The Cosmology Of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Ernest Boehm
18 min readMar 20, 2023

2023 The Year of Song and Verse №5

Editions of Leaves of Grass 1855–1892

For Mic Mars

Walt Wittman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son.

Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding.

Song of Myself , Stanza 24

As the attributes of the poets of the kosmos concentre in the real body and soul and in the pleasure of things they possess the superiority of genuineness over all fiction and romance.

Preface 1855 — Leaves of Grass

Walt Wittman prose and poetry has a poetic cosmology, his cosmology is as important to his poetry as Homer’s, and Hesiod's cosmology are to their epic poems. I found I had to look at this cosmology and understand it to progress through the Song of Myself. The poem is not a comprehensive narrative but often exploring Whitman’s

Whitman’s has several operating levels in his cosmology. These levels are juxtaposed and adjacent, and not hierarchal or encompassing. One aspect of his cosmology does on absorb another layer accept in one singular way, the cosmos of self integrates these contrasting levels of cosmology . In his poetry he uses these equally balanced and contrasting. These komoses function somewhat independent of each other, they are a of poetic, contradictory and used in opposition to each other. They are often presented as thesis and antithesis looking for a poetic Hegelian synthesis.

KOSMOS — Wittman’s Kosmos is encompass enormity of the universe, it contains Homer’s and Hesiod’s as well as a deist / agnostic of his days scientific materialism . He uses this to communicate grandeur of all, it is the awe Richard Dawkin’s talk of awe in of scientific about cosmology mixed with the heavens filled with wonder, myth and unknow of the of Christian and Greeks. He accepts materialism but thinks it is rather overly factual, he appreciates the work to understand the material but it is no his main driver in understanding the Kosmos. In the Latin this is the catholic Omnia (the all).

Hurrah for the positive Science! long live exact demonstration!

This is the lexicographer, this is the chemist, this made of a grammar of the old cartouches.

This is the geologist this is the work with the scalpel, and this is a mathematician.

Gentleman, to you the first honors always!

Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling.

I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.

Song of Myself, Stanza 23

NATURAL WORLD — (Very similar to the classical idea of Terra.) This is a kosmos primarily zoological and botanical. Well the idea allows interaction with man but it is not fully his domain, it is often considered pristine, where man crosses in and out this cosmos. It has a idea of the primordial soup /earth/ domain leitmotif, filled with potential, both geological and biological. Yet it also has sensation of being fixed in a way outside human hands, or that humanity may not be able to change it much, it has a boundlessness.

Of course the topic of Whitman’s day swirled around evolution and geological time and the age of the planet and the universe. Whitman’s response is to acknowledging this discourse absorbing it and moving past it as if facts are only secondary to understanding and in a way trivial to him.

Note: there is an aspect of the angel with the fiery sword implied at this boundary of the natural keeping humanity a bit separated. Yet the angel is a bit lazy and humans can exist and belong in this realm, this is a realm of wonder to Whitman which over and over again he experiences anew. NB Whitman does not use the language of the biblical angel, his realm of nature has an Eden and the Expulsion expulsive in my opinion but he does not clearly bring this up it is just what comes to my mind in reading the poem

Song of Myself Stanza 14

The wild gander leads his flock through the cool night,

Ya-honk he says, and sounds it down to me like an invitation,

The pert may suppose it meaningless, but I listening close,

Find its purpose and place up there toward the wintry sky.

The sharp-hoof’d moose of the north, the cat on the house-sill, the chickadee, the prairie-dog,

The litter of the grunting sow as they tug at her teats,

The brood of the turkey-hen and she with her half-spread wings,

I see in them and myself the same old law.

The press of my foot to the earth springs a hundred affections,

They scorn the best I can do to relate them.

I am enamour’d of growing out-doors,

Of men that live among cattle or taste of the ocean or woods,

Of the builders and steerers of ships and the wielders of axes and mauls, and the drivers of horses,

I can eat and sleep with them week in and week out.

What is commonest, cheapest, nearest, easiest, is Me,

Me going in for my chances, spending for vast returns,

Adorning myself to bestow myself on the first that will take me,

Not asking the sky to come down to my good will,

Scattering it freely forever.

AMERICA — is a aseparate Kosmos to Whitman. It exist in the wonders and people of states, the paths, highways, turnpikes, waterways, seaways, and riverways. Transit and travel across America and Whitman meeting the populations of states, cities or native tribe are who Whitman wants to meet and visit. He is wants to absorb and be absorbed in this population. He see America as a vastness filled with may smaller unique and distinct population. Yet they are a synthesis of America, like the Kosmos encompassing all nature, America encompasses all Americans from lowest to the highest, yet in Whitman’s ideal all are equal and he absorbs and embraces all as equal to the poet.

He traveles highway, turnpikes pathways, waterways, seaways, and riverways. Transit and travel across America and Whitman meeting the populations of states, cities or native tribe are who Whitman wants to meet and visit. He is wants to absorb and be absorbed in this population. He see America as a vastness filled with may smaller unique and distinct population. Yet they are a synthesis of America, like the Kosmos encompassing all nature, America encompasses all Americans from lowest to the highest, yet in Whitman’s ideal all are equal and he absorbs and embraces all as equal to the poet.

Whitman celebrates evening of tramping through the country, acquiring work and integrating with workmen, he celebrates the food and work of regions and feels he is part of a grand density of the nation. There is a manifest destiny feel but Whitman sees an integration of all Americans and native peoples, he wishes an end of slavery as an extension of liberty, and equality among humanity for the slave.

Starting from the Paumanok Part 14

Whoever you are, to you endless announcements!

Daughter of the lands did you wait for your poet?
Did you wait for one with a flowing mouth and indicative hand?
Toward the male of the States, and toward the female of the States,
Exulting words, words to Democracy’s lands.

Interlink’d, food-yielding lands!
Land of coal and iron! land of gold! land of cotton, sugar, rice!
Land of wheat, beef, pork! land of wool and hemp! land of the apple
and the grape!
Land of the pastoral plains, the grass-fields of the world! land of
those sweet-air’d interminable plateaus!
Land of the herd, the garden, the healthy house of adobie!
Lands where the north-west Columbia winds, and where the south-west
Colorado winds!
Land of the eastern Chesapeake! land of the Delaware!
Land of Ontario, Erie, Huron, Michigan!
Land of the Old Thirteen! Massachusetts land! land of Vermont and
Connecticut!
Land of the ocean shores! land of sierras and peaks!
Land of boatmen and sailors! fishermen’s land!
Inextricable lands! the clutch’d together! the passionate ones!
The side by side! the elder and younger brothers! the bony-limb’d!
The great women’s land! the feminine! the experienced sisters and
the inexperienced sisters!
Far breath’d land! Arctic braced! Mexican breez’d! the diverse! the
compact!
The Pennsylvanian! the Virginian! the double Carolinian!
O all and each well-loved by me! my intrepid nations! O I at any
rate include you all with perfect love!
I cannot be discharged from you! not from one any sooner than another!
O death! O for all that, I am yet of you unseen this hour with
irrepressible love,
Walking New England, a friend, a traveler,
Splashing my bare feet in the edge of the summer ripples on
Paumanok’s sands,
Crossing the prairies, dwelling again in Chicago, dwelling in every town,
Observing shows, births, improvements, structures, arts,
Listening to orators and oratresses in public halls,
Of and through the States as during life, each man and woman my neighbor,
The Louisianian, the Georgian, as near to me, and I as near to him and her,
The Mississippian and Arkansian yet with me, and I yet with any of them,
Yet upon the plains west of the spinal river, yet in my house of adobie,
Yet returning eastward, yet in the Seaside State or in Maryland,
Yet Kanadian cheerily braving the winter, the snow and ice welcome to me,
Yet a true son either of Maine or of the Granite State, or the
Narragansett Bay State, or the Empire State,
Yet sailing to other shores to annex the same, yet welcoming every
new brother,
Hereby applying these leaves to the new ones from the hour they
unite with the old ones,
Coming among the new ones myself to be their companion and equal,
coming personally to you now,
Enjoining you to acts, characters, spectacles, with me.

HUMANITY & THE UNIVERSAL LAW OF EQUALITY & THE (Meta) PHYSICS OF LIBERTY - Whitman is much more concerned with the metaphysical than materialistic physics. Humanity and how he should interact with humanity is significant to Whitman. Whitman sees humanity as a synthesis of diverse individuals into a unified humanity. This unification for Whitman come internally within the poet himself. This synthesis is not just for the elite and the erudite, but for the weak, the dyeing, the wicked, the slave, the beggar, the venerial , the whore and those who have lost in every way possible.

From Song of My Self 34

The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets,

All these I feel or am.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn’d with the ooze of my skin,

I fall on the weeds and stones,

The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,

Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.

Agonies are one of my changes of garments,

I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,

My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

While he implies a self Christ like role of taking on and sharing this suffering of others, of being crucified he wishes to be only one of the resurrected, he only wish all would accept the those laid low by the world as our own. He implies he has been tried with the wicked and criminal and has taken on crimes not his own. I have my doubts and question of how Christ-like Whitman is vs what he aspires to be, yet he works out a model of perfect empathy which today has been abandoned to a politic of the impossibility of empathy and comprehension of others. Whitman has been record in his work as a nurse in the civil war where he was pushed to his breaking point, he was a man of great humanity and did his best to comprehend his fellows.

Song of My Self 37

You laggards there on guard! look to your arms!

In at the conquer’d doors they crowd! I am possess’d!

Embody all presences outlaw’d or suffering,

See myself in prison shaped like another man,

And feel the dull unintermitted pain.

For me the keepers of convicts shoulder their carbines and keep watch,

It is I let out in the morning and barr’d at night.

Not a mutineer walks handcuff’d to jail but I am handcuff’d to him and walk by his side,

(I am less the jolly one there, and more the silent one with sweat on my twitching lips.)

Not a youngster is taken for larceny but I go up too, and am tried and sentenced.

Not a cholera patient lies at the last gasp but I also lie at the last gasp,

My face is ash-color’d, my sinews gnarl, away from me people retreat.

Askers embody themselves in me and I am embodied in them,

I project my hat, sit shame-faced, and beg.

Central to his idea of humanity is his idea of liberty as a near phyiscal reality, part of the frame work of humanity. Countless times Whitman expounds on the materialistic science and its power and wonder yet this physics pails to the reality of liberty to Whitman, Liberty is a physical force an active entity that if the smallest trace is left in existence will in time manifest itself in humanity. Below from the 1855 Preface Whitman expounds himself on the his ideal of liberty.

Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling.

I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.

Song of Myself, Stanza 23

From Preface 1855 -Leaves of Grass

In the make of the great masters the idea of political liberty is indispensible. Liberty takes the adherence of heroes wherever men and women exist. . . . but never takes any adherence or welcome from the rest more than from poets. They are the voice and exposition of liberty. They out of ages are worthy the grand idea. . . . to them it is confided and they must sustain it. Nothing has precedence of it and nothing can warp or degrade it. The attitude of great poets is to cheer up slaves and horrify despots. The turn of their necks, the sound of their feet, the motions of their wrists, are full of hazard to the one and hope to the other. Come nigh them awhile and though they neither speak or advise you shall learn the faithful American lesson. Liberty is poorly served by men whose good intent is quelled from one failure or two failures or any number of failures, or from the casual indifference or ingratitude of the people, or from the sharp show of the tushes of power, or the bringing to bear soldiers and cannon or any penal statutes. Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light, is positive and composed, and knows no discouragement. The battle rages with many a loud alarm and frequent advance and retreat. . . . the enemy triumphs. . . . the prison, the handcuffs, the iron necklace and anklet, the scaffold, garrote and leadballs do their work. . . . the cause is asleep. . . . the strong throats are choked with their own blood. . . . the young men drop their eyelashes toward the ground when they pass each other. . . . and is liberty gone out of that place? No never. When liberty goes it is not the first to go nor the second or third to go. . . . it waits for all the rest to go. . . . it is the last. . . . When the memories of the old martyrs are faded utterly away . . . when the large names of patriots are laughed at in the public halls from the lips of the orators . . . when the boys are no more christened after the same but christened after tyrants and traitors instead . . . when the laws of the free are grudgingly permitted and laws for informers and bloodmoney are sweet to the taste of the people . . . when I and you walk abroad upon the earth stung with compassion at the sight of numberless brothers answering our equal friendship and caffing no man master — and when we are elated with noble joy at the sight of slaves . . . when the soul retires in the cool communion of the night and surveys its experience and has much extasy over the word and deed that put back a helpless innocent person into the gripe of the gripers or into any cruel inferiority . . . when those in all parts of these states who could easier realize the true American character but do not yet — when the swarms of cringers, suckers, doughfaces, lice of politics, planners of sly involutions for their own preferment to city offices or state legislatures or the judiciary or congress or the presidency, obtain a response of love and natural deference from the people whether they get the offices or no . . . when it is better to be a bound booby and rogue in office at a high salary than the poorest free mechanic or farmer with his hat unmoved from his head and firm eyes and a candid and generous heart . . . and when servility by town or state or the federal government or any oppression on a large scale or small scale can be tried on without its own punishment following duly after in exact proportion against the smallest chance of escape . . . or rather when all life and all the souls of men and women are discharged from any part of the earth — then only shall the instinct of liberty be discharged from that part of the earth.

THE TEMPORAL & THE ETERNAL ULTIMATE NOW

Whitman believes the present is what matters he sees the present as an eternal now, he sees the present as ultimate and free of the past, filled with this Kosmos, humanity and self. It is potent and vibrant filled with good and evil, Whitman embraces the all of now. He is not looking out into the future or dwelling in the past, the right of now he celebrates, the wronged and down trodden of the the present he embraces, he desires to right the wrongs of the now.

Song of Myself 46

I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)

DEATH

In stanza 49, Whitman outlines an bucolic death, elegiac and an idol of man returning to nature. When I read this I had great pause as I had a hard time believing Whitman would believe this. Yet as we move on Whitman gives us the most famous line of the poem

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

What is this grand contradiction Whitman wants a moment more with us, this grand organic recycling death can wait for us to have a moment. He waits for us at the door, he wants us to speak before he leaves, yet he knows it is late maybe too late. I see these few lines as the finest achievement of the poetic. In the contradiction of the poetic ideal to the human longing of the poet.

(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

From Song of Myself

49

And as to you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me.

To his work without flinching the accoucheur comes,
I see the elder-hand pressing receiving supporting,
I recline by the sills of the exquisite flexible doors,
And mark the outlet, and mark the relief and escape.

And as to you Corpse I think you are good manure, but that does not offend me,
I smell the white roses sweet-scented and growing,
I reach to the leafy lips, I reach to the polish’d breasts of melons.

And as to you Life I reckon you are the leavings of many deaths,
(No doubt I have died myself ten thousand times before.)

I hear you whispering there O stars of heaven,
O suns — O grass of graves — O perpetual transfers and promotions,
If you do not say any thing how can I say any thing?

Of the turbid pool that lies in the autumn forest,
Of the moon that descends the steeps of the soughing twilight,
Toss, sparkles of day and dusk — toss on the black stems that decay in the muck,
Toss to the moaning gibberish of the dry limbs.

I ascend from the moon, I ascend from the night,
I perceive that the ghastly glimmer is noonday sunbeams reflected,
And debouch to the steady and central from the offspring great or small.

50

There is that in me — I do not know what it is — but I know it is in me.

Wrench’d and sweaty — calm and cool then my body becomes,
I sleep — I sleep long.

I do not know it — it is without name — it is a word unsaid,
It is not in any dictionary, utterance, symbol.

Something it swings on more than the earth I swing on,
To it the creation is the friend whose embracing awakes me.

Perhaps I might tell more. Outlines! I plead for my brothers and sisters.

Do you see O my brothers and sisters?
It is not chaos or death — it is form, union, plan — it is eternal life — it is Happiness.

51

The past and present wilt — I have fill’d them, emptied them.
And proceed to fill my next fold of the future.

Listener up there! what have you to confide to me?
Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening,
(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

I concentrate toward them that are nigh, I wait on the door-slab.

Who has done his day’s work? who will soonest be through with his supper?
Who wishes to walk with me?

Will you speak before I am gone? will you prove already too late?

Yet death will come to the poet, and he can only loiter so long before the spotted hawk (Whitman’s Horus) complains of his loitering. This is Whitman’s true reconciliation with death it is of the legacy of his barbaric yawp that will sound the roof of the world. He tells us he will be vapor, air, but to look for him in the firm solid earth among the grass he loves.

He leaves us with his blessing and company.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

52

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,
It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

THE POET & THE SELF —

From Preface 1855 -Leaves of Grass

The greatest poet hardly knows pettiness or triviality. If he breathes into any thing that was before thought small it dilates with the grandeur and life of the universe. He is a seer. . . . he is individual . . . he is complete in himself. . . . the others are as good as he, only he sees it and they do not. He is not one of the chorus. . . . he does not stop for any regulation . . . he is the president of regulation. What the eyesight does to the rest he does to the rest. Who knows the curious mystery of the eyesight? The other senses corroborate themselves, but this is removed from any proof but its own and foreruns the identities of the spiritual world. A single glance of it mocks all the investigations of man and all the instruments and books of the earth and all reasoning. What is marvellous? what is unlikely? what is impossible or baseless or vague? after you have once just opened the space of a peachpit and given audience to far and near and to the sunset and had all things enter with electric swiftness softly and duly without confusion or jostling or jam.

The Kosmos of Whitman is diverse yet Whitman aims of a synthesis in himself as the poet. He is empathetic with the Kosmos writ large, Nature, America, Humanity, Liberty, Time, Death and us the reader. This is a personal synthesis he shares with us. In the poem Whitman juxtaposes his Kosmoses against each other as a poetic device, to make us see that each aspect of these entities have equal value to him, to show us that they are part of a whole that resides with in him.

I think this is personal for Whitman, and that he wants us all to sing our own song and achieve our own synthesis. It is not an example of how but the demonstration of the possibility of our own song through his.

Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

You are also asking me questions and I hear you,
I answer that I cannot answer, you must find out for yourself.

Song of Myself 46

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