“This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun, and animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men; go freely with the powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and mothers, of families: read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life: re-examine all you have been told at school or church, or in any books, and dismiss whatever insults your soul.” ~ Walt Whitman (Preface to “Leaves of Grass”)
Poets are as necessary to humankind as little worms are to plant-kind. They take the undigested refuse of life and turn it into compost for the rest of us to grow. Walt Whitman was the ultimate vermicular versifier. And he wouldn’t have minded a bit being compared to worms – he himself said, “I moisten the roots of all that has grown.” (“Leaves of Grass”) He observed and recognized the sacred in everything, no matter how mundane or tragic. His poems are filled with sensory images of sounds, smells and physical touch. He spent so much time observing and wondering in fact that those who knew him as a youngster thought he would never amount to much.
Like Robert Frost, Walt Whitman had a difficult childhood. His father made many unfortunate real estate decisions and the family was forced to move from the Long Island countryside to Brooklyn in 1823 when Walt was four. Here he went to District School #1, a strict environment, which adhered to the Lancastrian Method of rote learning through a monitoring system, where older pupils teach the younger, allowing the teacher to oversee very large groups of scholars more efficiently (and cheaply). His lessons each day began with a Bible reading, followed by grammar, dictation, spelling, vocabulary, arithmetic, geography, and penmanship. Whitman never mentions his schoolboy days, although the frequent use of corporal punishment appears in his short story, “Death in the School-Room.” His teacher B.B. Halleck considered Walt, “clumsy and slovenly.”
When Walt was 11, he had enough of school and quit to become an office boy for an attorney’s office. The attorney taught the boy composition, and bought him a membership in a Brooklyn circulating library. Walt later referred to this as “The signal event of my life up to that time.” He devoured books, thoroughly enjoying Arabian Nights, Robinson Crusoe, and all the novels of Sir Walter Scott. After a year, he went to work for a physician’s office, then a printing office. This is probably where he really learned to “parse and spell.” It also taught him the visual aspects of line, structure and space in printed language; a very important theme in his poetry. About his work at the printing press, Whitman said, “There you get your culture direct: not rough borrowed sources – no, a century of college training could not confer such results on anyone.”
In 1833 or 34, Walt’s father took his family back to the country in Long Island. Walt tried a number of different jobs, all with ambivalent results. He was depressed and felt that he was wasting his youth. He didn’t enjoy farmwork or teaching school. One employer’s wife remembered, “He would go out into the garden, lie on his back under the apple tree, and forget everything about going back to work as he gazed up at the blossoms and the sky.” As a teacher, students recalled him daydreaming or writing lazily during school, but noted that he avoided corporal punishment. Eventually, Walt returned to New York City to work for the newspapers. He still had a lackluster work ethic, but his writing steadily improved. He published poetry, essays and short stories, achieving his greatest fame (both good and bad) with the publication of his “Leaves of Grass” in 1855.
Although Whitman became famous for his poetry, he probably would have been content without the fame. His poetry attests to the satisfaction he felt just in living, observing, and searching for truth. He was a success because he answered his own calling, in spite of society’s pressure to get busy with “real” work. Whitman’s story is a good reminder of the value of loafing. We all feel the mighty pressure to always be up and doing, but sometimes our best work is done in silence and stillness. The same is true for kids. Who knows what thoughts they are thinking and discoveries they are making while laying under an apple tree? The poet-worm in all of us needs time and space to digest life’s offerings.
“Swift wind! Space! My Soul! Now I know it is true what I
What I guessed when I loafed on the grass,
What I guessed while I lay alone in my bed . . . . and again
as I walked the beach under the paling stars of the
- Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”
Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1999.
“Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman, 1855