Ben Winch's Reviews > Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review

it was amazing
bookshelves: american, poetry, anglo, 5-stars

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?

I'm no expert on Walt Whitman, and given that this poem ('Song of Myself') has been celebrated by everyone from Neruda to Borges to Pessoa to Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society ('I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world'), I doubt I'm educating anyone by bringing it again to their attention. That said, this was just what I needed this morning as I warmed into my first day alone in the country after too many weeks of a lack of privacy so intense that I have read and written almost nothing. Nervous, wondering if I might piss away the week allotted to me if I couldn't become inspired, I flicked idly through these pages over coffee, remembering, as I often have in the maybe ten years since I first read them, how they once impressed me, and soon found myself enthralled, a tear in my eye, as I read of the child and his unanswerable question. Now, by any popular notion of the word I am not religious, and I have a handful of staunchly anti-religious friends who'll attest to it, though I'll own that these friends strike me as both too literal-minded and too combative (they 'protesteth too much'), and that these days I either ignore or attempt to dissuade them every time they head off on a rant, so narrow and senseless and insensitive do such rants seem to me. The point is: God? 'The Lord'? Hell, to be honest I could give a shit, at least as regards any organised religion's conception of the subject. But something in that line about the handkerchief ('that we may see and remark, and say Whose?') moves me, the same way Bob Dylan (the born again Dylan!) moves me when he sings 'In the fury of the moment / I can see the master's hand / In every leaf that trembles / In every grain of sand.'
And I call to mankind, Be not curious about God,
For I who am curious about each am not curious about God,
No array of terms can say how much I am at peace about God and about death.

I hear and behold God in every object, yet I understand God not in the least,
Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself.

Why should I wish to see God better than this day?
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 others will punctually come forever and ever.

Forever and ever. The constant mystery we know is beyond our powers to explain; even the smallest child who looks at the stars knows that. The constant, ever-renewing mystery which we can tap into now and then, loafing and 'observing a spear of summer grass', but which ultimately we must, again and again, leave behind, knowing it will never go away, but equally that we cannot gaze at it for long.
I celebrate myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you....

These are the thoughts of all men in all ages in all lands, they are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing or next to nothing,
If they do not enclose everything they are next to nothing,
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are nothing,
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing....

It is you talking just as much as myself.... I act as the tongue of you,
It was tied in your mouth.... in mine it begins to be loosened.

Big words, huh? As bold as can be. As earnest and without irony (Pessoa did it with irony) yet hardly at all portentous or laughable. Strange, that Whitman should say here 'Logic and sermons never convince', when it seems that this whole epic rant (all 60 pages) is the sermon to end all sermons. But he admits to contradicting himself, explaining 'I am large.... I contain multitudes.' And at one point he falters in his ecstasy:
Somehow I have been stunned. Stand back!
Give me a little time beyond my cuffed head and slumbers and dreams and gaping,
I discover myself on a verge of the usual mistake.

That I could forget the mockers and insults!
That I could forget the trickling tears and the blows of the bludgeons and the hammers!
That I could look with a separate look on my own crucifixion and bloody crowning!

For all its joy and exulting in the simple fact of life, 'Song of Myself' is ever aware of suffering: 'the suicide on the bloody floor of the bedroom', the runaway slave ('He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north'), 'the mother condemned for a witch and burnt with dry wood, and her children gazing on'.
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels.... I myself become the wounded person'....

I play not a march for victors only.... I play great marches for conquered and slain persons....

This is the meal pleasantly set.... this is the meat and drink for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous.... I make appointments with all....

I am the poet of commonsense and of the demonstrable and of immortality;
And am not the poet of goodness only.... I do not decline to be the poet of wickedness also....

I don't claim that Whitman's work is perfect, and in fact I skipped or skimmed several passages this morning (I've never been one for lists, and Whitman, in his passion to encompass multitudes – of people and places – is occasionally enamoured of them), but I do think 'Song of Myself' is some kind of a masterpiece. The introduction to this edition (Penguin's 1986 reprinting of 'The First (1855) Edition') compares it to the Bhagavad-Gita, the Upanishads, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Rimbaud's Illuminations, The Chants of Maldoror, Thus Spake Zarathustra and the works of the Beats, and suggests that 'Song of Myself' 'should be judged... as one of the great inspired (and sometimes insane) prophetic works that have appeared at intervals in the Western world'. I agree (though not necessarily with the 'insane' part). With its insistence on a universal spirit beyond the senses or the intellect, and its bold adoption of the voice of that spirit, it resembles nothing so much as one of those letters dropped in the street, signed with the name of God. I said it is without irony, but a gentle self-mockery runs through it, enough to convince us of the humility of the man as he wrestles his personality into submission to hear snatches of the inner voice. 'Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fogs with linguists and contenders,' he says early on (sounding again like Dylan: 'You've been with professors and they've all liked your looks'), and just before the famous yawp he admits: 'The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me.... he complains of my gab and my loitering.' But in the end, though he can't refrain from fictionalising his own portrait in a dandy's effort to give his outpourings the credibility of the proletariat ('Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs'), the impression he leaves is one of deepest attachment to, regard for and identification with the reader.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop some where waiting for you.

Leaves of Grass was self-published by Whitman, a printer's assistant, in Brooklyn in 1855.
21 likes · flag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Leaves of Grass.
Sign In »

Reading Progress

Finished Reading
June 19, 2011 – Shelved

Comments Showing 1-4 of 4 (4 new)

dateDown arrow    newest »

Mike Puma Very nice. I have a facimile edition of the 1855 edition which includes some of the reviews he wrote himself. I should dust it off and reread it.

message 2: by Eddie (new)

Eddie Watkins It's certainly one of my favorite poems. I've been pretty obsessed with Whitman at different points throughout my life. Might be time to get re-obsessed...

message 3: by Geoff (new)

Geoff Wonderful. Thanks for this. Whitman entered my life when I was about 17 and is responsible for much of my love of words. This review said so much. I plan on reading Specimen Days in the very near future, too.

message 4: by Ben (last edited Feb 22, 2013 03:26AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ben Winch Thanks gents. And thanks for bringing up Specimen Days, Geoff. I'd never heard of it, but it looks worth reading for sure. But next I have to get hold of the Richard Howard translation of Flowers of Evil. Gotta give this Baudelaire character a proper try.

back to top