Walt Whitman by Mathew Brady, circa 1862
This story was first published on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos on February 4, 2017. To see my more recent columns, click here.
In my neck of the woods, the name Walt Whitman is associated with a bridge that connects the southern part of Philadelphia with Camden, New Jersey. You’ll usually hear about “the Walt Whitman” in connection with traffic jams or lane closures. But while reading Mary Oliver’s Upstream, I was reminded that the real Walt was perhaps our greatest American poet.
In 1855, at the age of 37, Whitman first published what was to become his masterwork, Leaves of Grass. He kept working on the poem for four decades, rewriting and adding to it over and over, until by 1892 it had grown from 12 poems to over 400.
Oliver describes Leaves of Grass as “a way to live, in the religious sense, that is intelligent and emotive and rich, and dependent only on the individual…no politics, no liturgy…just attention, sympathy, empathy.” She writes that Whitman’s aim was to “force open our souls” which he does with calls-to-arms like this:
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jams!
Whitman believed in God, and according to biographer David S. Reynolds “denied any one faith was more important than another, and embraced all religions equally.” Whitman himself once wrote “I adopt each theory, myth, god, and demi-god, I see that the old accounts, bibles, genealogies, are true, without exception.” He believed that God existed in all things and within all people, that we are God and God is us. In Leaves of Grass he explains:
I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.
Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,
In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass
There are long passages in Leaves of Grass where Whitman offers glimpses of his America, his words taking us to the people and places that made up our country in the mid-1800s. He empathizes with what he sees, writing that “I know every one of you, I know the sea of torment, doubt, despair and unbelief.” Whitman observes and reports and, with an economy of words, paints vivid scenes with each line:
The conductor beats time for the band and all the performers follow him,
The child is baptized, the convert is making his first professions,
The regatta is spread on the bay, the race is begun, (how the white sails sparkle!)
The drover watching his drove sings out to them that would stray,
The peddler sweats with his pack on his back, (the purchaser higgling about the odd cent),
The bride unrumples her white dress, the minute-hand of the clock moves slowly,
The opium-eater reclines with rigid head and just-open’d lips
Whitman looked at the mosaic that is America and saw a country that was, like him, vibrant and alive. His lust for life, and his love and compassion for all that he encounters, becomes contagious. He believes we are all connected, with one another and with one God:
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers
He passes no judgment, all men and women he encounters are created equal, regardless of their station in life:
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.
Walt Whitman is a true man of the people, all people, and his fearless, open-hearted voice still resonates today. Some of my favorite passages from Leaves of Grass follow, with brief commentary,. Or to see the poem in its entirety, via the Poetry Foundation, click here.
Walt Whitman gulped life in big sips, his enthusiasm jumping off the page:
You sea! I resign myself to you also—I guess what you mean,
I behold from the beach your crooked inviting fingers,
I believe you refuse to go back without feeling of me,
We must have a turn together, I undress, hurry me out of sight of the land,
Cushion me soft, rock me in billowy drowse,
Dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you.
He believed that men and women were created equal. This passage, written in the mid-1800s, was ahead of its time:
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
He wrote of the soul, seeing God as inhabiting us, as we inhabit God. If God is all powerful, so are we:
I have said that the soul is not more than the body,
And I have said that the body is not more than the soul,
And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is,
And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud
He lived a full and active, but could also sit still and observe life:
I exist as I am, that is enough,
If no other in the world be aware I sit content,
And if each and all be aware I sit content.
One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,
And whether I come to my own to-day or in ten thousand or ten million years,
I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness I can wait.
Here, in a rare complaint about his fellow man, he finds solace in animals:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things
It is well-documented that Whitman was likely gay. He wrote at length about the male body, yet his writings capture a lustiness we all at some point share, regardless of our sexual orientation:
My lovers suffocate me,
Crowding my lips, thick in the pores of my skin,
Jostling me through streets and public halls, coming naked to me at night,
Crying by day Ahoy! from the rocks of the river, swinging and chirping over my head,
Calling my name from flower-beds, vines, tangled underbrush,
Lighting on every moment of my life
These are the very final words in Leaves of Grass, written when Whitman was close to death.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.
I still have two copies of my new book, the spiritual fable Thaddeus Squirrel, I’m giving away for free. These copies contain a few typos that have since been corrected. Want one? E-mail me at tomrapsas @ gmail.com (without the spaces).