Steve Sckenda's Reviews > The Complete Poems

The Complete Poems by Walt Whitman
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Apr 22, 11

bookshelves: great-books, nature, poetry, love, civil-war
Read in December, 2009

Walt Whitman is my prophet of love and optimism. His words, his attitude, and his exemplary life have summoned me to deeper humanity. Did you know that Whitman spent all his free time and money upon the wounded and the dying soldiers in army hospitals during the American Civil War? “I am faithful, I do not give out.” He brought them candy and nuts and good cheer. He held their maimed limbs, played games with them, and wrote letters home for them.

He whispered comfort in the ears of the dying. When I re-read "Leaves of Grass" at a vulnerable time in my life, he whispered to me as well. Here is what Whitman told me about love, compassion, death, faith, individuality, faith, immortality, and searching. For those of you who only have time to skim this review, I have boldened a few key passages.

All the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers, and that a kelson of the creation is love. Behold, I do not give lectures. When I give I give myself. [ “Kelson” is a timber that runs parallel to the boat’s keel and strengthens it.] (Song of Myself)

I have loved the earth, sun, animals. I have despised riches,/ I have given alms to every one that asked, stood up for the stupid/ and crazy, devoted my income and labor to others,/ Hated tyrants, argued not concerning God, had patience and/ indulgence toward the people, taken off my hat to nothing known or unknown,/ Gone freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young,/ and with the mothers of families,/ Rejecting none, permitting all.(On Blue Ontario’s Shore)

Let the preacher preach in his pulpit! Let the lawyer plead in the court, and the judge expound the law. Camerado, I give you may hand! I give you my love more precious than money, I give you myself before preaching or law; will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live? (Song of the Open Road)

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person. With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums, I play not marches for victors only, I play marches for conquered and slain persons.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. Has anyone supposed it lucky to be born? I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it. (Song of Myself)

I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then, In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass, I find letters from God dropped in the street, and every one is signed by God’s name, and I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoever I go, others will punctually come for ever and ever. (Song of Myself)

Down-hearted doubters, dull and excluded, frivolous, sullen, moping, angry, affected, disheartened, atheists, I know every one of you, I know the sea of torment, doubt, despair and unbelief. Be at peace bloody flukes of doubters and sullen mopers, I take my place among you as much as among any. (Song of Myself)

I do not doubt but the majesty and beauty of the world are latent in any iota of the world,/ I do not doubt I am limitless, and that the universes are limitless, in vain I try to think how limitless,/ I do not doubt that the orbs and the systems of orbs play their/ swift sports through the air on purpose, and that I shall one day/ be eligible to do as much as they, and more than they,/ I do not doubt that temporary affairs keep on and on millions of years,/ I do not doubt interiors have their interiors, and exteriors have/ their exteriors, and that the eyesight has another eyesight, and/ the hearing another hearing, and the voice another voice,/I do not doubt that the passionately-wept deaths of young men are/ provided for, and that the deaths of young women and the/ deaths of little children are provided for,/ (Did you think Life was so well provided for, and Death, the purport of all Life, is not well provided for?)(Assurances)

Rest not till you rivet and publish yourself of your own Personality. (To a Pupil)

Do I contradict myself? Very well I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes. (Song of the Open Road)

That you are here– that life exists, that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse. (O Me, O Life)

I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume, For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. I loaf and invite my soul, I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. (Song of Myself)

I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes, We convince by our presence. (Song of the Open Road)

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.(Song of Myself)

The Journey
I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!) My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods. No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair, I have no chair, no church, no philosophy, I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange, But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll, My left hand hooking you round the waist, My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road. Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself. (Song of Myself)

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.(Song of Myself)

I tramp a perpetual journey with my friend Whitman, who whispers good cheer and optimism in my ear. He convinces me not with arguments and rhymes--but with his presence. If I occasionally lose him, I know I will find him somewhere waiting for me. He is not just my favorite poet; he is my spirit guide to the wonders and joys of the gift of life, and he encourages me to contribute a verse.

Sckenda’s Other Favorite Poets
Here are links to my reviews of other poets who have been my guides:

Emily Dickinson teaches me close observation of the microcosm (contrasted with Whitman, the poet of the macrocosm).

Pablo Neruda teaches me songs of love and social justice. (In contrast to feverish Neruda, smiling Whitman did not appear to vent his anger.)

PBS Video
Walt Whitman Song of Myself: An American Experience
Here is 2-minute introduction to a marvelous and moving, high-quality documentary about Whitman. If you like the promo, you can find the entire documentary on YouTube. The documentary uses music and images and voice in a way that makes sensitive souls weep.
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