In this opening declaration, he makes the connection with a specifically American experience, in what we might think of as its most idealised form. Certainly, we can appreciate how compromised idealised beginnings can become. Whitman pursues this interconnection between Nature images and democracy and distinguishes an American sense of Nature that is a counterpoint to the Old World version found in Europe.
No matter how big the vision or sense of interconnection that Whitman pictured and explored, he would return to the individual, and he proposed that the word (and idea of) ‘democracy’ was the “younger brother” of the word ‘Nature’, and all that it conjured and referred to.
The most powerful embodiment of Whitman’s generosity, in its most essential way, finds its fullest expression in the time that he spent in Washington, DC during the American Civil War. He went there in 1862 to care for his wounded brother George, and in the process found himself in the hospitals, where he decided to stay on and work. Again in The Gift, Lewis Hyde eloquently assesses this wartime collision with fate that Whitman experienced, explaining that it “not only touched his sympathy and generosity but gave him a chance to ‘emanate’ – to heal through attention and affection”. Whitman would write letters home, taking dictation from wounded soldiers, and, fascinatingly, he communicates this particular activity in broad terms, deploying a Nature image reference in his poem ‘The Wound-Dresser’: “These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame).”
So, to draw our threads of thought together, it seems true to say that in turning to the work of the ursine, hypersensitive Whitman we might just rekindle a flame that’s been lost in ourselves. Whitman’s words encourage us to be alert to Nature and the interconnectedness of all things, and, in this time of acute division, between those who want to look inward and retreat from the diversity of the world, and those who recognise the value and need to keep those interconnections, Whitman’s work and the example of his life assume new urgency.
Famously, Whitman considered himself “one of the roughs” (to quote the phrase from his poem ‘Leaves of Grass’), and he shows how we can jostle with the crowd but also, as needs be, how important it is for us to disconnect and go to Nature. In his poem ‘Roots and Leaves Themselves Alone’, he contrasts the solitude of Nature with the rough and tumble of the city. It was in Nature that Whitman found a sense of solace and ‘empowerment’ that very much marks him as an inheritor of Thoreau and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The land, the water, the sky and the greater cosmos all constitute Nature: constant and both tangible and numinous. In ‘The Sky – Days and Nights – Happiness’, Whitman fixes reverentially on the comfort he finds in the big blue, writing: “Hast Thou, pellucid, in Thy azure depths, medicine for case like mine?”
James Clarke is a freelance writer and educator. @jasclarkewriter
Papercut artwork by Su Blackwell www.sublackwell.co.uk
Resurgence & Ecologist