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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

Walt Whitman on the Splendor of Winter Beaches and How Art Imbues Life’s Bleakest Moments with Beauty

“This winter day — grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual — striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music…”

Walt Whitman on the Splendor of Winter Beaches and How Art Imbues Life’s Bleakest Moments with Beauty

To view the world with a poet’s eyes is to see in it unseasonable splendor and unreasonable gladness where other eyes see only bleakness, only blankness. “Only an artist can tell,” James Baldwin wrote, “what it is like for anyone who gets to this planet to survive it. What it is like to die, or to have somebody die; what it is like to be glad.” Baldwin considered all artists poets — not for what they make, but for how they see. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy,” William Blake wrote two centuries before Baldwin in his most beautiful letter, “is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is, so he sees.”

Perched in time between Blake and Baldwin, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) stands as a supreme seer and instrument of gladness. Much of it he channeled in verse, but some of the richest remnants of his spirit survive the prose of Specimen Days (public library) — the sublime collection of his reflections, letters, and journal entries on such varied facets of being as the wisdom of trees, the singular power of music, and what makes life worth living.

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

In one particularly beautiful entry penned as he was recovering from a paralytic stroke, Whitman contemplates how art feeds life so that life itself becomes a victual of the poetic. Writing in late November of 1876, he exults under the heading “A Winter Day on the Sea-beach”:

The attractions, fascinations there are in sea and shore! How one dwells on their simplicity, even vacuity! What is it in us, arous’d by those indirections and directions? That spread of waves and gray-white beach, salt, monotonous, senseless — such an entire absence of art, books, talk, elegance — so indescribably comforting, even this winter day — grim, yet so delicate-looking, so spiritual — striking emotional, impalpable depths, subtler than all the poems, paintings, music, I have ever read, seen, heard. (Yet let me be fair, perhaps it is because I have read those poems and heard that music.)

Complement this particular fragment of the wholly transcendent Specimen Days with Thoreau on the spiritual rewards of winter walks and Henry Beston — a rare twentieth-century descendant of Thoreau and Whitman — on the splendor of night, 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 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-third birthday, a decade 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

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