Tag Archives: Walt Whitman

150 years of ecstatic witness

One hundred and fifty years ago today, on July 4, 1855, Walt Whitman published his first book of poetry with just twelve poems. According to Malcolm Crowley, in his introduction to a 1959 Viking Press reprinting of the first edition, central to the book is a mystical experience Whitman had in June of 1852 or 1853, which is perhaps best summarized in this passage from the first poem (which was later revised and titled “Song of Myself”):

I believe in you my soul….the other I am must not abase itself to you,
And you must not be abased to the other.

Loafe with me on the grass….loose the stop from your throat,
Not words, not music or rhyme I want….not custom or lecture, not even the best,
Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.

I mind how we lay in June, such a transparent summer morning;
You settled your head athwart my hips and gently turned over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my barestript heart,
And reached till you felt my beard, and reached till you held my feet.

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and joy and knowledge that pass all the art and argument of the earth;
And I know that the hand of God is the elderhand of my own;
And I know that the spirit of God is the eldest brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my borthers….and the women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love;
And limitless are leaves stiff or dropping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them
And mossy scabs of the wormfence, and heaped stones, and elder and mullen and pokeweed.

A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?….I do not know what it is any more than he.

No wonder Emerson felt a shock of recognition when he read Whitman’s first book. Emerson was more rticent about his private experiences, and more widely read in Eastern philosophy, but his poem “Brahma” says pretty much the same thing as Whitman: an ecstatic “all is one.”