In the 1840s and 1850s, Walt Whitman was reading about and absorbing the latest advances in the sciences and learning how to turn them into poetry: “Hurrah for positive science!,” he wrote in the 1855 poem that would later be called “Song of Myself,” where he then directly addressed scientists: “Your facts are useful, and yet they are not my dwelling, / I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling.” One of the sciences that most fascinated him was chemistry, and in an 1847 review of a new book on organic chemistry by Justus Liebig, he celebrated the new revelations that the book opened up to him: “Chemistry! the elevating, beautiful study! which only the vulgar think technical, because they have not delved into its capacious recesses. Chemistry—that involves the essences of creation, and the changes, and the growths, and formations and decays, of so large a constituent part of the earth, and the things thereof!” So, in 1856, five years before the Civil War broke out, in his second edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman published a poem about chemistry, based on the facts he had read. He entered through those facts into the realm of poetic truth—a realization that nonstop change, growth, formation, and decay are the “essence of creation.” The poem was called “Poem of Wonder at The Resurrection of the Wheat,” later titled “This Compost,” and at the heart of it was the same wondrous exclamation he had made when he read Liebig’s book: “What chemistry!”
In this poem, Whitman most clearly expresses his central faith: Spirituality as a compost heap. The soul as endlessly recycling material. Every atom belonging to you as good belonging to me. These spinning atoms that make up each of us were here at the origin of the cosmos and will be here as long as matter exists. Our bodies are a momentary construction of eternal stardust, a continually altering constellation of atoms that, for a period of time, embody Life, then disperse and become the elements of new life. In “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up,” as we have seen, Whitman evokes the same composting faith, the same “Nature’s chemistry distill’d,” but now, as nature’s chemistry processes the hundreds of thousands of dead soldiers, it is working overtime, having to compost death back into life on a more massive scale than ever before. It’s an ecological test of Nature’s chemical powers, to create food to nurture the nation’s future out of the hundreds of thousands of lost soldiers. Whitman’s Civil War poetry and the poetry he wrote after the war literally embody that absence, as we shall see.
After the war, Whitman incessantly revised Leaves of Grass, working to absorb the poetry of division and loss into what had before the war been a book emphasizing unity and endless expansion. He would sew unbound sheets of Drum-Taps into his 1867 edition and then, in succeeding editions, would reorganize and revise poems, scattering the war poetry throughout Leaves and bleeding it into every aspect of the book. Sometimes he made major changes to his early poetry; other times the changes could be quite minor. One change he made in 1867 was to rename “Poem of Wonder at The Resurrection of the Wheat”: the new title, “This Compost,” pointed not only to the world around us, where nature was forever breaking down dead material to turn it into the elements for new life, but also focused our attention on this compost, this poem, the very thing we are reading, which is, after all, a composition (from the identical roots as compost: to put together). This poem, like all poems, is made up of elements, words, that have been used in an endless number of other poems by other poets, but language—like plants and animals—is continually being broken down again into its elements, out of which new compositions grow (the dictionary, for Whitman, was the ultimate linguistic compost heap, where everything ever written in the language existed, broken down again into its constituent parts).
In 1871, Whitman made another seemingly small alteration to this poem: he added to his catalog of all the burgeoning life springing and bursting and piercing upward out of the soil (which is the compost of death) a single quick image, only half a line long—“the lilacs bloom in the dooryards.” Here, by bringing in just a tiny fragment of his Civil War elegy on the death of Abraham Lincoln, Whitman invites into this poem all of the massive death from the war. “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” mourned not only the death of Lincoln, but opened itself up to all the “battle-corpses, myriads of them . . . the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war.” His pre-war poem, then, begins in the years after the war to take part in the somber celebration of the remarkable ability of “nature’s chemistry” to turn the mass death into the nutriment for America’s future, a future that would have to be made—as all futures are—out of the dead.
SOMETHING startles me where I thought I
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip my clothes from my body to meet
my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other
flesh, to renew me.
How can the ground not sicken of men?
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs,
roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distempered
corpses in the earth?
Is not every continent worked over and over with
Where have you disposed of those carcasses of
the drunkards and gluttons of so many gen-
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and
I do not see any of it upon you today—or per-
haps I am deceived,
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press
my spade through the sod, and turn it up
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.
This is the compost of billions of premature
Perhaps every mite has once formed part of a
The grass covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale
visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while
the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatched
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is
dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato's
dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk;
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful
above all those strata of sour dead.
That the winds are really not infectious!
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash
of the sea, which is so amorous after me!
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked
body all over with its tongues!
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that
have deposited themselves in it!
That all is clean, forever and forever!
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good!
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy!
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the
orange-orchard—that melons, grapes, peaches,
plums, will none of them poison me!
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch
Though probably every spear of grass rises out
of what was once a catching disease.
Now I am terrified at the earth! it is that calm
It grows such sweet things out of such corrup-
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with
such endless successions of diseased corpses,
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal,
annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts
such leavings from them at last.
Whitman’s interest in chemistry, a branch of the physical sciences rooted in the philosopher’s quest to understand the nature of the universe and the alchemist’s dream of turning base materials into gold, provided him not only with imagery and ideas but also a method for distilling into versets his vision of the cosmos—a cosmos, centered on the individual self, which in one form or another has existed from time immemorial, descends into the depths of the sea, and reaches beyond the most distant stars, now and in the future, each recombination of words—“the resurrection of the wheat,” “the tinge awakes”—reinvigorating the language, inspiring insights about the nature of our journey from the cradle to the grave. His meditation on the mutability of matter thus depends upon an extravagant mixing of elements drawn from literature, philosophy, and science, which serves to change all things into “divine materials.” And the constant regeneration of nature, which seems to ceaselessly transform death into life, furnished evidence for Whitman’s hypothesis that the end of one life marks the beginning of another.
The carnage of the Civil War tested his hypothesis almost to the breaking point. And it is fascinating to observe his grasp of this long before the first shots were fired, in the poem that came to be titled “This Compost.” What startles him in the opening line? The sound of a snapping twig? A voice? A shadow? Whatever the cause may be, he knows that he has entered a death-haunted landscape—which is no different than any place on earth. For the “sour dead” are everywhere, and so he calls out the “growths of spring,” anguished by the sudden realization that if he were to plough a furrow here he would surely turn up corpses. In sickness lie the seeds of health as surely as decomposing flesh delivers nutrients for the living. This is our common inheritance.
Then white space and an imperative: Behold! What the poet beholds is the miracle of life, the cataloging of which leads him to see the world anew, enacting the very kind of transformation that proceeds from a chemical reaction. In this new compound, which is made up of poetry and chemistry alike, “all is clean, forever and forever!” For this change of perspective is nothing more, and nothing less, than a model for the exchange of atoms that marks all of life and death, which Whitman would become intimate with during his wartime vigils.
“The whole earth is our hospital,” T. S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, the publication of which sustained Londoners during the German Blitz in World War II, and that is why he believed that “speech impels us/ To purify the dialect of the tribe.” But it was Whitman who first purified the dialect of a nation torn asunder by civil war, demonstrating why poetry is the right medium for distilling “exquisite winds out of such infused fetor.” What chemistry!
What kind of impact do Whitman’s “compost” ideas have on you? Do they make you feel larger or smaller, more important or less important, more connected to the earth or less connected, more or less a part of eternity? Or do they do both, and, if so, how?
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