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…”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.