As we have seen, one of Whitman’s great accomplishments in “Song of Myself” is to capture in language what it is like to live in a body, to experience the ways our senses absorb the vast multiplicity of the world. Now, in this section, Whitman accomplishes something never before attempted: he captures what it is like to inhabit an evolved body. As he delights in the sights, sounds, aromas, tastes, and touches of the things of the world, he realizes that his human body is not only the result of vast evolutionary changes through eons of time but is part of an ongoing, nonstop process of an endless proliferation of life in an infinite variety of forms. Evolution does not culminate in humans; rather we humans are but one of that vast accumulation of life forms. Humans all begin life as a zygote, a one-celled creature, then grow in some compressed nine-month evolution from that one cell to a small creature with gills and a tail, living immersed in a liquid environment: gestation is a compressed evolution, so at some level every human has experienced life as a single cell, life as an aquatic creature. When we are born, Whitman suggests, we emerge with a human body that has in less than a year retraced evolution, and we “can call any thing back again” when we desire it—all the organic things that we “incorporate,” from moss to fruit to birds and quadrupeds. As science continues to indicate, all life forms derive from the same ancestral single cell, and our body is “stucco’d . . . all over” with the traces of other life forms that have accompanied us on evolution’s journey—our arms are extensions of the same forms that in other creatures emerge as wings, our fingernails and toenails are vestigial claws.
Whitman begins this section with a simple statement of faith, a belief in the miraculous nature of everything from a leaf of grass to a cow “crunching” the grass in a meadow. He knows every leaf of grass is “no less than the journey-work of the stars,” since it is made up of the same atoms that once were packed together with the atoms that form constellations (and that leaf of grass, after all, seen from afar out in the universe, is—like each of us—in fact simply part of a constellation). Observing the way a joint of a finger is more complex than the most intricate machinery, or how the tiny miracle of a mouse, fully appreciated, makes believers of those who might be without faith in the creative power of life, the poet descends and ascends the evolutionary scales, taking an exhilarating imaginative ride up and down evolutionary charts, getting in touch with the myriad of creatures inscribed on and in our body, and loving every one.
Nothing can stop this eternally altering, shifting, evolving material creation, and all the vast violence of the universe’s forming, the “plutonic rocks” hurtling through space, the massive creatures that have come and gone (like the “mastadon” and the dinosaur), the tectonic shifts of the continents, the drying up and reformation of oceans—all of it has been “in vain” if it has tried to undermine the life that inhabits the present moment, because that life is here, and it is here in the form of all of us now inhabiting a body, one that can travel in the imagination with our relatives the buzzards high in the sky, or with the auk in Labrador, or take its rest in the hawk’s or eagle’s aerie. It’s all “in vain” because, as Whitman indicates with this pun, that teeming past is literally in our veins, part of our very blood. We inhabit a form that is inscribed with the life of the world, a form that shapes us to experience the present until our body reforms into other forms that will then experience other presents.
If Wordsworth depicts the growth of the poet’s mind in The Prelude, establishing a model for the workings of the creative intelligence, which has informed artistic practice down to the present, then Whitman addresses in this section its cosmic model, “the journey work of the stars,” which is a grander view of creation. “Evolution is not the rule in Nature, in Politics, or Inventions only, but in Verse,” Whitman wrote—a bold claim borne out by his radical poetics. Indeed he insisted that “Leaves of Grass is evolution—evolution in its most varied, freest, largest sense.” Free verse was for him not only a way of thinking but a spur to innovation—in the language, in the body politic, and in the body itself, “compend of compends,” which incorporates everything from the lowly pismire and plutonic rocks to the razor-billed auk sailing north. The poet always follows.
One spring morning, walking along a beach by the Pacific, under an eroding cliff which from time to time sheds heavy layers of sandstone, my friend recalled seeing a clutch of baby rattlesnakes fall from a fissure a hundred feet above us. Why their den was located in such an exposed place was a mystery to my friend, who not long before had acquired a condominium on top of a cliff farther up the beach. Maybe they liked the view, I joked. Bad luck, she replied, and went on to speculate on what role luck might play in evolution. What good luck, I thought, that in his imagination Whitman kept ascending “to the nest in the fissure of the cliff,” opening himself to the elements and the risks of evolution, physical and spiritual, poetic and political. He believed that American democracy would continue to evolve, along the same line as “Song of Myself,” which he knew contained the seeds of future poems, in every language, as well as fruits and grains, gneiss and esculent roots, sunlight and the sand beneath our feet…
By imagining a body produced by the forces of evolution, Whitman illustrates one way that (as he said in the preface to the 1855 Leaves of Grass) scientists are the “lawgivers of poets.” How is a body that is imagined as an evolved thing different from a body that is imagined as a divinely created thing? Is it possible to imagine an evolved body to have been made in the image of God?