And yet, in the privacy of our interior lives, the reality of the self seems inescapable — sometimes maddeningly so. For each of us, the entire enormity of life unfolds within the tiny locus of consciousness we experience as our very own self. So where is the line between the inevitability of the self as a focal point of experience and its mutation into an imprisoning ego-shell which, in the words of the great Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki, “is the hardest thing to outgrow”?
About a decade after he made his oft-quoted proclamation in Leaves of Grass — “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” — Whitman considers the cohesion of those multitudes:
There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal. This is the thought of identity — yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me. Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts. In such devout hours, in the midst of the significant wonders of heaven and earth, (significant only because of the Me in the centre,) creeds, conventions, fall away and become of no account before this simple idea. Under the luminousness of real vision, it alone takes possession, takes value. Like the shadowy dwarf in the fable, once liberated and look’d upon, it expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.
The quality of being, in the object’s self, according to its own central idea and purpose, and of growing therefrom and thereto — not criticism by other standards, and adjustments thereto — is the lesson of Nature.
But, Whitman cautions, we ought to safeguard against letting the transcendence of this natural self harden into the unnatural self-importance of an overactive ego:
True, the full man wisely gathers, culls, absorbs; but if, engaged disproportionately in that, he slights or overlays the precious idiocrasy and special nativity and intention that he is, the man’s self, the main thing, is a failure, however wide his general cultivation.
The best culture will always be that of … courageous instincts, and loving perceptions, and of self-respect.
“Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others… re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul…”
By Maria Popova
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) was thirty-six when he self-published Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain). Amid its dispiriting initial reception, he received a soul-saving letter of encouragement from Emerson, who by that point had become America’s most influential literary tastemaker. Whitman carried it in his pocket for a long time, proudly showing to friends and lovers, and eventually reprinted it in full in the second edition, on the spine of which a particularly vitalizing sentence from the letter — “I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career” — was stamped in gold.
Without Emerson’s emboldening missive, the young poet may have perished in obscurity. Praising the book as brimming with “incomparable things said incomparably well,” Emerson buoyed Whitman’s spirit and soon sculpted public opinion into appreciation. Leaves of Grass went on to become one of most beautiful and beloved poetic works ever written.
Whitman’s words in the preface to the original edition are at least as radiant and rousing as the verses themselves — words that continue to enliven heart, mind, and spirit a century and a half later. He writes:
The land and sea, the animals, fishes, and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests, mountains, and rivers, are not small themes … but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects … they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.
And yet he does indicate the path. In a passage partway between sermon and commencement address, he writes:
This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
In a sentiment which Pulitzer-winning poet Mark Strand would come to echo nearly 150 years later in contemplating the artist’s task to bear witness to the universe, Whitman extols the poet’s singular role in granting us access to this richness of being:
The known universe has one complete lover and that is the greatest poet. He consumes an eternal passion and is indifferent which chance happens and which possible contingency of fortune or misfortune and persuades daily and hourly his delicious pay. What baulks or breaks others is fuel for his burning progress to contact and amorous joy.
Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is done the greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read. To do this well is to compete with the laws that pursue and follow time.
He ends the lengthy preface with a piercing reflection on the measure of how an artist dances this dance with the laws of time:
The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.
“There is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world.”
By Maria Popova
In the early 1860s, six years after he self-published Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) began volunteering as a nurse in the Civil War. Bravery and tragedy were odd bedfellows among the wounded and dying soldiers whom he visited, and bearing witness to their courageous suffering moved him deeply. These impressions permeated his later poetry and informed his prescient ideas about democracy.
Whitman recounted his wartime experience in a diaristic piece titled “Hospital Visits,” published in The New York Times in December of 1864 and later included in the indispensable Library of America volume Whitman: Poetry and Prose (public library).
“This tremendous war goes on,” Whitman writes. “Every family has directly or indirectly some representative among this vast army of the wounded and sick.” Overcome with irrepressible compassion for these men (and, lest we forget, the lot of unheralded women), he set out to alleviate their suffering by lifting their spirits — an intuitive application of what modern scientists know about how our minds affect our bodies.
Whitman recounts his daily rituals of care:
Devoted the main part of the day, from 11 to 3.30 o’clock, to Armory-square hospital; went pretty thoroughly through wards F, G, H, and I — some fifty cases in each ward. In Ward H supplied the men throughout with writing paper and a stamped envelope each, also some cheerful reading matter.
Whitman brought the soldiers all kinds of gifts to lift their spirits — from apples, oranges, figs, gingersnaps, and “first-rate preserved berries” to pocket change and small bills. “The poor wounded men often came up ‘dead broke,'” he explains, “and it helps their spirits to have even the small sum I give them.” His generosity extended beyond the material and into the metaphysical — he lent them his poetic talent and helped them write letters home, even love letters. (How electrifying to imagine a love letter to a young wife ghost-written by none other than Walt Whitman and to wonder how many such miraculous treasures might exist.)
But the greatest gift with which Whitman graced the soldiers was his generous, loving spirit. He describes his daily hospital routine and the larger ethos behind it:
My custom is to go through a ward, or a collection of wards, endeavoring to give some trifle to each, without missing any. Even a sweet biscuit, a sheet of paper, or a passing word of friendliness, or but a look or nod, if no more. In this way I go through large numbers without delaying, yet do not hurry. I find out the general mood of the ward at the time; sometimes see that there is a heavy weight of listlessness prevailing, and the whole ward wants cheering up. I perhaps read to the men, to break the spell…
He cautions against letting such charity bleed into condescension. (Then again, as Seamus Heaney reminded us, “the Latin root of condescension means we all sink” — and what more worthy an object of compassion than these wounded soldiers, literally sunk to the ground on the battlefields?) Whitman urges for the preservation of human dignity even amid these most dispiriting of circumstances:
He who goes among the soldiers with gifts, etc., must beware how he proceeds. It is much more of an art than one would imagine. They are not charity-patients, but American young men, of pride and independence. The spirit in which you treat them, and bestow your donations, is just as important as the gifts themselves; sometimes more so.
In a sentiment that jars with its devastating timeliness today, when the mainstream healthcare system has reduced patients to data points each allotted a set number of minutes to be logged on an iPad by their productivity-strained physician, Whitman adds:
Few realize that it is not the mere giving of gifts that does good; it is the proper adaption. Nothing is of any avail among the soldiers except conscientious personal investigation of cases, each for itself; with sharp, critical faculties, but in the fullest spirit of human sympathy and boundless love. The men feel such love more than anything else. I have met very few persons who realize the importance of humoring the yearnings for love and friendship of these American young men, prostrated by sickness and wounds.
To many of the wounded and sick, especially the youngsters, there is something in personal love, caresses, and the magnetic flood of sympathy and friendship, that does, in its way, more good than all the medicine in the world… Many will think this merely sentimentalism, but I know it is the most solid of facts. I believe that even the moving around among the men, or through the ward, of a hearty, healthy, clean, strong, generous-souled person, man or woman, full of humanity and love, sending out invisible, constant currents thereof, does immense good to the sick and wounded.
“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.”
By Maria Popova
In 1855, Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) made his debut as a poet and self-published Leaves of Grass. Amid the disheartening initial reception of pervasive indifference pierced by a few shrieks of criticism, the young poet received an extraordinary letter of praise and encouragement from his idol — Ralph Waldo Emerson, the era’s most powerful literary tastemaker. This gesture of tremendous generosity was a creative life-straw for the dispirited artist, who soon became one of the nation’s most celebrated writers and went on to be remembered as America’s greatest poet.
In the late 1860s, working as a federal clerk and approaching his fiftieth birthday, Whitman grew increasingly concerned that America’s then-young democracy had grown in danger of belying the existential essentials of the human spirit. He voiced his preoccupations in a masterful and lengthy essay titled Democratic Vistas, later included in the indispensable Library of America volume Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).
Both Whitman’s spirited critique of American democracy and his proposed solution — which calls for an original and ennobling national body of literature as the means to cultivating the people’s mentality, character, and ideals — ring remarkably true today, perhaps even truer amid our modern disenchantment and dearth of idealism, accentuated by the spectacle of an election season.
Literature, Whitman argues, constructs the scaffolding of society’s values and “has become the only general means of morally influencing the world” — its archetypal characters shape the moral character and political ideals of a culture. Long after the political structures of the ancient world have crumbled, he reminds us, what remains of Ancient Greece and Rome and the other great civilizations is their literature. He writes:
At all times, perhaps, the central point in any nation, and that whence it is itself really sway’d the most, and whence it sways others, is its national literature, especially its archetypal poems. Above all previous lands, a great original literature is surely to become the justification and reliance, (in some respects the sole reliance,) of American democracy. Few are aware how the great literature penetrates all, gives hue to all, shapes aggregates and individuals, and, after subtle ways, with irresistible power, constructs, sustains, demolishes at will.
In the civilization of to-day it is undeniable that, over all the arts, literature dominates, serves beyond all — shapes the character of church and school — or, at any rate, is capable of doing so. Including the literature of science, its scope is indeed unparallel’d.
Lamenting the vacant materialism of consumer society, Whitman writes:
We had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ’d in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ’d in.
Our New World democracy, however great a success in uplifting the masses out of their sloughs, in materialistic development, products, and in a certain highly-deceptive superficial popular intellectuality, is, so far, an almost complete failure in its social aspects, and in really grand religious, moral, literary, and esthetic results… In vain have we annex’d Texas, California, Alaska, and reach north for Canada and south for Cuba. It is as if we were somehow being endow’d with a vast and more and more thoroughly-appointed body, and then left with little or no soul.
To take expression, to incarnate, to endow a literature with grand and archetypal models — to fill with pride and love the utmost capacity, and to achieve spiritual meanings, and suggest the future — these, and these only, satisfy the soul. We must not say one word against real materials; but the wise know that they do not become real till touched by emotions, the mind.
The savior of the nation’s soul, Whitman insists, is not the politician but the artist:
Should some two or three really original American poets, (perhaps artists or lecturers,) arise, mounting the horizon like planets, stars of the first magnitude, that, from their eminence, fusing contributions, races, far localities, &c., together they would give more compaction and more moral identity, (the quality to-day most needed,) to these States, than all its Constitutions, legislative and judicial ties, and all its hitherto political, warlike, or materialistic experiences.
In a sentiment that makes one shudder imagining what the poet would’ve made of Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy, Whitman writes:
I know nothing grander, better exercise, better digestion, more positive proof of the past, the triumphant result of faith in human kind, than a well-contested American national election.
America, it may be, is doing very well upon the whole, notwithstanding these antics of the parties and their leaders, these half-brain’d nominees, the many ignorant ballots, and many elected failures and blatherers. It is the dilettantes, and all who shirk their duty, who are not doing well… America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.
The sole antidote, Whitman reminds us, lies in our own hands and the ballots they hold — in not shirking our duty as voters. He shares his advice to the young:
Enter more strongly yet into politics… Always inform yourself; always do the best you can; always vote.
The role of government and those in power, he argues, is not to rule by authority alone — the mark of dictatorship rather than democracy — but “to train communities … beginning with individuals and ending there again, to rule themselves.” Above all, the task of democratic leadership is to bind “all nations, all men, of however various and distant lands, into a brotherhood, a family.” Many decades before women won the right to vote and long before Nikola Tesla’s feminist vision for humanity, Whitman argues that a robust democracy is one in which women are fully empowered and included in that “brotherhood” on equal terms:
I have sometimes thought … that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman… Great, great, indeed, far greater than they know, is the sphere of women.
Reflecting on the perils of inequality in any guise, for any group, he adds:
Of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn — they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.
The supreme tool of reconstructing a more equal society, Whitman asserts, is literature — a body of literature that gives voice to the underrepresented, that elevates and expands and invigorates their spirits by mirroring them back to themselves as indelibly worthy of belonging to society. (I’m reminded of a contemporary counterpart: Jacqueline Woodson on why she writes characters of color.)
A new founded literature, not merely to copy and reflect existing surfaces, or pander to what is called taste … but a literature underlying life, religious, consistent with science, handling the elements and forces with competent power, teaching and training men — and, as perhaps the most precious of its results, achieving the entire redemption of woman … and thus insuring to the States a strong and sweet Female Race… — is what is needed.
But Whitman’s most pertinent point is that true dedication to democracy isn’t a mere fleeting fixture of election season. Rather, it permeates the very fabric of society and must be upheld in every aspect of our lives, at every moment — something best effected by literature:
Far, far, indeed, stretch, in distance, our Vistas! How much is still to be disentangled, freed! How long it takes to make this American world see that it is, in itself, the final authority and reliance! Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruits in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between men, and their beliefs — in religion, literature, colleges, and schools — democracy in all public and private life.
The literature, songs, esthetics, &c., of a country are of importance principally because they furnish the materials and suggestions of personality for the women and men of that country, and enforce them in a thousand effective ways.