The Importance of Leaves of Grass
Tis' a worthwhile exercise to revisit Whitman's notes from his Preface 1855, Leaves of Grass, First Edition.
Why are the ramblings of the great American bard-bohemian so important?
The real potency of Whitman's words lay in their antiquity. They are not soppy, sentimental and patriotic nostalgia. They bear the weight of the history out. We are in them--and they portend, they foment all that is not forgotten about our Republic. There is no shame in that these words might seem quaint and grandiose to us. Whitman's words are not quaint, his ideas are hardly grandiose. They resonate in the most timely fashion--when we need them.
Read them, and share your good thoughts.
The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth, have probably the fullest poetical nature. The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.
In the history of the earth hitherto the largest and most stirring appear tame and orderly to their ampler largeness and stir. Here, at last, is something in the doings of man that corresponds with the broadcast doings of the day and night.
Here is not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations. Here is action untied from strings necessarily blind to particulars and details magnificently moving in vast masses. Here is the hospitality which forever indicates heroes… .
Here are the roughs and beards and space and ruggedness and nonchalance that the soul loves. Here the performance disdaining the trivial unapproached in the tremendous audacity of its crowds and groupings and the push of its perspective spreads with crampless and flowing breadth and showers its proflic and splendid extravagance.
One sees it must indeed own the riches of the summer and winter, and need never be bankrupt while corn grows from the ground or the orchards drop apples or the bays contain fish or men beget children upon women. 2
Other states indicate themselves in their deputies … but the genius of the United States is not best or most in its executives or legislatures, nor in its ambassadors or authors or colleges or churches or parlors, nor even in its newspapers or inventors … but always most in the common people.
Their manners, speech, dress, friendship—the freshness and candor of their physiognomy—the picturesque looseness of their carriage … their deathless attachment to freedom—their aversion to anything indecorous or soft or mean—the practical acknowledgment of the citizens of one state by the citizens of all other states—the fierceness of their roused resentment—their curiosity and welcome of novelty—their self-esteem and wonderful sympathy—their susceptibility to a slight—the air they have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the presence of superiors—the fluency of their speech—their delight in music, the sure symptom of manly tenderness and native elegance of soul … their good temper and open handedness—the terrible significance of their elections—the President’s taking off his hat to them, not they to him—these too are unrhymed poetry. It awaits the gigantic and generous treatment worthy of it. 3
The largeness of nature or the nation were monstrous without a corresponding largeness and generosity of the spirit of the citizen.
Not nature nor swarming states nor streets and steamships nor prosperous business nor farms nor capital nor learning may suffice for the ideal of man … nor suffice the poet.
No reminiscences may suffice either. A live nation can always cut a deep mark and can have the best authority the cheapest … namely from its own soul. This is the sum of the profitable uses of individuals or states and of present action and grandeur and of the subjects of poets.—As if it were necessary to trot back generation after generation to the eastern records!
As if the beauty and sacredness of the demonstrable must fall behind that of the mythical! As if men do not make their mark out of any times! As if the opening of the western continent by discovery and what has transpired since in North and South America were less than the small theatre of the antique or the aimless sleep-walking of the middle ages! The pride of the United States leaves the wealth and finesse of the cities and all returns of commerce and agriculture and all the magnitude of geography or shows of exterior victory to enjoy the breed of full sized men or one full sized man unconquerable and simple.