For the Well-Read Man Project’s sole poetry selection, I chose Leaves of Grass, by the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman. With its nearly 400 poems and more than 800 pages, it isn’t a book of verse that you consume on a lazy afternoon. (The first edition included just twelve poems, but Uncle Walt just couldn’t let it be.) I spent three weeks going through its poems, which, as it turns out, is about 20 years short of what is required to absorb and understand it all.
The very first poem ends with the bold verse “The Modern Man I sing.” As you read through the book, this is made obvious, since mankind is a major focus of the poems. For Whitman, man is alive, not in a cradle-to-grave sense, but in a did-you-really-forget-your-divinity type of excitement for man’s universal power and existence. Of course, ideas like these might be misinterpreted by the more religious sort. So Whitman clarifies his position on God, “accepting the Gospels, accepting him that was crucified, knowing assuredly that he is divine.” And identifying himself as steeped in good American religion, he goes on to link God with not only Jesus, but with Buddha, Brahma, and some unnamed yet universal pantheistic reality.
America also plays a prominent role in these poems. While he lifts up other nations (such as “Kanada”), it is America and its glories that represent the future of mankind. In the book, America is grand, from its rivers and mountains, to its presidents (Whitman is especially fond of Abraham Lincoln, including several poems about his heroic leadership and his tragic death), from the glories of its wars, to the grandeur of its democracy and religion. In many poems, he portrays the nation as a ship, a stable craft amid the stormy waves. Individual states and their features get personal mentions, but the author’s favorite places are Manhattan (called “Manhatta,” the “City of Orgies”) and “Paumanok,” the native name for Long Island, New York.
A fourth key theme is death, both in its ordinary old-age forms, and in the glory that accompanies it in war. Like his religion, Whitman’s image of death is everywhere: death is life, life is death, that sort of thing. The author himself conveyed no fear of death in his writings, and those written at the end of his life (all appearing at the end of the book), while pensive, are just as energetic and bold about life and death as are those from his younger days.
Within the full body of poems, these four themes—mankind, religion, America, and death—are really all about the same thing, which matches Whitman’s outlook on life. These things are life, and life is death, and death is religion, and religion is America, and America is man, and man is life. There is one shared soul that ties all these essentials together, much to the horror of Victorian sensibilities.
I did recognize a few poems and poem titles on my way through the book. “O Captain! My Captain!” a poem about Abraham Lincoln, is familiar to anyone who saw Dead Poets Society. Ray Bradbury borrowed the title “I Sing the Body Electric” for his short story about a robotic grandmother. “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” and “Passage to India” parallel titles of books by Willa Cather and E. M. Forster respectively. (In true Whitman style, “Passage to India” is not about India at all, but about the ingenuity and god-like intelligence of mankind in making things like passages to India possible.)
Some of the entries are quite sensual. The poem “To a Common Prostitute” sounds shocking, but it’s nothing compared to the overt sexuality of “From Pent-Up Aching Rivers.” It was for poems like these that the book was condemned as obscene literature. And yet these titillating verses are smothered by the never-ending mantra of America, man, deity, death, America, man, deity, death.
The last few dozen poems were penned at the end of Whitman’s life, with some of the entries alluding to his seventieth and seventy-first birthdays. He uses these trailing verses to craft a goodbye to his readers, and to the world. This too is a form of shock and defiance, since it is clear from his writings that Whitman did not believe in the goodbye of death. Yet he has died and moved on, not to heaven necessarily, but to America, the source of his poetry and the place he always wanted to be.
The Well-Read Man Project
For more information about this book, visit its Well-Read Man Project page.