I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer’s girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
I find I incorporate gneiss and coal and long-threaded moss and fruits and grains and esculent roots,
And am stucco’d with quadrupeds and birds all over,
And have distanced what is behind me for good reasons,
And call anything close again when I desire it.
In vain the speeding or shyness,
In vain the plutonic rocks send their old heat against my approach,
In vain the mastodon retreats beneath its own powdered bones,
In vain objects stand leagues off and assume manifold shapes,
In vain the ocean settling in hollows and the great monsters lying low,
In vain the buzzard houses herself with the sky,
In vain the snake slides through the creepers and logs,
In vain the elk takes to the inner passes of the woods,
In vain the razor-billed auk sails far north to Labrador,
I follow quickly.... I ascend to the nest in the fissure of the cliff.
I think I could turn and live awhile with the animals... they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them sometimes half the day long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied.... not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or industrious over the whole earth.
Walt Whitman (1819–1892), America’s greatest and most revered poet, published his towering masterpiece, which was originally untitled, in the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass, a book that he published at his own expense. For the fourth (1867) edition, the poem was divided into 52 numbered sections and in the final edition of 1881, it was given the title “Song of Myself.” This passage, slightly revised in the final editions, became section 31 and the first 8 lines of section 32 of that poem. In 1882, the district attorney of Boston threatened to ban Leaves of Grass for violating the state’s obscenity laws. Among the poems to which he particularly objected was “Song of Myself.” This brief excerpt from that poem, the most visionary and powerful poem the United States has yet produced, will give the reader some sense of Whitman’s audacity, spiritual grandeur, and poetic genius.