“What the Roman Lucretius sought most nobly, yet all too blandly, negatively to do for his age and its successors, must be done positively by some great coming literatus, especially poet, who, while remaining fully poet, will absorb whatever science indicates, with spiritualism, and out of them, and out of his own genius, will compose the great poem of death.”
– Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas
Yet, it was not death, but life that old Walt sang through his leaves. A sense of bringing a new infusion life, of Nature, and of science, love, and a deep and abiding ethical stance toward fortune and misfortune that no longer fears death, but accepts it as a part of the life with no need for a remainder, an aftering, an immortality or beyonding. This is Whitman’s contribution to the ongoing Lucretian vision.
The full quote of that goes as follows:
“America needs, and the world needs, a class of bards who will, now and ever, so link and tally the rational physical being of man, with the ensembles of time and space, and with this vast and multiform show, Nature, surrounding him, ever tantalizing him, equally a part, and yet not a part of him, as to essentially harmonize, satisfy, and put at rest. Faith, very old, now scared away by science, must be restored, brought back by the same power that caused her departure–restored with new sway, deeper, wider, higher than ever. Surely, this universal ennui, this coward fear, this shuddering at death, these low, degrading views, are not always to rule the spirit pervading future society, as it has the past, and does the present. What the Roman Lucretius sought most nobly, yet all too blindly, negatively to do for his age and its successors, must be done positively by some great coming literatus, especially poet, who, while remaining fully poet, will absorb whatever science indicates, with spiritualism, and out of them, and out of his own genius, will compose the great poem of death. Then will man indeed confront Nature, and confront time and space, both with science, and con amore, and take his right place, prepared for life, master of fortune and misfortune. And then that which was long wanted will be supplied, and the ship that had it not before in all her voyages, will have an anchor.”
“For my own literary action, and formulated tangibly in my printed poems … that the sexual passion in itself, while normal and unperverted, is inherently legitimate, creditable, not necessarily an improper theme for poet, as confessedly not for scientist–that, with reference to the whole construction, organism, and intentions of Leaves of Grass, anything short of confronting that theme, and making myself clear upon it as the enclosing basis of everything, I should beg the question in its most momentous aspect, and the superstructure that follow’d, pretensive as it might assume to be, would all rest on a poor foundation, or no foundation at all. In short, as the assumption of the sanity of birth, Nature and humanity, is the key to any true theory of life and the universe–at any rate, the only theory out of which I wrote–it is, and must inevitably be, the only key to Leaves of Grass, and every part of it.”
So it was this sexual passion, this ‘sanity of birth, Nature and humanity’ at the heart of this great poem that awakened again the Lucretian world of Epicurus for a modern world. How many have followed? In Song of Myself Whitman himself wrote in such a vein, but closer to Lucretius than even he knew. At one point a child confronts the poet: “A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands”. Wholly Epicurean, it may have been started by the master’s adage “The what is unknowable.” Starting from that truth, how could any of us answer the child? Who among us could move as Whitman does, from not knowing to such vital guesses? A master of metaphor, like his disciples Stevens, Eliot, and Crane, Whitman accepts the Epicurean truth as against the Platonists (Emerson included). The what is unknowable because there are no ideal forms or archetypes, but only the thing/phenomenon itself, like the grass, the material world before us (small selection below):
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 owners 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 vegetation.
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 nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
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 ceasd the moment life appeard.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
– Walt Whitman, Song of Myself