American Poet, Journalist and Essayist
Walt Whitman, fully Walter "Walt" Whitman
American Poet, Journalist and Essayist
The literature, songs, esthetics of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.
There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal.
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is done the greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read. To do this well is to compete with the laws that pursue and follow time.
The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What baulks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy.
The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes ? but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects ? they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.
A new founded literature, not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or pander to what is called taste ? but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men ? and, as perhaps the most precious of its results, achieving the entire redemption of woman ? and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race? ? is what is needed.
America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain?d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well? America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.
At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway?d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy. Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.
Enter more strongly yet into politics? Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.
Far, far, indeed, stretch, in distance, our Vistas! How much is still to be disentangled, freed! How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance! Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs ? in religion, literature, colleges, and schools ? democracy in all public and private life.
I have sometimes thought ? that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman? Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.
I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.
In the civilization of to-day it is undeniable that, over all the arts, literature dominates, serves beyond all ? shapes the character of church and school ? or, at any rate, is capable of doing so. Including the literature of science, its scope is indeed unparallel?d.
Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn ? they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.
Our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results? In vain have we annex?d Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endow?d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.
Should some two or three really original American poets, (perhaps artists or lecturers,) arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together they would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.
The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.
To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models ? to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future ? these, and these only, satisfy the soul. We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind.
We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ?d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ?d in.
When I heard at the close of the day how my name had been receiv’d with plaudits in the capitol, still it was not a happy night for me that follow’d, and else when I carous’d, or when my plans were accomplish’d, still I was not happy, but the day when I rose at dawn from the bed of perfect health, refresh’d, singing, inhaling the ripe breath of autumn, when I saw the full moon in the west grow pale and disappear in the morning light, when I wander’d alone over the beach, and undressing bathed, laughing with the cool waters, and saw the sun rise, and when I thought how my dear friend my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy, O then each breath tasted sweeter, and all that day my food nourish’d me more, and the beautiful day pass’d well, and the next came with equal joy, and with the next at evening came my friend, and that night while all was still I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores, I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to congratulate me, for the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night, in the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me, and his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was happy.
Why! who makes much of a miracle? As to me, I know of nothing else but miracles, whether I walk the streets of Manhattan, or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky, or wade with naked feet along the beach, just in the edge of the water, or stand under trees in the woods, or talk by day with any one I love--or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love, or sit at table at dinner with my mother, or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car, or watch honey-bees busy around the hive, of a summer forenoon, or animals feeding in the fields, or birds--or the wonderfulness of insects in the air, or the wonderfulness of the sun-down--or of stars shining so quiet and bright, or the exquisite, delicate, thin curve of the new moon in spring; or whether I go among those I like best, and that like me best--mechanics, boatmen, farmers, or among the savans--or to the soiree--or to the opera, or stand a long while looking at the movements of machinery, or behold children at their sports, or the admirable sight of the perfect old man, or the perfect old woman,or the sick in hospitals, or the dead carried to burial, or my own eyes and figure in the glass; these, with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, the whole referring--yet each distinct, and in its place. To me, every hour of the light and dark is a miracle, every cubic inch of space is a miracle, every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same, every foot of the interior swarms with the same; every spear of grass--the frames, limbs, organs, of men and women, and all that concerns them, all these to me are unspeakably perfect miracles. To me the sea is a continual miracle; The fishes that swim--the rocks--the motion of the waves--the ships, with men in them, what stranger miracles are there?
When I heard the learn’d astronomer; when the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; when I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; when I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, how soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, in the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Wisdom is not finally tested in schools, Wisdom cannot be pass'd from one having it to another not having it, Wisdom is of the soul, is not susceptible of proof, is its own proof, Applies to all stages and objects and qualities and is content, Is the certainty of the reality and immortality of things, and the excellence of things; Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.
When I read the book, the biography famous, and is this then (said I) what the author calls a man's life? And so will someone when I am dead and gone write my life? (As if any man really knew aught of my life, why even I myself I often think know little or nothing of my real life, only a few hints, a few diffused faint clews and indirections I seek for my own use to trace out here.)