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, sick and grown old,
Not my least burden is that dulness of the years, querilities,
Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering
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, 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.


NOT from successful love alone,
Nor wealth, nor honor’d middle age, nor victories of politics or
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
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:


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.


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.


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
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

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