The great American composer Charles Ives set the opening lines of this section to music. Ives was fascinated with the way Whitman asks the most basic questions—“what am I? what are you?”—and complicates those questions by proposing another: “How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?” How do we form ourselves into this “hankering, gross, mystical, nude” body that we inhabit and draw our identity from? Where does this body that seems indistinguishable from the self come from? The answer, of course, is that the body—like everything else that lives—is always an endless process and exchange. Leaves of grass grow from the soil, which is nothing but the debris of death. Cows eat the grass, and the grass becomes the cow. We eat the cow, and the cow becomes us. We die and return to the soil, eventually becoming the soil, and the process goes on and on. It is the ecological dance of life and death. We are, indeed, leaves of grass. We are, indeed, all that we eat, breathe, touch, hear, and see. And our wide-open senses experience a nonstop influx of stimulation: we never run out of things to ingest through the body—the “objects of the universe” always converge on us in a perpetual flow of stimuli, as if the trees, stars, buildings, people, rivers, and animals that we encounter are there just for us to experience. We open our eyes, and sights are there; we open our ears, and sounds are there; we reach out our hand, and things are there to touch. Everything each of us encounters is “written” to each of us alone, and we wonder, always, “what the writing means” (just as when we read this poem, it is the thing we are seeing and hearing, and we wonder what that writing means).
So there is no reason to whimper and snivel and truckle (bend to the will of others), no reason to pray or bow down, because we each exist as we are, and “that is enough.” Our individual body is “august,” a thing to be revered, awe-inspiring for what it can do. There finally is “no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones.” This body of ours will do just fine: it lets the world in, and lets us see that everyone else is finally just like we are—embodied souls absorbing the world. There is no need to covet what others have, for we are all equally “deathless” (precisely because we all equally die and are continuously reborn into the grass again) and impossible to measure. Be content, Whitman says, with the body you are: it has been millions of other things before and will be millions of other things after.
After Whitman’s death, a number of his friends and disciples in Canada named a rock cliff in his honor. They called it “Old Walt” and had a stone engraver carve the final three lines of this section of “Song of Myself” in three-foot-tall letters: “My foothold is tenon’d and mortis’d in granite, / I laugh at what you call dissolution, / And I know the amplitude of time.” Those atoms that make up this thing we call a body have always been there and always will be there; we never dissolve but rather recycle throughout time. Old Walt is still there in granite and here in front of us in print.
“I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, the publication of which coincided with the first edition of Leaves of Grass. “Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” His experience was indeed circumscribed—“I have traveled much in Concord,” he said ironically of his daily rambles in the woods outside Boston—and his orientation toward the world seemed to differ markedly from Whitman’s expansiveness, his urge to embrace the whole of Creation. But were they so different? Each sought universal meaning through the medium of the self, Thoreau gauging his portion of reality largely in nature, Whitman imagining lives far removed from his own: “In all people I see myself,” he writes in this section, “none more and not one a barley-corn less,/ And the good or bad I say of myself I say of them.” What they shared was curiosity, which, coupled with meticulous observation, led them to grasp enduring truths about their respective walks in the sun; what they witnessed and recorded for posterity, the one preferring wilderness to the company of men, the other welcoming everything into his field of vision, are cornerstones of American literature. On his deathbed, when asked if he could sense whether there was in fact an afterlife, Thoreau is reported to have replied, “One world at a time.” For Whitman the afterlife was always here and now, stretching from the origins of the universe into the distant future. Nor did death frighten him, since he believed that more worlds awaited him. “I know the amplitude of time,” he wrote—and this he measured not with coffee spoons but like an astronomer tracking the orbit of a celestial body no one has seen before: the poet who wears his hat indoors and out.
Whitman seems to take joy in encouraging us not only to accept but to celebrate our bodies. Bodies are what we all share and are thus, for Whitman, the very basis of democratic thinking. Do you think that if we actually worshipped our bodies, as Whitman suggests we do, there would be less violence in the world, or is body worship the origin of violence?