During the Civil War the American poet Walt Whitman learned that his brother Frederick, a soldier, had been injured. Whitman made the trek to D.C. to find him, but in the process found something else that would irrevocably change his life. Washington, D.C. greeted Whitman with a variety of tent “hospitals” bearing piles of sawed-off bloody limbs. Inside were tens of thousands of men of all ages and walks of life who were far from home, most were uncertain if they’d ever see home again, and all knew that if they returned, it would not be as the men or boys they were when they left. Most of the soldiers had nothing to their names, were illiterate, and had no way to communicate to their families– not just because they didn’t know how to write, but because they lacked pencils and paper. Frederick, Whitman learned, was okay; these men in front of him, were not.
Moved by the soldiers’ sacrifices, Whitman stayed on D.C. by taking a variety of odd jobs. He spent the majority of his time doing his best to look healthy, clean, and keep his long white beard shining for his visits to the troops. He believed that he, like his poetry created a “new” America, could imbue health and good spirits into the soldiers. But he did more than just look good. He solicited donations for paper, pencils, money, fruit, anything that he could take to the soldiers. He gave soldiers small gifts, knowing the power that having something, anything, can have on a person who has nothing. He served as a scribe by writing letters to their families; he visited; he read to them; he sat quietly with them; and on many occasions silently watched as the blanket was finally pulled over their faces.
Whitman stayed on for two years until his own health began to deteriorate. He saw his unique opportunity to provide help to other’s in need. He understood that it did not take much– just a token– to revive men’s spirits or ease their souls. He did not shy away from his chance to spread hope. Hope, he realized, was not his alone. In his most famous poem, “Song Of Myself” he uses the image of grass to convey hope. A “leaf” of grass is quite small and insignificant, but all of the leaves together cover everything, sprout from those who have come before us, and signal our return to it:
A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?. . . .I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropped,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we
may see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child. . . .the produced babe of the vegetation.
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the
same, I receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them;
It may be you are from old people and from women, and
from offspring taken soon out of their mother’s laps,
And here you are the mother’s laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues!
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for nothing.
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and women,
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring
taken soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
What do you think has become of the women and
They are alive and well somewhere;
The smallest sprouts show 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 ceased the moment life appeared.
All goes onward and outward. . . .and nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and
At the end of his poem, Whitman reminds us that he, too, is part of the grass, and as such, never leaves us. He eternally waits to replenish us, make us new, and give us hope:
I bequeathe 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.
This post is in response to Melanie Crutchfield’s Blog Relay for Hope. Laura from I’d Rather Sit On The Couch passed me the baton, and I’m passing it on to purplemary54 at myelectronicjukebox. Please check out all of these blogs!
Here are the instructions:
Step 1: Write a blog post about hope & publish it on your blog.
Step 2: Invite one (or more!) bloggers to do the same.
Step 3: Link to the person who recruited you (me, in this case) at the top of the post, and the people you’re recruiting at the bottom of the post.
Melanie Crutchfield will gather up little snippets from people who wrote about hope, so make sure you link back to her as the originator of the relay.
Regarding sources used: Most of this springs from my memory of previous grad school studies. If there are any inaccuracies, the fault is all my own. My thoughts on the poem and what it means to me is my own. I did, of course, refer to Leaves of Grass.
(On a silly side note: When I teach Whitman to my students I always end the lesson with, “If you guys see me rolling around on the school lawn, you’ll know I’ve found him!”. )