THERE ARE DAYS WHEN THE LILACS are in bloom and the summer sunrays are blazing down through a beautiful blue sky that I feel a compelling urge to hit the highway and head off into the wild. I yearn to sit on a stunning overlook or by a cascading creek on a big boulder, the radiance of the sun on my face, my body tranquil, my mind in a wondrous state of bliss.
Can I do that at will, though? Not with family and work commitments. No way. I can, however, pick up one of my vintage copies of Walt Whitman’s magnificent book of poems, Leaves of Grass, flip it open and peruse the poet’s epic “Song of the Open Road” for a spell. In that way, I can get a good dose of vicarious travels via the written page, which is worth something. “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me…”
There’s joy in those words. They lift one up from the start and off one goes.
In “Song of Myself,” the poet states, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” These are the words of a “People’s Poet”. Whitman was not one to sit in an ivory tower and look down on anyone. All were invited to tag along with him on his excursions. All were welcome. That’s because Whitman was enlightened.
In fact, Richard M Bucke in his groundbreaking book, Cosmic Consciousness, proclaimed Walt Whitman to be the most liberated, enlightened sage to have ever lived. Yes, he even put the poet above Buddha, Jesus, Socrates and Plato, among others.
Whitman’s truest equal, in my opinion, was the Chinese sage, Lao Tzu, who wandered the land sharing his liberated illuminations with anyone who cared to listen, but would disappear into the mountains without complaint if they didn’t. He was as free as a cloud and his words of wisdom only come down to us courtesy of those who did listen, remembered his words and eventually committed them to writing.
Whitman, in “Song of Myself” noted how one day, while “loafing” in the grass on “a transparent summer morning” had a truly illuminating moment. “Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all argument of the earth, / And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own, / And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own, / And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the women my sisters and lovers, / And that a kelson of the creation is love…”
Whitman chronicled his life and times in Leaves of Grass, writing at length about the Civil War in America and about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. The Lincoln poems, “Oh Captain, My Captain” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” are among the most beloved of his poems.
Then, there was the controversial “I Sing the Body Electric”, which was the most liberated – and liberating – of poems ever to see print back in those days and it caused quite a stir.
At my father’s funeral, what I chose to read were words from “Song of Myself”: “What do you think has become of the young and old men? / What do you think has become of the women and children [who have died]? / 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 ceas’d the moment life appear’d. / All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses, / And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier. / Has any one supposed it lucky to be born? / I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I know it. / I pass death with the dying and birth with the new wash’d babe, and am not contain’d between my hat and boots… / I am not an earth or an adjunct of an earth, / I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and fathomless as myself, / (They do not know how immortal, but I know.)”
Walt Whitman was a hundred years ahead of his time, which was why his work enjoyed such a resurgence in the 1960s, an era of cultural upheaval and iconoclastic change. The poet, Allen Ginsberg, who led the charge in those revolutionary days, was especially enthralled with Whitman’s liberated attitude and he emulated the great poet’s freestyle approach to the art throughout his life.
Ginsberg was far from alone in being influenced by Whitman’s work. The reverberations are still echoing across the globe and I would encourage everyone to find a bit of free time on a summer’s day, to loaf on the luminous green grass once in a while, and to breathe deep its intoxicating aroma (if for no other reason than the fact that fresh cut grass is the most wondrous smell of any). It is most refreshing and rejuvenating to do so. Make time for it!
And, while lying there, just for fun or a moment of profundity, ponder the aforementioned words about celebrating yourself, about celebrating life, and about the fascinating possibility that death really may be luckier than we suppose! And how we are all immortals, whether we know it or not.