Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
Be not dishearten’d—Affection shall solve the problems of Freedom yet; Those who love each other shall become invincible.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
Excerpts from “The Song of the Open Road”
Few poets expressed the perfection of the present moment as vividly as did Walt Whitman. He knew intuitively that Creation, including each human being, was glorious just as it was.
Now if a thousand perfect men were to appear it would not amaze me.
The present moment transcends reason and needs no intellectual rationale to one who experiences it as Whitman clearly did.
Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, it is its own proof.
Self-reliance characterized both Whitman and Emerson. Perhaps both were influenced by a nation expressing the confidence and exuberance of youth.
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me.
Whoever you are, come forth! Or man or woman
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in
the house, though you built it, or though it
has been built for you.
We have all built our survival strategy “house” from the materials called fear, power, esteem-seeking, mindless materialism, and endless sensory indulgences using it to escape our existential anxiety. Something is not right with our house, it will not stand much longer, the construction is faulty, and our poet knew this in his heart.
Whitman also contrasted the True self with the false self throughout his poetry.
Another self, a duplicate of everyone, skulking and
Hiding it goes,
Formless and wordless through the streets of the
Cities, polite and bland in the parlors,
Smartly attired, countenance smiling, form upright,
Death under the breast-bones,
Hell under the skull-bones.
The institutions of P-B are expressions of an unconscious culture and the human intellect which is impotent in giving profound answers to humanity’s most fundamental questions.
Now I re-examine philosophies and religions,
They may prove well in lecture-rooms, yet not
prove at all under the spacious clouds and
along the landscape and flowing currents.
I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes,
We convince by our presence.
Understanding the perfection of the NOW for Whitman included affirming a new identity for each human being as indestructible, timeless energy.
Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by
freedom of death.
Allons! To that which is endless as it was beginning-less.
Excerpts from “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”
Approach strong Deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them, I joyously
Sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved [washed] in the flood of thy bliss O death.
Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad
Fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack’d cities all and the teeming
Wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death!
Oscar Wilde, having just published his first book of poetry, embarked on a speaking tour of the U.S. He took advantage of the opportunity to meet with a poet he had admired since his early childhood when his mother would read Whitman’s poems to him. In an interview with a reporter shortly after spending two hours visiting with America’s greatest poet, he revealed that he still revered a fellow humanist. “He is the grandest man I have ever seen, the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.”
Not faint praise, yet who can disagree?
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion in books by Roy Charles Henry.