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The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem

A lyrical serenade to a world we barely dare imagine and to our kinship with those creatures most different from us.

The Universe in Verse: John Cameron Mitchell Reads Walt Whitman’s Beautiful Least Known Poem

“Love the earth and sun and the animals,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) offered in his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life from the original the preface to Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). This sense of kinship with and radiant respect for every element of the universe is what rendered Whitman the poet laureate of goodwill toward one and all, human and hummingbird and humpback whale. It is also what made him an indispensable part of The Universe in Verse and its animating ethos of celebrating the science and wonder of nature through poetry.

I dedicated the 2018 Universe in Verse to marine biologist and author Rachel Carson, who thought and wrote about science and the natural world like a poet. Her career as a catalyst of the environmental movement began with her lyrical 1937 essay Undersea, which extended an unprecedented invitation to the human reader to consider the reality of life on our Pale Blue Dot from the perspective of marine creatures — creatures as unimaginably different from us as creatures can be.

Nothing like it had been done before in science — but something astonishingly kindred had been done a century earlier, in poetry.

Leaves of Grass contains a short, exquisite piece titled “The World Below the Brine,” which may well be Whitman’s least known published poem — in large part because before Carson rendered the marine world not only comprehensible but full of wonder to the human mind, it was so incomprehensible as to be almost alien, and one of our elemental human foibles is that we tend to scorn what we do not understand. And so Whitman’s stunning poem went underappreciated and practically unnoticed.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

At The Universe in Verse, I enlisted the help of actor, writer, director, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch co-creator John Cameron Mitchell to change this. Prefacing his reading of this overlooked Whitman gem, Mitchell used my rare 1913 edition of Leaves of Grass to perform one of his “Whitman divinations” — existential questions flung across space and time at Whitman, answered by opening to a random page and imbibing the often surprisingly relevant wisdom found therein.

When Mitchell called out to the audience for one such question, poet Marie Howe offered: “How do we live brokenhearted?”

In this recording from the show, Whitman’s heart-stopping answer across the centuries appears before Mitchell’s charming reading of “The World Below the Brine.” Streaming behind him is artist Eric Corriel’s lovely site-specific video installation Water Will Be Here — a subtle, arresting reminder that unless we tend to our fragile planet far more conscientiously than we have been, the whole of it will sink below the brine as sea levels rise.

THE WORLD BELOW THE BRINE
by Walt Whitman

The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the
      swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as
      so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this
      sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.

Other highlights from The Universe in Verse include Marie Howe’s stunning tribute to Stephen Hawking, astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of Maya Angelou’s cosmic clarion call to humanity inspired by Carl Sagan, a lovely papercraft stop-motion animation of Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism” by artist Kelli Anderson, and actor America Ferrera’s reading of Denise Levertov’s poem about our conflicted relationship with nature.

Complement with English artist Margaret C. Cook’s rare and sensual 1913 illustrations for Leaves of Grass, then revisit Whitman on the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, his most direct reflection on happiness, and his life-advice to the young.

BP

Walt Whitman’s Advice to the Young on the Building Blocks of Character and What It Takes to Be an Agent of Change

“Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness, elevatedness…”

“In the long run,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in considering how we bring about social change, “there is no more liberating, no more exhilarating experience than to determine one’s position, state it bravely, and then act boldly.” A generation after her, Albert Camus examined what it really means to be a rebel and asserted that the true rebel is not one who aims to destroy the existing order of things but one who “says yes and no simultaneously.” And yet the hardest project of self-actualization is that of discerning what to accept and what to reject — of the world and of ourselves — as we build the architecture of our character and stake out our stance in relation to our obstacles and aims.

Long before Camus and Roosevelt, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) took up these questions in Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) — the 1855 masterpiece that nearly broke his career before making it.

Although the preface to the original edition contains Whitman’s timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life, tucked toward the end is a short poem titled “To a Pupil,” which captures in three spare verses his most concentrated and consecrating advice to the young — wisdom on the path to self-actualization, the essential discipline of personhood, and what it takes to be an effective agent of social change.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

TO A PUPIL

Is reform needed? is it through you?
The greater the reform needed, the greater the Personality you
need to accomplish it.

You! do you not see how it would serve to have eyes, blood,
complexion, clean and sweet?
Do you not see how it would serve to have such a body and soul
that when you enter the crowd an atmosphere of desire
and command enters with you, and every one is impress’d
with your Personality?

O the magnet! the flesh over and over!
Go, dear friend, if need be give up all else, and commence to-day
to inure yourself to pluck, reality, self-esteem, definiteness,
elevatedness,
Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality.

Art by Marianne C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

Leaves of Grass remains a life-expanding trove of existential vitality. Complement this particular fragment with more abiding advice to the young from Seamus Heaney, a Whitman of our time, and from Cecilia Payne, who set out on her career as a pioneering astrophysicist on the centennial of Whitman’s birth, then revisit Whitman on what makes life worth living, the interplay between the body and the spirit, what trees teach us about being human, and his most direct reflection on happiness.

BP

Stunning, Sensual Illustrations for a Rare 1913 Edition of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ by English Artist Margaret C. Cook

“Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death…”

Stunning, Sensual Illustrations for a Rare 1913 Edition of Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ by English Artist Margaret C. Cook

When thirty-six-year-old Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass in the summer of 1855, having poured the whole of his being into this unusual and daring labor of love, it fell upon unreceptive and downright hostile ears — a rejection that devastated the young poet. But over the coming decades, largely thanks to Emerson’s extraordinary letter of endorsement and encouragement, it became one of the most beloved books in America — a proto-viral masterpiece that forever changed the face and spirit of literature, bold and fresh and replete with “incomparable things said incomparably,” creaturely yet cosmic, bridging the earthly and the eternal yet larger than both.

Twenty-one years after Whitman’s death, Everyman’s Library series creator J.M. Dent published what remains the most beautiful edition of the Whitman classic — a large, lavish tome bound in green cloth, with the title emblazoned in gilt. But the crowning curio of this rare, spectacular 1913 edition — a surviving copy of which I was fortunate to acquire at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair — are twenty-four color plates by the English artist Margaret C. Cook.

“Two fishes swimming in the sea not more lawless than we”

Cook’s stunning illustrations, shockingly sensual against the backdrop of Puritanism against which Whitman staged his rebellion in verse, bear something of William Blake — particularly his engravings for Paradise Lost; something of Maurice Sendak (who was, of course, shaped by Blake) — particularly his forgotten sensual illustrations for Pierre by Whitman’s contemporary Herman Melville.

“You sea!… I behold… your crooked inviting fingers…,
I am integral with you, I too am of one phase and of all phase”
“We found our own, O my Soul, in the calm and cool of the daybreak”
“Whose happiest days were far and away through fields, … he and another wandering”
“How calm, how solemn it grows to ascend the atmosphere of lovers”
“Living beings, identities now doubtless near us in the air that we know not of”

Radiating from Cook’s drawings is Whitman’s insurgent insistence, as a queer man and a lover of all life, that romantic and erotic love transcends the tight parameters of the heteronormative — that the heart, too, contains multitudes.

“I will sing the song of companionship”
“The sun and stars that float in the open air,
The apple-shaped earth and we upon it, surely the drift of them is something grand,
I do not know what it is except that it is grand, and that it is happiness”

Most spectacular are Cook’s nocturnal scenes, fusing the sultry with the celestial — a consonant complement to Whitman’s lifelong fascination with astronomy, which would prompt him to write in Specimen Days a quarter century later:

To soothe and spiritualize, and, as far as may be, solve the mysteries of death and genius, consider them under the stars at midnight.

“Thoughts, silent thoughts, of Time and Space and Death”
“Give me nights perfectly quiet… and I looking up at the stars”
“The tender and growing night”
“The night follows along, with millions of suns, and sleep, and restoring darkness”
“We have voided all but freedom and all but our own joy”
“I see… great cloud-masses…
With at times half-dimm’d sadden’d far-off star”

I have digitized and restored Cook’s striking illustrations, and made them available as art prints, all proceeds from which will help support The Universe in Verse.

“The sleepers are very beautiful as they lie unclothed,
They flow hand in hand over the whole earth from East to West”
“I will confront these shows of the day and night;
I will know if I am to be less than they,
I will see if I am not as majestic as they”
“They are calm, clear, well possess’d of themselves”
“I see my soul reflected in Nature,
As I see through a mist,
One with inexpressible completeness, sanity, beauty,
See the bent head and arms folded over the breast, the Female I see”
“The soul has that measureless pride which revolts from every lesson but its own”
“I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing”
“I musing late in the autumn day”
“The merriment of the two babes that crawl over the grass in the sun, the mother never turning her vigilant eyes from them”
“The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, the face of the sea almost touching,
The boy ecstatic”
“I have taken my stand on the basest of peninsulas and on the high embedded rocks, to cry thence:
‘Salut au monde!'”

For other stunning illustrations from special editions of literary classics, devour Ralph Steadman’s illustrations for Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aubrey Beardsley’s gender-defying illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salome, Harry Clarke’s haunting illustrations for Goethe’s Faust, and Salvador Dalí’s paintings for Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and the essays of Montaigne.

BP

A Placid Ecstasy: Walt Whitman’s Most Direct Reflection on Happiness

“What is happiness, anyhow? … so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge…”

A Placid Ecstasy: Walt Whitman’s Most Direct Reflection on Happiness

“One can’t write directly about the soul,”, Virginia Woolf wrote. “Looked at, it vanishes.” So with happiness — as slippery as “the soul,” as certain to crumble upon deconstruction. Philosophers have contemplated its nature for millennia, psychologists have attempted to unearth its existential building blocks and delineate its stages. And yet at the heart of it remains a mystery — wildly various across lives and within any one life, a fickle visitation unbeckonable by external lures, as anyone who has sorrowed on a sunny-skied day knows. “There’s no accounting for happiness,” Jane Kenyon wrote in her sublime poem about the ultimate elusion, “or the way it turns up like a prodigal who comes back to the dust at your feet having squandered a fortune far away.”

One of the simplest, fullest definitions of happiness I’ve encountered comes from Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in Specimen Days (public library) — the splendid collection of his prose fragments, letters, and diary entries on subjects like the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, how art imbues even the bleakest moments with beauty, and what makes life worth living.

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

In an entry from October 20, 1876, fifty-seven-year-old Whitman composes his most direct meditation on the meaning of happiness. A century before Mary Oliver contemplated what it takes to inhabit a moment of happiness, he writes:

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies, (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before,) I have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours — may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I’ve read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood, and let it float on, carrying me in its placid extasy.)

What is happiness, anyhow? Is this one of its hours, or the like of it? — so impalpable — a mere breath, an evanescent tinge? I am not sure — so let me give myself the benefit of the doubt.

Complement this particular fragment of the altogether spirit-quenching Specimen Days with Willa Cather’s delicious definition of happiness, Albert Camus on the antidote to its slipperiness, and Agnes Martin on our greatest obstacle to it, then revisit Whitman on how to live a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

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