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The Twin Root of Our Confusion and Our Power in Times of Turmoil: Muriel Rukeyser on the Wellspring of Aliveness

“Whatever has happened, whatever is going to happen in the world, it is the living moment that contains the sum of the excitement, this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future.”

The Twin Root of Our Confusion and Our Power in Times of Turmoil: Muriel Rukeyser on the Wellspring of Aliveness

It is such delicate work, such devoted work, the work of contouring the personhoods of persons who have imprinted the world with nothing less than revolutions of the mind, yet have left only faint traces of themselves as persons, unselved first by the nature of their revolutionary ideas — vast, abstract, lightyears beyond the solipsisms of the self — and then unselved again by the selective collective memory we mistake for history and its perennial failure at a foothold in the abstract beyond personhoods, beyond identities, beyond the narrow and unimaginative bounds of so-called human interest. There is quiet heroism to this work of rescuing from obscurity and erasure lives understanding which helps understand the entire eras in which they were lived and the fundaments of sensemaking the following epochs have taken as givens.

Such is the work Muriel Rukeyser (December 15, 1913–February 12, 1980) did with Willard Gibbs: American Genius (public library).

Muriel Rukeyser

Rukeyser’s own genius came abloom in the dawn of her twenties, when her debut poetry collection, Theory of Flight, earned her the Yale Younger Poets Award — America’s longest-running literary accolade. She was not yet thirty when she composed her staggering more-than-biography of the father of physical chemistry, Willard Gibbs (February 11, 1839–April 28, 1903) — this odd and world-shifting bridge figure between classical mechanics and quantum physics, celebrated as the greatest mind of the nineteenth century, lauded by Einstein as one of the most original and important thinkers America ever produced, prophesied to outlive in remembrance all of his contemporaries except perhaps Lincoln, yet almost entirely forgotten by Rukeyser’s time.

Like Eddington, Gibbs was a quiet, reserved genius — “silent, inhibited, remote,” Rukeyser tells us — queer by all reasonable deduction; he never married and lived out his life in his sister’s home. Like Newton, who accomplished the greatest leap in science within the solitude of his plague quarantine, Gibbs imagined his revolution within the chamber of the mind, within a dense solitude — “in silence, in isolation, in the years of rejection directly after the Civil War, when abstract work was wanted least of all, when the cry was for application and invention and the tools that would expand the great growing fortunes of the diamond boys.” And yet there he was, living “closer than any inventor, any poet, any scientific worker in pure imagination to the life of the inventive and organizing spirit of America.”

Willard Gibbs, 1855. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University.)

Rukeyser’s enchantment with Gibbs became the crucible for her lifelong stewardship of the parallels between poetry and science, her astute and abiding insight into how they help hold “the giant clusters of event and meaning that every day appear” and in doing so “equip our imaginations to deal with our lives.”

Published in 1942, Rukeyser’s majestic 446-page masterwork of antierasure grew from the seed of a fascination first germinated with her poem “Gibbs,” written as WWII was beginning to cast its umbra of terror over all that is bright and beautiful in the human spirit, unpeeling from the hallways of time the image of every genius who ever lived as an irrelevance to this apotheosis of dumb destruction. It is always the poet’s task to defend the relevance of radiance, whatever its shape and subject, and so she did. From the life of Willard Gibbs, Muriel Rukeyser drew something larger, vaster, more radiant than his life, than any life — a celebration of life itself, of the living mind and its deathless imagination and the power of that imagination to irradiate the world with the wonder of possibility. It is the connective tissue of her thought, the poetic musculature of context and concept propping up the skeleton of the dead scientist’s life, that renders Rukeyser’s book a revelation from the opening page:

Whatever has happened, whatever is going to happen in the world, it is the living moment that contains the sum of the excitement, this moment in which we touch life and all the energy of the past and future. Here is all the developing greatness of the dream of the world, the pure flash of momentary imagination, the vision of life lived outside of triumph or defeat, in continual triumph and defeat, in the present, alive. All the crafts of subtlety, all the effort, all the loneliness and death, the thin and blazing threads of reason, the spill of blessing, the passion behind these silences — all the invention turns to one end: the fertilizing of the moment, so that there may be more life.

The Triumph of Life by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

Writing from within the savage wastefulness of a particular moment in a world unworlded by its most destructive war yet, Rukeyser insists on the irrepressible aliveness that consecrates the present, any present, and that springs from the indivisibility of the life of the body and the life of the mind:

Spring, and the years, the wars, and the ideas rejected, the swarming and anonymous people rejected, and the slow climb of thought to be more whole, the few accepted flames of truth in a darkness of battle and further rejection and further battle. We know the darkness of the past, we have a conscious body of knowledge — and under it, the black country of a lost and wasted and anonymous world… jungle-land, wasteful as nature, prodigal.

Our living moment rides this confusion; it is torn by the dead wars; seizes the old knowledge; speeds on the imagination of the living and the dead, and passes, fertilized. But the hidden life today continues among all the silence, and in the midst of war. The hidden life of the senses, the vivid, speculative life of the mind. The man over his table, glass shine of the test-tubes reflected in the eyes; the woman staring into her thought of the child not yet born… We see, in this moment of the world, the lives of many people brought to a time of stress. The streams are challenged, all the meanings are again in question.

In a sentiment which Octavio Paz (whom Rukeyser translated) would come to echo several years later in his observation that “there is something revealing in the insistence with which a people will question itself during certain periods of its growth,” she adds:

It is at this moment that we turn… In the imaginations which tapped that energy, in the energy itself and its release, we see our power. Man*, the mystery; man, the pure force; man, the taproot of naked vision, the source himself, will look in such a moment for deeper sources, for the sources of power that can bring a fuller life to a desperate time. We cut away the old life, cutting down to the root. And the root of such power, of such invention, is in the imaginative lives of certain men and women, responding in their way and with their proper kinds of love to the wishes of history — that is, to the wishes of the people at that moment, however disguised, however premature and dark.

For Rukeyser, Willard Gibbs was one of those people; for me, the people whose lives and loves I contoured in Figuring were, and the people in whose lives and loves I have dwelt in the years since: Mary Shelley, Walt Whitman, Rukeyser herself.

Rukeyser notes that however rigorous our scholarship, it is always at bottom a presumption to attempt to “solve the personality” and reanimate the lives and worlds of the long-gone people whose work has shaped our own lives and our understanding of the world. In a passage to which I relate in the marrow of my being, she adds:

It is by a long road of presumption that I come to Willard Gibbs. When one is a woman, when one is writing poems, when one is drawn through a passion to know people today and the web in which they, suffering, find themselves, to learn the people, to dissect the web, one deals with the processes themselves. To know the processes and the machines of process: plane and dynamo, gun and dam. To see and declare the full disaster that the people have brought on themselves by letting these processes slip out of control of the people. To look for the sources of energy, sources that will enable us to find the strength for the leaps that must be made. To find sources, in our own people, in the living people. And to be able to trace the gifts made to us to two roots: the infinite anonymous bodies of the dead, and the unique few who, out of great wealth of spirit, were able to make their own gifts.

In consonance with my longtime conviction that history is not what happened, but what survives the shipwrecks of judgment and chance, Rukeyser mourns the erasure of so many such titans of spirit from our collective selective memory, mourns their loss “through waste and carelessness,” and offers the single most poignant and precise diagnosis I have ever encountered of what ails our systems of remembrance and sensemaking, which are ultimately our systems of future-making:

This carelessness is complicated and specialized. It is a main symptom of the disease of our schools, which let the kinds of knowledge fall away from each other, and waste knowledge, and time, and people. All our training plays into this; our arts do; and our government. It is a disease of organization, it makes more waste and war.

Both in her choice of subject (a man of such singular, specialized, abstract genius) and in her treatment of it (so rigorous in scholarship, so rapturous in breadth of sentiment), Rukeyser’s Willard Gibbs stands as a bold antidote to this cultural carelessness — and falls as one, having perished out of print by these very forces, these abiding emblems of the ahistorical and segregationist impulses arising in the puerile bosom of our species, which might, just might, one day mature to outgrow. Until then, we have the poets — in the largest Baldwinian sense — to salve our collective amnesia with their bold benedictions of immortal truth.


The Lost Spells: A Rewilding of the Human Heart in a Lyrical Illustrated Invocation of Nature

From the owl to the oak, a painted benediction of the wild world.

The Lost Spells: A Rewilding of the Human Heart in a Lyrical Illustrated Invocation of Nature

“A leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” the young Walt Whitman sang in one of the finest poems from his Song of Myself — the aria of a self that seemed to him then, as it always seems to the young, infinite and invincible. But when a paralytic stroke felled him decades later, unpeeling his creaturely limits and his temporality, he leaned on the selfsame reverence of nature as he considered what makes life worth living:

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains? Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.

In span and in size, our human lives unfold between the scale of leaves and the scale of stars, amid a miraculous world born by myriad chance events any one of which, if ever so slightly different, could have occasioned a lifeless rocky world, or no world at all — no trees and no songbirds, no Whitman and no Nina Simone, no love poems and no love — just an Earth-sized patch of pure spacetime, cold and austere.

The moment one fathoms this, it seems nothing less than an elemental sacrilege not to go through our days — these alms from chance — in a state of perpetual ecstasy over every living thing we encounter, not to reverence every oak and every owl and every leaf of grass as a living benediction.

A century and a half after Whitman, writer Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris — two poets of nature in the vastest Baldwinian sense — compose one such living benediction in The Lost Spells (public library). A lovely companion to their first collaboration — The Lost Words, an illustrated dictionary of poetic spells reclaiming the language of nature as an inspired act of courage and resistance after the Oxford Children’s Dictionary dropped dozens of words related to the natural world — this lyrical invocation in verse and watercolor summons the spirit of the living things that make this planet a world, the creatures whose lives mark seasons and measure out epochs: the splendid “hooligan gang” of the swifts that have crossed deserts and oceans to fill the sky each spring, the ancient oak “stubbornly holding its ground” year after year, century after century.

A century after the great nature writer Henry Beston insisted that we need “a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” observing how “in a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear,” Macfarlane and Morris bring us the mystery and wisdom of wild things as complementary and consolatory to our tame incompleteness.


I am Red Fox — how do you see me?

A bloom of rust
     at your vision’s edge,
The shadow that slips
     through a hole in the hedge,
My two green eyes
     in your headlights’ rush,
A scatter of feathers,
     the tip of a brush.

What emerges from the consummately illustrated pages and rhythmic incantations is a charm against the curse of civilization, of exploitation, of apathy — the curse by which we unwilded beings have come to see the wild world, in the poignant image of the poet Denise Levertov, as a world parallel to our own, separate, a place to sojourn to less and less frequently, even in our imagination. These painted verses sing and shimmer with a magical exuberance that renders the wild world not parallel, not foreign, but proximate, beckoning, native to our own souls.


Out on the hill, old Oak still stands:
stag-headed, fire-struck, bare-crowned,
stubbornly holding its ground.

Poplar is the whispering tree,
Rowan is the sheltering tree,
Willow is the weeping tree —
and Oak is the waiting tree.

Three hundred years to grow,
three hundred more to thrive,
three hundred years to die —
nine hundred years alive.

Complement The Lost Spells, to the lushness of which no screen does justice, with naturalist Sy Montgomery’s poetic memoir of what thirteen animals taught her about being a good creature, then revisit Macfarlane’s enchanting narrative journey into the hidden universe below the world we walk and Morris’s enchanting pictorial journey into the hidden universe beyond the waking world.

Illustrations courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova


250-year-old Natural History Illustrations of Some of Earth’s Strangest, Sweetest, and Most Otherworldly Creatures

An illustrated celebration of the living wonders of land, sea, and sky by a self-taught young man who went on to become one of the greatest natural history artists of all time.

If the legendary nanogenarian cellist Pablo Casals was right, as I trust he was, that working with love prolongs your life, and if Walt Whitman was right, as I know he was, that an intimacy with the natural world is the key to robust mental and physical health, then the English naturalist and pioneering ornithologist George Edwards (April 3, 1694–July 23, 1773) owed his longevity, which eclipsed the life expectancy of his time and place by decades, to the extraordinary creative vitality with which he reverenced nature in his work.

The Female Zebra. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Male Zebra. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Born into a humble family and raised under the tutelage of clergymen, Edwards awoke to the wondrous world of natural history art and science as a teenager by an improbable turn of chance. When a wealthy relative of the merchant with whom Edwards was apprenticing died, it was decided that the man’s colossal book collection was to be moved into the apartment where the young man was boarding. Inconvenienced as he was by the spatial assault of tomes, Edwards suddenly had access to the equivalent of a private university library — more knowledge than the vast majority of his peers could touch in a lifetime. Day after day, night after night, he found himself absorbed in these rapturous portals into poetry, astronomy, classical sculpture, and natural history. Suddenly, the life-path he had been set on — the pursuit of wealth through commerce — seemed so small and so impoverished of imagination.

The Yellow-breasted Toucan. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Barely out of his teens, Edwards left England to travel through the Continent, determined to broaden his mind. When he returned a month later, he wandered London for two years, young and unemployed and unemployable in his restive longing for something grander than mere money-work. He left again, not sure where to or what for, but as he wandered the fjords of Norway away from human habitation, watching the seabirds, watching the sky, watching the subtlest seasonal changes of the trees and flowers, something awoke in him, something was answered.

The Black-and-blue Titmouse with Pomegranate Blossom. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Upon returning to London, he devoted himself to learning everything the era’s science could teach him about the living world, of which nothing enraptured him more than the feathered wonders of the sky. The more he read about the anatomy and natural history of birds, the more he fell under the spell of their science and their splendor. He spent his limited means on the best bird paintings he could find, studied them closely with a savage admiration, then began making drawings of his own. Without formal instruction, he proceeding only on the wings of his enthusiasm and the encouragement of fellow natural history painting enthusiasts.

The Red-beaked Toucan. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

So began a lifelong devotion to making sense of nature and giving shape to its enchantments. In his late thirties, on the recommendation of the founder of the British Museum, who had been commissioning him as a natural history illustrator for more than a decade, Edwards became librarian of London’s venerable Royal College of Physicians — a post he held until the final years of his long life.

The Bush-tailed Monkey. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

A self-taught artist, a scientist a century before the word scientist was coined, George Edwards would be remembered by his friends as a man “of a middle stature, rather inclined to corpulence, of a liberal disposition and a cheerful conversation,” a man of great politeness but entirely unaffected, “free from all pedantry and pride.” He would be remembered by history as the father of British ornithology and one of the greatest natural history illustrators who ever lived.

The Bluejay and the Summer Red-bird. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Crested Long-tailed Pye. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Yellow-Faced Parakeet. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Although birds were his greatest passion, he depicted with equally meticulous draughtsmanship and great tenderness creatures as varied as the Indian grey mongoose, the zebra of the African savannahs, and the tiny American mud-tortoise. More than that, like the polymathic mathematician Mary Somerville, for whom the word scientist was coined a century later, Edwards intuited that a true understanding of nature requires not the conquest of any particular region of knowledge but an integration of the different regions. One of his closest and most erudite friends would recall that this self-educated polymath “seemed to have attained to universal knowledge,” conversing readily and rapturously about “almost every part of science.”

The Pig-tailed Monkey from Sumatra. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Ant-eater. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Small Mud-tortoise. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

The bookseller who would acquire Edwards’s vast collection and steward his legacy would come to write of his approach to the work:

He never trusted to others what he could perform himself; and often found it fo difficult to give satisfaction to his own mind, that lie frequently made three or four drawings to delineate the object in its most lively character, attitude, and representation.

In his last major work, Edwards endeavored to distill a life’s worth of what had most awed him in the natural world to which he had devoted his days and nights. This became his bilingual three-volume Gleanings of Natural History: Exhibiting Figures of Quadrupeds, Birds, Insects, Plants &c., Most of Which Have Not, Till Now, Been Either Figured or Described — more than six hundred of Earth’s most astonishing life-forms of land, sky, and sea, illustrated in consummate copper-plate engravings, their natural history expounded in English and French.

The Crowned Eagle. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Mongoose. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Great Horned Owl. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Elephant and Rhinoceros. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Olive-coloured Fly-catcher and the Yellow Butterfly. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Upon the completion of this life’s work in 1764, Edwards’s vision — his great instrument of comprehension and celebration — had already begun failing and he grew unable to draw. How it must have gladdened his heart to receive an ardent letter of appreciation from Carl Linnaeus himself, who painstakingly annotated the index of Edwards’s Gleanings with the Linnaean name of each species in the three volumes.

The Black Maucauco [Lemur] (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Many of the species are now commonly known by different names, many have grown endangered, and some are entirely unknown to the common reader, for they have gone extinct as our own species has plundered this miraculous planet in the quarter millennium since Edwards’s day, building our entire global economy on a willful blindness to the real wealth of this world: its “soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife.”

Working with material from the wonderful Biodiversity Heritage Library, I have color-corrected and restored (to the best of my ability and the best 260-year-old paper allows) the most wondrous illustrations from Edwards’s Gleanings to make them available as prints and face masks, with proceeds benefiting The Nature Conservancy’s endeavor to save and steward what remains of our irreplaceable living world.

The Cagui Monkey [Marmoset] (Available as a print and as a face mask.)
The Al Jerbua. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

There is the almost unbearably sweet-looking Al Jerbua, with the pyramids of Egypt seen peeking behind it — the tassel-tailed hopping desert mouse of Arabia, now known as jerboa, which Edwards found remarkable in that while it can running at an impressive 15 miles per hour, “it hops like a Bird, on its hinder Legs, never letting its fore Paws on the ground, but generally hides them in the Furr under his Throat.” There is the cagui monkey, now known as marmoset, with its smiling face haloed by its friendly fan of black-and-white fur, crouching next to a snail so charming one wishes to take it for the marmoset’s playmate, when it is indeed its prey.

The Sloth. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

There is the strangely humanoid sloth, sitting like a clawed, face-painted Buddha on his meditation mound. There is the “Middle-sized Black Monkey” Edwards met through a friend — a creature never previously described, “about the size of a large Cat, of a gentle nature with respect to hurting anyone,” fond of “playing with Kittens, as most Monkeys do.”

The Middle-sized Black Monkey. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Curiously, the three-volume series opens with the sole plant-only illustration in the entire set — the “apple-service,” which looks “like a yellowish green apple, tinged with red, on the side which is exposed to the Sun” — and with an homage to the remarkable Elizabeth Blackwell, who had depicted the “pear-service” a quarter century earlier in the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants. It is a strange and touching choice for the elderly Edwards to begin his monograph, devoted to the natural history of animals, with an acknowledgement of his debt to the young woman whose work on the natural history of plants had shaped his own artistic development.

The Apple-service. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

When Edwards died in his eightieth year, he bequeathed the fortune he had amassed by his tireless artistic and scientific labors to his two sisters.

The Yellow Red-pole and the Black Gros-beak. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

But although he was awarded the Copley Medal — the most prestigious scientific honor before the controversial creation of the Nobel Prize — Edwards was, like all of us inevitably are, like even the greatest geniuses inevitably are, still a product of his time and place. His was an era that saw science not as an instrument for magnifying our understanding of reality but as a mirror for affirming the perfection of a religion-invented creator god. In the final years of his life, Edwards composed a striking confession, framing his passion for natural history and science as a guilty vanity distracting him from his religious responsibility:

My petition to God (if petitions to God are not presumptuous) is, that he would remove from me all desire of pursuing Natural History, or any other study; and inspire me with as much knowledge of his divine nature as my imperfect state is capable of; that I may conduct myself, for the remainder of my days, in a manner most agreeable to his will, which will consequently be most happy to myself. What my condition may be in futurity is known only to the wife disposer of all things; yet my present desires are (perhaps vain and inconsistent with the nature of things!) that I may become an intelligent spirit, void of gross matter, gravity and levity, endowed with a voluntary motive power, either to pierce infinitely into boundless etherial space, or into solid bodies; to see and know, how the parts of the great Universe are connected with each other, and by what amazing mechanism they are put and kept in regular, and perpetual motion. But, oh vain and daring presumption of thought! I most humbly submit my future exigence to the supreme will of the one omnipotent!

Dwelling as I do in the lives and letters of long-gone visionaries, I have marveled again and again at how even the farthest seers are simply unable to bend their gaze beyond their era’s horizons of dogma and possibility. And yet the horizons shift with each incremental revolution as the human animal peers outward to take in nature, then turns inward to question its own givens. The most substantive leap our species has made in the epochs since Edwards is not any particular scientific discovery or invention, but our general unblinding to the nature of reality and the reality of nature, to reality as staggering enough in its own right and haloed enough with the holiness of its shimmering complexity not to necessitate the invention of gods, superstitions, and other nursery rhymes for the mind in order for life — this life, this improbable and only and absolutely glorious life we have — to feel like enough, to feel like the living miracle that it is.

The Scarlet Sparrow and Yellow Swallow-tailed Butterfly. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

As a lover of the history and poetics of marbling, I have also made available the mesmerizing swirls of color gracing the inside cover of the second volume of Gleanings of Natural History.

(Available as a print and as a face mask.)

For more pictorial consecrations of nature by other visionaries and pioneers, savor the stunning natural history paintings of exotic, endangered, and extinct species by Edwards’s contemporary Sarah Stone, one of a handful of women in the history of natural history to have broken the conservatory ceiling of her time; Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter’s groundbreaking studies and illustrations of mushrooms, which mycologists still use to identify species; the remarkable story of Elizabeth Blackwell, who taught herself botanical illustration and created the world’s first illustrated encyclopedia of medicinal plants to save her husband from debtor’s prison; Louis Renard’s early-eighteenth-century psychedelic fishes from the world’s first marine encyclopedia illustrated in color; and the nineteenth-century Australian teenage sisters’ Helena and Harriet Scott’s astonishing butterfly drawings, which catalyzed one of the greatest triumphs of conservation in the twenty-first century.


Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

“The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.”

Walt Whitman on What Makes a Great Person and What Wisdom Really Means

Twenty-four centuries after Pythagoras contemplated the purpose of life and the meaning of wisdom as he coined the word philosopher to mean “lover of wisdom,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) contemplated the meaning of personhood and the measure of wisdom as he revolutionized the word poet to stand for “lover of life.”

Tucked toward the end of his ever-foliating Leaves of Grass is what might be his most musical poem — a sweeping thirteen-page symphony of thought and feeling and rhythm in language, undulating across three distinct thematic movements: the carefree optimism of embarking upon a new path; the transcendent self-discovery in traversing new landscapes of beauty and possibility; and the transcendence of the self in connecting with something larger than oneself: nature, time and space, love. Whitman himself considered it his “mystic and indirect chant of aspiration toward a noble life” and “a vehement demand to reach the very highest point that the human soul is capable of attaining.”

One of Margaret C. Cook’s illustrations for a rare English edition of Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

For his remaining decades, Whitman lived in it and with it for, changing its title from the humble “Poem of the Road” in the first 1856 edition to the wanderlustful “Song of the Open Road” in 1867, fine-tuning the verses again and again, mapping the poem’s 224 lines into fifteen numbered sections by the final edition in the winter of his life.

The second movement of the lyric symphony peaks at the sixth section, erupting with Whitman’s most direct and life-tested hypothesis about what makes a great person and what wisdom really means. It augurs his hard-earned wisdom on what makes life worth living, at which he would arrive half a lifetime later while recovering from a paralytic stroke. It echoes the famous prose-meditation on the key to a vibrant and rewarding life, with which he introduced Leaves of Grass as a young man. It hums, surefooted and sonorous, as a kind of blessing song for the road of life.

Now I see the secret of the making of the best persons,
It is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.

Here a great personal deed has room,
(Such a deed seizes upon the hearts of the whole race of men,
Its effusion of strength and will overwhelms law and mocks all authority and all argument against it.)

Here is the test of wisdom,
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.
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.

Here is realization,
Here is a man tallied — he realizes here what he has in him,
The past, the future, majesty, love — if they are vacant of you, you are vacant of them.

Complement with Whitman on optimism as a mighty force of resistance, what it takes to be an agent of change, how to keep criticism from sinking your soul, and women’s centrality to democracy, then revisit a beautiful reading from his furthest-seeing, deepest-feeling poem.


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