Leaves of Grass
In this service I’m going to be perambulating around the figure of Walt Whitman, one of the most influential American poets. And that’s American in the best sense; unlike the brutish, violent, and intolerant American we seem to hear so much about, this is the America of individualism, optimism, and plurality, all ideals expressed in Whitman’s work. I’ll begin with setting the scene in which Walt Whitman finds himself - we’re in the 19th Century. He was born in America’s infancy; American had not yet realised its manifest destiny, it had not yet reached shore to shore. He was born in New York State in 1819 to poor parents. His father was a failed farmer and a drunk. He looked back upon his childhood as a restless and unhappy time in his life. At the age of eleven, Whitman was pulled from school to work as a printer, mixing tubs of ink and fetching type, to support his family. He was therefore largely self-taught, which is remarkable, if you compare him to his notable contemporaries, Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, who all, unlike Whitman, benefited from at least some university education.
He grew up a Quaker, reading from his King James Bible. In the 1820s when Whitman was a young boy, American Quakerism split in two. There was a schism, which was very formative for Whitman. Unlike today, amongst 19th century Quakers there was much more of a preaching culture. One such very notable Quaker preacher at the time was Elias Hicks, who Whitman himself heard preach multiple times. He was a controversial figure, due to his unorthodox religious beliefs – he refuted the doctrines of penal substitution, original sin, and indeed the Trinity itself. This ultimately led to the split, with Orthodox Quakers on one side, who continued to adhere to orthodox theology, biblical authority, and the divinity of Christ, etc., and the “Hicksite” Quakers on the other side, which were was much more focused on our individual conscience, and the significance of inward light guiding us in our spiritual journey. Ultimately that branch of Quakerism was much more receptive to the insights of other religious traditions, as they entered the picture towards the tail end of the 19th Century. Today they tend to just call themselves liberal Quakers. In the British context there is that plurality of belief within Quakerism, but unlike in America, they did not formally break apart into various denominations.
So, all throughout Whitman’s teenage years he worked for various newspaper publishing houses. He had an ungovernable personality and so found himself moving jobs often. During this period he was also reading ferociously; he joined a debate society, he attended the theatre, and he began writing poetry. In these newspaper firms he, at different stages, did almost every job you could do. Sometimes he was delivering papers, sometimes he was following leads as a journalist, sometimes editor, sometimes typesetter, occasionally contributing his own poetry and prose as well. This is where Whitman learned about New York, about the reality of violence and conflict in the city, about the character of American society. And then about age thirty/thirty-one, he began working on a poetry collection – Leaves of Grass. I find authors interesting who are only really known for one notable piece of work. One piece of work that defines them. Like Salinger’s ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. In ‘Leaves of Grass’ Whitman sought to celebrate his philosophy of life and humanity, to celebrate nature, and to elevate the human form.
Have you reckon'd a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?
Have you practis'd so long to learn to read?
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 possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead…
The idea to write ‘Leaves of Grass’ came when Whitman read an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson - his essay called ‘The Poet’, in which Emerson expressed the need for America to have its own unique poetry to capture this new country’s virtues and vices. To be uniquely American, it had to be uniquely original. It could not be like classic poetry, or Parnassian poetry or the English Romantics, it could have no antecedents, and must capture the breadth, the rugged determinism, and the free spirit of America. A small task then, which Whitman set himself to. It turned out that the ‘Leaves of Grass’ would not be a book that Whitman would simply write once; it became his lifelong task. He was still writing it on his deathbed. There would be nine editions published in total across his lifetime, nine editions which varied quite considerably from one another. The first in 1855, a slim volume, consisted of twelve untitled poems. Whitman paid for the use of a printer, he set the type himself, printing 800 copies. Of course, he sent a copy to the man who had inspired the work in the first place, shortly thereafter receiving this letter:
I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass. I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.
I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Not being able to keep such high praise from the father of transcendentalism to himself, to Emerson’s great annoyance, Whitman published the letter, and even in gold type upon the second edition included the words, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career – R.W. Emerson.” This was the endorsement that Whitman needed to launch his literary career. In subsequent editions, especially given that his father had just died, Whitman began incorporating freely into his poems sex and the human form, and as a result his work was increasingly being regarded as suspect, vulgar and crude, transgressing as it did the cultural mores of his day.
A WOMAN waits for me—she contains all,
nothing is lacking,
Yet all were lacking, if sex were lacking, or if
the moisture of the right man were lacking.
Sex contains all,
Bodies, souls, meanings, proofs, purities, delicacies, results, promulgations.
The unease of the literary community was communicated to Whitman by Emerson in 1860, when they walked together across the Boston common. Emerson tried to convince Whitman that removing the graphic elements of his poetry was necessary if he wanted wider distribution. But Whitman, in the strongest possible terms, refused. He said: “The dirtiest book in all the world is the expurgated book.” (The book that removes matter thought to be objectionable).
“Expurgate, expurgate, expurgate from the day I started. Everybody wants to expurgate something—this, that, the other thing. If I accepted all the suggestions there wouldn’t be one leaf of the Leaves left—and if I accept one why shouldn’t I accept all?
Expurgate, expurgate, expurgate! I’ve heard that till I’m deaf with it… Expurgation is apology—yes, surrender—yes, an admission that something or other was wrong.” “Damn the expurgated books! I say damn ’em!”
While publishers in Boston were arguing about whether flesh, nakedness, bodies, and sex were appropriate themes for poetry, Abraham Lincoln won the presidential election of 1860, which ultimately led to the South seceding from the Union, and the outbreak of the Civil War. In Whitman’s mind these two things were inextricably linked. Whitman in his poetry was trying to elevate the human form. We all have bodies! We all experience the world as embodied beings, and democracy at its core relies upon a shared belief that the body, all bodies irrespective of what colour they are, or what they get up to sexually, are sacred. All are temples for that inward light within.
Examine these limbs, red, black, or white, they are cunning in tendon and nerve,
They shall be stripped that you may see them.
Exquisite senses, life-lit eyes, pluck, volition,
Flakes of breast-muscle, pliant backbone and neck, flesh not flabby, good-sized arms and legs,
And wonders within there yet.
Within there runs blood,
The same old blood! the same red-running blood!
In response to the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman volunteered himself to be a nurse. He finds himself surrounded by severed limbs, the faces of the dead, blood and pain. For him this is war upon the body. He holds bloody men in their beds, young men dying. Despite all that mud and blood, he would wash himself, comb his beard, and wear a white shirt. He would be to those men a magnetic, angelic presence. The men would call out his name as he entered the wards, “Walt! Walt!”, delighted to see one so radiant, one so seemingly unaffected by the horrors which surrounded them. He was much like Santa Claus, moving through the wards dispensing solace and gifts. The literary critic Harold Bloom equated the character of Walt Whitman with that verse from the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, Jesus’ saying “Become passers-by”, for he was always one passing by, one always waiting somewhere up ahead – seemingly unaffected, waiting for us all to catch up with him. Before antiseptics, doctors there in the wards would sharpen their knives on the soles of their boots. Infection was rife; so bad, so uncontrollable, that men would simply be shut off, isolated due to the smell, and left there suffering like fearful animals, before death took them.
Before the war, Whitman had a grand hope for his book, that the ‘Leaves of Grass’ would reach across differences, and heal a divided nation, creating a nation-wide narrative that all Americans – including both slaves and slaver - could embrace. But the war dashed that hope. Instead for the briefest of moments, his hopes lay with his redeemer president, Abraham Lincoln, who seemed to embody the ideals of the ‘Leaves of Grass’. As the war reached its end, Whitman moved to Washington. There he would see Lincoln moving about the city; upon seeing one another, they would pause and exchange solemn bows to one another. This was short lived, however, because of course, in 1865 Lincoln was assassinated. Lincoln’s death compelled Whitman to once again take up his poetic project.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
It was here in the collective loss, that America found its common narrative. The USA brought together in mourning. In death, Lincoln become a greater version of what he had ever been in life, a symbol around which America could rally. Whitman had sought to do it with his book, but in the end, it took a martyr to forge America’s national identity. In subsequent years, Whitman would radically reconceive ‘Leaves of Grass’, shaping and reimagining it in the aftermath of that all cruelty, and war. ‘Leaves of Grass’ had to be made broad enough to encompass even such national disaster. Whitman tweaked and edited his great work, as his health began to fade. He wrote about his frailty, and his hope – just hinting at the possibility of something beyond.
So sweet thy primitive taste to breathe within—thy soothing
fingers on my face and hands,
Thou, messenger-magical strange bringer to body and spirit of
I feel the sky, the prairies vast—I feel the mighty northern
I feel the ocean and the forest—somehow I feel the globe itself
swift-swimming in space;
Walt Whitman died in 1892. The final edition of the ‘Leaves of Grass’ had grown to consist of 400 pages, and over 300 poems.
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 fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.