet who saw himself in everyone and everyone in him continues throughout “Song of Myself,” and I will continue my impressions of the poem tomorrow.

Diane McCormick

I Hear America Singing

“I Hear America Singing” is one of those deceptively simple poems that still manages to manifest Whitman’s poetic power. Of course, if it were written today people would probably merely consider it a Pepsi commercial cliché, it’s that good.

I HEAR AMERICA SINGING.

I HEAR America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and
strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand
singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as
he stands,
The wood-cutter's song, the ploughboy's on his way in the morning,
or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work,
or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day- at night the party of young
fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

When it was written, though, this poem was anything but a cliché. Few notable poets celebrated the common man in the way Whitman does here.

The simple, straight-forward descriptions of each of the characters reminds us that Whitman sometimes served as a newspaper writer. It may also remind modern readers of the kind of direct imagery often found in Japanese and Chinese literature.

There is a constant shifting between group singing and singing individually, as Whitman tries to convey the contradictory ideas of “self” and “en-mass.” All of the characters are singing their own song, “singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,” but they also seem to be singing together, “ I hear America singing,” “their strong melodious songs.” Singing with its dramatic solos and beautiful choirs seems like a near perfect metaphor for acting individually but also as a group.

This idea of individuality within repetition is reinforced by Whitmans “catalogue” technique. Each of the characters in this poem is presented clearly yet simply. Yet, taken as a whole these characters are everyman, unique, yet similar. There are few things more beautiful than when powerful soloists come together in a strong choir.

Loren Webster

:: A Man to Awaken Wonder ::

With a sixth grade education New York poet, Walt Whitman, whipped the literati of the world down a new path of fresh poetic imagery and thought.

Today the list of those artists and the arts he has influenced is long and revered. His stature was slow to build during his lifetime, but Whitman himself would not be astounded at his far reaching influence even today. His Ego and the belief in the “ME” would simply recognize his durability as the continuation of the Soul.

At the age of 36, after working as a printer, journalist, and school teacher, Whitman self published a small volume of poems within a book he entitled Leaves of Grass, the first poem of which he eventually titled “Song of Myself.”

Certainly not praised as the “intoxicated poet” Emerson was calling for, Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, according to his harshest critics was full of “noxious weeds,” “offensive,,,impious, obscene, hectoring, and ludicrous.” He was called a “gesticulating satyr... who “roots like a pig among a rotten garbage of licentious thoughts,” his work “rank witch-grass, fit for the furnace.”

Not a very propitious beginning...

The most objective contemporary critic, appearing in the New York Daily Times, November 1856 feared

“...that the time is not yet come for the nakedness of purity. We are not yet virtuous enough to be able to read your poetry aloud to our children and our wives. What might be pastoral simplicity five hundred years hence, would perhaps be stigmatized as the coarsest indecency now, and--we regret to think that you have spoken too soon.”

“With all this muck of abomination soiling the pages, there is a wondrous, unaccountable fascination about the Leaves of Grass...No country save this could have given birth to the man. His mind is Western--brawny, rough, and original...the egotism of intellectual solitude.”

“This man has brave stuff in him. He is truly astonishing. The originality of his philosophy is of little account, for if it is truth, it must be ever the same, whether uttered by his lips or Plato’s....Mr. Whitman is novelty itself....Its manly vigor, its brawny health, seem to incite and satisfy....We are much mistaken if, after all, he does not yet contribute something to American literature which shall awaken wonder.”

Thus Walt Whitman began his career as a poet, causing wide circles in the pond of American literature.

For his critics, the first line of his first poem in Leaves of Grass was an indication of his irritating style.

“I celebrate myself”--this unknown would also go on to celebrate his Ego, laud the common worker, disparage education, create very sensuous if not downright sexy images.

How dare he?

Several themes run through “Song of Myself.” Perhaps the most important is the concept of the soul and the oneness of all elements of life to which we belong. Emerson rightly commented that Whitman’s poetry was a wonderful mixture of the Bhagvat Gita and the New York Herald.

The second line of the poem reflects the universality so prominent in Eastern religion.

For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

And off we go...

The first stanza ends with

I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

The “it” here is the atmosphere of the cosmos, that which the speaker finds “for my mouth forever--I am in love with it .”

Me, the Ego, the eternal and universal. The self, the soul, the “Kosmos,” as Whitman called himself, becomes the speaker in the poem, representing the poet as well as the reader, the time and space in which we find ourselves. The Boston Oracle wrote about his theme, “Man embraces and comprehends the whole. He is everything, and everything is him.”

The smoke of my own breath;...
the beating of my heart, the passing of blood...
The sniff of green leaves...
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice,...
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms;...
the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun...
have you reckon’d the earth much?...
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?...
Stop this day and night with me, and you shall possess the origin of all poems;...
You shall listen to all sides, and filter them from yourself.

In the beginning we are given notice that the speaker will not offer answers to life’s perplexing problems. Rather, he will identify the cosmos in which we float; within that ether we must find our own way. And if we are really listening, we can accept and even gain comfort from our present lives.

There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now;
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now...

Clear and sweet is my Soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my Soul...
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent,...
Not an inch, nor a particle of an inch, is vile,...
I am satisfied--I see, dance, laugh, sing:

The fourth stanza offers another explanation of the Self. Whitman writes that his life, his relationships, the news of the day are not him.

People I meet--the effect upon me of my early life, or the ward and city I live in or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, author old and new
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliment, dues,
The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I love,...
But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary;...
I believe in you, my Soul...

In addition to being criticized for his philosophy of the Self, Whitman also drew scowls for his sensuous imagery. Stanza five no doubt was not selected to be read to the family. Remember this was 1856:

I mind how once we lay, such a transparent summer morning;
How you settled your head athwart my hips, and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart,
And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.
Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth;

This may be the space to discuss Whitman’s sexuality. A college professor of mine once introduced his lecture with “Yes, Whitman was homosexual.” The partner in stanza 5 could be male or female. Whitman did form very close relationships with several men over the course of his life, but he never stated his sexual preference, creating a lasting interest in part of his life that is really not our business. Heterosexual or homosexual labels are deflections and as such are irrelevant.

Stanza six is an insight into the kind of teacher Whitman may have been. He begins by remembering a child’s question, “What is the grass?” He answers

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven...
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves...
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers...
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death;...
All goes onward and outward--nothing collapses;
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

Whitman continues on the subject of death.

Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform his or her, it is just as lucky to die, and I know it.
I pass death with the dying, and birth with the new-wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots;
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike, and very one good;
The earth good, and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth, nor an adjunct of an earth;
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself;
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)

Another theme, Whitman’s affection for the common laborer, the men who worked outdoors, the women who raised babies is obvious and another source of dismay for his class conscious critics. He praises

The little one...
The youngster and the red-faced girl
The suicide
The blab of the pave, the tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of the promenaders...
the driver...
the fury of rous’d mobs;...
The flap of the curtain’d litter, a sick man inside...
The meeting of enemies...
The excited crowd
the over-fed or half-starv’d
of women taken suddenly, who hurry home and give birth to babes...
What living and buried speech is always vibrating here--what howls restrain’d by decorum...
I mind them or the show or resonance of them--I come, and I depart.

Men’s daily labors are described in sensuous detail, and on a spiritual level, Whitman participates in their lives. First the farmer...

The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready;
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon...
I am there--I help--I came stretch’d atop of the load;
I felt its soft jolts--one leg reclined on the other;
I jump from the crossbeams, and seize the clover and timothy,
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.

Alone, far in the wilds and mountains, I hunt,
Wandering, amazed at my own lightness and glee;

The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud...

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was a red girl...
On a bank lounged the trapper--he was drest mostly in skins--his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck--he held his bride by the hand;
She had long eyelashes--her head was bare--her coarse straight locks descended upon her voluptuous limbs and reach’d to her feet.

Whitman also included a particularly poignant encounter he had with a runaway slave.

The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside;
I heard his motions crackling...
I saw him limpsy and weak...
and fill’d a tub for his sweated body and bruis’d feet...
gave him some coarse clean clothes...
remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness...
remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles...
(I had him sit next me at table--my fire-lock lean’d in the corner.)

Prepared he was to defend his guest.

The effrontery of a self published poet who saw himself in everyone and everyone in him continues throughout “Song of Myself,” and I will continue my impressions of the poem tomorrow.

Diane McCormick

Inscriptions to Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman is very likely America’s greatest poet. Stylistically, he is certainly the most influential, leading the way into the modern age with his emphasis on free verse. He freed poets, whether traditional or not, to write their poetry in the style that best suited their content.

More importantly, to me at least, he seems the quintessential poet of Democracy. He is, even more than Emerson or Thoreau, the American Scholar that Emerson called for. His greatest achievement was his ability to successfully combine individualism with democracy, no mean task. Unlike Emerson or Thoreau, Whitman managed to include people, not just Nature, in his celebration of life. Unlike Emerson and Thoreau, Whitman was not an elitist and actually seemed to like people of all classes. Surprisingly, he actually seemed to believe in democracy.

The 1891 Edition of Leaves of Grass begins with “One's-Self I Sing,” a poem that attempts from the very beginning to reconcile the idea of individuality and democracy, “en-masse:”

ONE'S-SELF I sing, a simple separate person,
Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse.

Of physiology from top to toe I sing,
Not physiognomy alone nor brain alone is worthy for the Muse, I say
the Form complete is worthier far,
The Female equally with the Male I sing.

Of Life immense in passion, pulse, and power,
Cheerful, for freest action form'd under the laws divine,
The Modern Man I sing.

When Whitman speaks of one’s self, he seems to mean the self as One, implying the all-pervading unity that Emerson called the Oversoul, participant in the Holy Spirit, participant in The Force, if you will. Because we are all part of the Oversoul, when we celebrate one individual, we celebrate all. Individual and Society are inseparable under Democracy, at least under democracy as Whitman envisions it.

As a part of the Oversoul, the individual is a microcosm of society. Just as society cannot reject a part of society and remain whole, the individual cannot reject part of himself and remain whole. Body and mind are inseparable. If I reject the body, I am rejecting myself. If I reject the mind, I am rejecting myself. As a society we must celebrate both woman and man. As a person, I must accept the feminine elements as well as the masculine ones if I am to be a complete human being.

Seen in this light, life can be passionate, pounding, powerful. It can be lived with zest, freed from doubts fostered by a view that sees people as “chosen” or “damned,” freed from a view that sees man as inherently evil, a mere step from eternal damnation, and sees the flesh as weak and prone to sin.

Section 1 of Whitman’s masterpiece, Song of Myself, continues these ideas:

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their
parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.

“Song of Myself” is no celebration of mere egotism, it is a celebration of the nobility of the individual in touch with his soul, a celebration of all individuals in touch with their soul, each soul, each individual, a mere blade of grass in a field of common, everyday grass, united through democracy and the Oversoul.

Perhaps to prove that he is, indeed, Emerson’s prophesied American Scholar, Whitman emphasizes his roots as an American through and through, but it also shows that he himself is part of his ongoing vision of democracy, a vision of American democracy as the fulfillment of society’s long dream of individual freedom. No callow youth with an idealistic view of the world, Whitman is a thirty-seven year old man in the prime of his life. Freed from religious sects or philosophical schools, Whitman is directly in touch with the power of Nature, his Vision of the Oversoul, allowing it to speak through him without conscious check, for better or for worse.