Sunday, April 10, 2011

Song of Myself VI by Walt Whitman

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 dropt,
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

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, or from offspring taken soon out
of their mothers' laps,
And here you are the mothers' 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

I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
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?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows 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 ceas'd the moment life appear'd.

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

I couldn't use all of "Song of Myself" here, because it's quite long (this is section six out of 52), and because as a whole it really defies commentary. Lives are spent unspooling its greatness. But this is my favorite section, and it provides some insight into the title Leaves of Grass, in which it was published.

The "myself" of the poem reminds me of Stevens' rabbit: it is colossal, and expanding. But unlike the rabbit, whose self obliterates the outside world, Whitman's self absorbs everything it touches. "I am large," he writes, "I contain multitudes." I don't think it's correct to say that Whitman is "narrating for all," as that implies that some sort of disconnect from his true self that isn't there. Whitman does, to me, really seem to be talking about himself, but his is a democratic self; the boundaries are conspicuously blurred. The democratic self requires a capacious understanding, and an ability to see things from multiple angles, and house multiple meanings.

I love this section of "Song of Myself" because of the way it extends that capaciousness to even the grass of the earth. The first half of the section gives us a wonderful treatise on grass, defining and redefining it, compounding its significance: It is simultaneously "the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven" and "the handkerchief of the Lord;" it is a "child, the produced babe of vegetation." This itself is childlike in its playful imaginativeness; the grass is permitted to be all these things. The grass has names like people, it grows with people, has no cultural divisions. And as wonderful as those lines are, they do not prepare you for that most wonderful line:

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

Which might win a contest, if you held one, to determine the world's greatest metaphors.

The section shifts here, becoming unexpectedly a meditation on death. The grass becomes the living growth of dead bodies and so the democratic self, which emphasizes its deeply held connection to all things, is not afraid to die, because it resides elsewhere. This idea is developed more strongly in the next section, in which Whitman tells us, "I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash'd babe, and / am not contain'd between my hat and boot." In Emersonian fashion, Whitman affirms that as long as any life continues, all life continues. Though "Song of Myself" precedes Yeats' "Second Coming" by sixty years, the last lines of this section seem to me a reply to this:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...

Which are the poet's expression of the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy conquers all. But Whitman's hope conquers even science! Brent, you wanted life affirming, so I leave you with this, one of the most life-affirming statements I know:

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


Brent Waggoner said...

I actually found those line pretty affirming before you pointed them out. This is a really great piece of poetry.

Christopher said...

It bowls me over every time I read it.