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Walt Whitman on What Makes Life Worth Living

“Tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.”

Walt Whitman on What Makes Life Worth Living

“Do you need a prod?” the poet Mary Oliver asked in her sublime meditation on living with maximal aliveness. “Do you need a little darkness to get you going?” A paralytic prod descended upon Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) in his fifty-third year when a stroke left him severely disabled. It is a peculiar kind of darkness to be so violently exiled from one’s own body — a cascade of exiles, for it forced Whitman to leave his home in Washington, where he had settled after his noble work as a volunteer nurse in the Civil War that first taught him about the connection between the body and the spirit, and move in with his brother in New Jersey. Still, he kept reaching for the light as he slowly regained corporeal agency — a partial recovery he attributed wholly to being “daily in the open air,” among the trees and under the stars.

But as his body healed, the experience had permanently imprinted his mind with a new consciousness. Like all of our unexpected brushes with mortality, the stroke had thrust into his lap a ledger and demanded that he account for his life — for who he is, what he stands for, what he has done for the world and how he wishes to be remembered by it. As nature nursed him back to life in her embrace, Whitman found himself reflecting on the most elemental questions of existence — what makes a life worth living, worth remembering? He recorded these reflections in Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of prose fragments, letters, and journal entries that gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees and music as the profoundest expression of nature.

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

Writing to a German friend on his own sixty-fourth birthday, ten years after his paralytic stroke, Whitman reflects on what the limitations of living in a disabled body have taught him about the meaning of a full life:

From to-day I enter upon my 64th year. The paralysis that first affected me nearly ten years ago, has since remain’d, with varying course — seems to have settled quietly down, and will probably continue. I easily tire, am very clumsy, cannot walk far; but my spirits are first-rate. I go around in public almost every day — now and then take long trips, by railroad or boat, hundreds of miles — live largely in the open air — am sunburnt and stout, (weigh 190) — keep up my activity and interest in life, people, progress, and the questions of the day. About two-thirds of the time I am quite comfortable. What mentality I ever had remains entirely unaffected; though physically I am a half-paralytic, and likely to be so, long as I live. But the principal object of my life seems to have been accomplish’d — I have the most devoted and ardent of friends, and affectionate relatives — and of enemies I really make no account.

Above all, however, Whitman found vitality in the natural world — in what he so poetically called “the bracing and buoyant equilibrium of concrete outdoor Nature, the only permanent reliance for sanity of book or human life.” Looking back on what most helped him return to life after the stroke, Whitman echoes Seneca’s wisdom on calibrating our expectations for contentment and writes:

The trick is, I find, to tone your wants and tastes low down enough, and make much of negatives, and of mere daylight and the skies.

[…]

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.

Specimen Days remains a kind of secular bible for the thinking, feeling human being. Complement this particular fragment with Dostoyevsky’s dream about the meaning of life, Tolstoy on finding meaning when life seems meaningless, and the forgotten genius Alice James — William and Henry James’s brilliant sister — on how to live fully while dying, then revisit Whitman on why literature is central to democracy and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

Walt Whitman on Beethoven and Music as the Profoundest Expression of Nature

In praise of the “dainty abandon” that awakens us to wonder and carries us outside ourselves.

Walt Whitman on Beethoven and Music as the Profoundest Expression of Nature

“Feeling, life, motion and emotion constitute its import,” philosopher Susanne Langer wrote of music, which she defined as “a highly articulated sensuous object.”

Although many great writers have contemplated the power of music, few have articulated it more perfectly or more sensuously than Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) does in Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of prose fragments and journal entries, which gave us Whitman on the wisdom of trees and which the poet himself described as “a melange of loafing, looking, hobbling, sitting, traveling — a little thinking thrown in for salt, but very little — …mostly the scenes everybody sees, but some of my own caprices, meditations, egotism.” And what a beautiful, generous egotism it is.

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

One cold February evening in the last weeks of his sixtieth year, having finally recovered from the stroke that had rendered him paralyzed for two years, Whitman treated himself to a concert at Philadelphia’s opera house. Two decades after he wrote of music as “a god, yet completely human… supplying in certain wants and quarters what nothing else could supply,” Whitman found himself surrendering to its transcendent transport in a way that eclipsed every other musical experience he’d ever had, revealing to him the very essence of music’s power. Enraptured, he writes:

Never did music more sink into and soothe and fill me — never so prove its soul-rousing power, its impossibility of statement.

Particularly enchanted by the orchestral splendor of a Beethoven septet, Whitman meditates on whether music might be the purest and profoundest expression of nature:

I [was] carried away, seeing, absorbing many wonders. Dainty abandon, sometimes as if Nature laughing on a hillside in the sunshine; serious and firm monotonies, as of winds; a horn sounding through the tangle of the forest, and the dying echoes; soothing floating of waves, but presently rising in surges, angrily lashing, muttering, heavy; piercing peals of laughter, for interstices; now and then weird, as Nature herself is in certain moods — but mainly spontaneous, easy, careless — often the sentiment of the postures of naked children playing or sleeping.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

Long before scientists illuminated why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity, Whitman intuited the singular mind-body attunement of performance. More than a purely aural bewitchment, he revels in the full-body, creaturely delight of music — both of playing and of listening:

It did me good even to watch the violinists drawing their bows so masterly — every motion a study. I allow’d myself, as I sometimes do, to wander out of myself. The conceit came to me of a copious grove of singing birds, and in their midst a simple harmonic duo, two human souls, steadily asserting their own pensiveness, joyousness.

Specimen Days is a beautiful read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with German philosopher Josef Pieper on the source of music’s supreme power, Aldous Huxley on why it sings to our souls, and Wendy Lesser on how it helps us grieve, then revisit Whitman on the connection between the body and the spirit, why literature is central to democracy, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

The Wisdom of Trees: Walt Whitman on What Our Silent Friends Teach Us About Being Rather Than Seeming

A supreme lesson in authenticity from a being “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage.”

The Wisdom of Trees: Walt Whitman on What Our Silent Friends Teach Us About Being Rather Than Seeming

“When we have learned how to listen to trees,” Hermann Hesse wrote in his lyrical love letter to our arboreal companions, “then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy.” Two generations earlier, a different titan of poetic sentiment extolled trees not only as a source of joy but as a source of unheralded moral wisdom and an improbable yet formidable model of what is noblest in the human character.

At fifty-four, a decade after his volunteer service as a nurse in the Civil War awakened him to the connection between the body and the spirit, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) suffered a severe stroke that left him paralyzed. It took him two years to recover — convalescence aided greatly, he believed, by his immersion in nature and its healing power. “How it all nourishes, lulls me,” he exulted, “in the way most needed; the open air, the rye-fields, the apple orchards.” The transcendent record of Whitman’s communion with the natural world survives in Specimen Days (public library) — a sublime collection of prose fragments and diary entries, restoring the word “specimen” to its Latin origin in specere: “to look at.” What emerges is a jubilant celebration of the art of seeing, so native to us yet so easily unlearned, eulogized with the singular electricity that vibrates in Whitman alone.

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

In the years following his stroke, Whitman ventured frequently into the woods — “the best places for composition.” One late-summer day in 1876, he finds himself before one of his favorite arboreal wonders — “a fine yellow poplar,” rising ninety feet into the sky. Standing at its mighty four-foot trunk, he contemplates the unassailable authenticity of trees as a counterpoint to what Hannah Arendt would lament a century later as the human propensity for appearing rather than being. In a meditation from the late summer of 1876, Whitman writes:

How strong, vital, enduring! how dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.

Illustration by Arthur Rackham for a rare 1917 edition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.

Nearly a century and a half before researchers uncovered the astonishing science of what trees feel and how they communicate, Whitman adds:

Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don’t, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons — or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get.

Art by Jacques Goldstyn from Bertolt, an uncommonly tender illustrated story about of the friendship of a tree.

Two centuries after an English gardener exulted that trees “speak to the mind, and tell us many things, and teach us many good lessons,” Whitman considers their quiet wisdom as a model for human character:

Go and sit in a grove or woods, with one or more of those voiceless companions, and read the foregoing, and think.

One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)

Art by Cécile Gambini from Strange Trees by Bernadette Pourquié, an illustrated atlas of the world’s arboreal wonders.

Specimen Days is a beautiful, healing read in its totality. Complement this particular fragment with a tender illustrated ode to our bond with trees, the story of how Marianne Moore saved a rare tree’s life with a poem, and a lyrical short film about our silent companions, then revisit Whitman on democracy, identity and the paradox of the self, and his timeless advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

Orson Welles Reads Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”

“All goes onward and outward … and nothing collapses, and to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

My recent immersion in James Gleick’s exquisite inquiry into how our fascination with time travel mediates our anxiety about mortality reawakened in my conscience a few lines from Walt Whitman’s 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). Written when he was only thirty-six and then self-published, it survived a dispiriting initial reception and, thanks to a soul-saving letter of encouragement from Emerson, went on to touch generations. In the century and a half since, it has catalyzed fanciful artistic interpretations and continues to inspire with its largehearted wisdom on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

In 1953, the BBC set out to record an hour of selections from the Whitman classic and approached a somewhat unusual reader: legendary filmmaker, actor, and broadcaster Orson Welles (May 6, 1915–October 10, 1985), thirty-eight at the time and already one of the most recognizable cinematic voices in the world. The recordings were later released on an LP — a Moore’s ghost that has perished into technological obscurity and rendered the readings absent from the common record, now scarcely available as the hard-to-find Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself from Leaves of Grass Read by Orson Welles.

Here is a rare surviving recording of one of Welles’s readings, which gives Whitman’s radiant words a strange and satisfying weight of a different order.

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.

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful
    green stuff woven.

Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
    may see and remark, and say Whose?

Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe
    of the vegetation.

Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow
    zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.

And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.

Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
    from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.

This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old
    mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.

O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths
    for nothing.

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men
    and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
    taken soon out of their laps.

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
    children?

They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait
    at the end to arrest it,
And ceased the moment life appeared.

All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
    luckier.

Complement the timelessly rewarding Leaves of Grass, the preface of which alone is a masterpiece of the highest caliber, with Whitman on the power of music, healthcare and the human spirit, and the pillars of democracy.

For more electrifying readings of literary classics, hear Amanda Palmer reading Wisława Szymborska, Sylvia Boorstein reading Pablo Neruda, Jon Kabat-Zinn reading Derek Walcott, and Bill T. Jones reading four beloved poets.

BP

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