On this day in 1819, the poet Walt Whitman was born. My preference for poetry tends to be densely packed stuff that really packs a punch, like Mary Barnard’s translation of Sappho, “Pain penetrates / Me drop / by drop.” So I’ve never been all that fond of Whitman’s breezy free verse. But I like it’s content. I like his mysticism.
There are two ideas of the soul. There is what I call the Greek idea: the essence of who I am. Even that one I’m not that clear on, but it is a useful conceit, given that I think we are all just rather over-complicated machines that fool ourselves into thinking (!) we are doing something other than just processing chemical and electrical signals. The second kind of soul is what I call the Christian idea (although most religions have this): some essential thing that dwells within me. It is this second kind of soul that causes me to self-identify as an atheist.
I am, at base, a mystic. But I am humble and I do not think that the Great Paradox involves me to any greater an extent than, say, one of the cells in my thigh. This is probably why I like Emily Dickinson more than Whitman because I think she understood: I am the body electric, I do not sing it. Still, Whitman’s dualistic idea of the soul, more indicative of deism, is fascinating and rewarding. It is also a hell of a lot less morbid than Dickinson. (And me!)
Here is a beautiful one for Whitman’s 195th birthday, “Darest Thou Now, O Soul”:
Happy birthday Walt Whitman!