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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

Walt Whitman on Identity and the Paradox of the Self

“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.”

Walt Whitman on Identity and the Paradox of the Self

“Our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing,” Alan Watts wrote in his memorable meditation on the ego, the universe, and becoming who you really are. Neuroscientists have concurred with Eastern philosophy and framed the self as a construction of the social brain; developmental psychologists have studied its formation in childhood; cognitive scientists have pinpointed its roots in memory. The question of what the self is and whether it exists at all has bedeviled ancient philosophy and modern psychology with equal ferocity.

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”?

That’s what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores in a passage from this altogether magnificent essay Democratic Vistas — his increasingly timely meditation on a politically healthy society, penned in the late 1860s and included in Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose (free ebook | public library).

Walt Whitman circa 1854 (Library of Congress)

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.

Complement this particular fragment of Whitman’s timelessly terrific Democratic Vistas with Bruce Lee on self-actualization and the crucial difference between pride and self-esteem and biologist-turned-Buddhist Matthieu Ricard and his philosopher father in conversation about the nature of the self and the true measure of personal strength, then revisit Whitman on the power of music, his prescient reflections on the need to integrate body and spirit in healthcare, and his abiding advice on living a vibrant and rewarding life.

BP

Walt Whitman’s Advice on Living a Vibrant and Rewarding Life

“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…”

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.

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

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.

Illustration from Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself by Allen Crawford

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.

Absorb the timelessly rewarding Leaves of Grass and complement it with Whitman on the power of music, healthcare and the human spirit, and why a robust society is a feminist society.

BP

Healthcare and the Human Spirit: Walt Whitman on the Most Important Priority in Healing the Body and the Soul

“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.”

Healthcare and the Human Spirit: Walt Whitman on the Most Important Priority in Healing the Body and the Soul

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.

waltwhitman
Walt Whitman (Library of Congress)

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.

Complement Whitman: Poetry and Prose with the beloved poet on why a robust society is a reading society and this wonderful illustrated homage to his most beloved work, then revisit the science of how our psychological and physiological states affect one another.

BP

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