Darest Thou Now, Walt Whitman

Walt WhitmanOn 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”:

Darest thou now, O Soul,
Walk out with me toward the Unknown Region,
Where neither ground is for the feet, nor any path to follow?

No map, there, nor guide,
Nor voice sounding, nor touch of human hand,
Nor face with blooming flesh, nor lips, nor eyes, are in that land.

I know it not, O Soul;
Nor dost thou—all is a blank before us;
All waits, undream’d of, in that region—that inaccessible land.

Till, when the ties loosen,
All but the ties eternal, Time and Space,
Nor darkness, gravitation, sense, nor any bounds, bound us.

Then we burst forth—we float,
In Time and Space, O Soul—prepared for them;
Equal, equipt at last—(O joy! O fruit of all!) them to fulfil, O Soul.

Happy birthday Walt Whitman!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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