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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed and the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night, I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring. Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring, lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west, and thought of him I love.
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird, comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, for the dead I loved so well, for the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake, lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul, there in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.
When Sherman’s armies, (long after they left Atlanta,) were marching through South and North Carolina—after leaving Savannah, the news of Lee’s capitulation having been receiv’d—the men never mov’d a mile without from some part of the line sending up continued, inspiriting shouts. At intervals all day long sounded out the wild music of those peculiar army cries. They would be commenc’d by one regiment or brigade, immediately taken up by others, and at length whole corps and armies would join in these wild triumphant choruses. It was one of the characteristic expressions of the western troops, and became a habit, serving as a relief and outlet to the men—a vent for their feelings of victory, returning peace, &c. Morning, noon, and afternoon, spontaneous, for occasion or without occasion, these huge, strange cries, differing from any other, echoing through the open air for many a mile, expressing youth, joy, wildness, irrepressible strength, and the ideas of advance and conquest, sounded along the swamps and uplands of the South, floating to the skies. This exuberance continued till the armies arrived at Raleigh. There the news of the President’s murder was receiv’d. Then no more shouts or yells, for a week. All the marching was comparatively muffled. It was very significant—hardly a loud word or laugh in many of the regiments. A hush and silence pervaded all.
Would you hear of an old-time sea-fight? Would you learn who won by the light of the moon and stars? List to the yarn, as my grandmother's father the sailor told it to me.
Where are your combing seas, your blue water, your rollers, your breakers, your whales, or your waterspouts, and your endless motion, in this bit of a forest, child?