Patti Smith, late 1980’s
I CELEBRATE myself;
And what I assume you shall assume;
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my Soul;
I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass. 5
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes—the shelves are crowded with perfumes;
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it;
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume—it has no taste of the distillation—it is odorless;
It is for my mouth forever—I am in love with it; 10
I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
Song of Myself (Excerpt)
Ralph Waldo Emerson praised the first edition of Leaves of Grass as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed…. I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” To be precise, the career was already well-launched; only Whitman’s career as America’s “good grey poet” was newly minted. Why “Leaves” of “Grass,” however? A leaf of grass is a stalk, of course; yet in printer’s terms a leaf is also a page in a book. In this sense “Leaves of Grass” are pages in a book about–if we consider it further–the most commonplace plant-life on earth. The grass that Whitman invites us to “loaf” upon with him is stuff that grows everywhere; and while he can, if he wishes, observe “a spear” of that “summer grass,” he also knows it comes in all types and kinds. The “grass” thus becomes his symbol of democracy.
Illustration by Norman Rockwell for The Literary Digest, November 22, 1919
For each new morning with its light,
For rest and shelter of the night,
For health and food,
For love and friends,
For everything Thy goodness sends.
For flowers that bloom about our feet;
For tender grass, so fresh, so sweet;
For song of bird, and hum of bee;
For all things fair we hear or see,
Father in heaven, we thank Thee!
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Photographs by Chema Madoz
“Whoever thou mayest be, beloved stranger, whom I meet here for the first time, avail thyself of this happy hour and of the stillness around us, and above us, and let me tell thee something of the thought which has suddenly risen before me like a star which would fain shed down its rays upon thee and every one, as befits the nature of light. – Fellow man! Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again, – a long minute of time will elapse until all those conditions out of which you were evolved return in the wheel of the cosmic process. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more, and the whole fabric of things which make up your life. This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever. And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one man, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things:- and for mankind this is always the hour of Noon”.
Die fröhliche Wissenschaft (The Gay Science)*
*The book’s title uses a phrase that was well-known at the time. It was derived from a Provençal expression (gai saber) for the technical skill required for poetry-writing that had already been used by Ralph Waldo Emerson and E. S. Dallas and, in inverted form, by Thomas Carlyle in “the dismal science”. The book’s title was first translated into English as The Joyous Wisdom, but The Gay Science has become the common translation since Walter Kaufmann‘s version in the 1960s. Kaufmann cites The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (1955) that lists “The gay science (Provençal gai saber): the art of poetry”.