Whitman’s Joy

Perhaps because we in the upper reaches of the northern hemisphere are finally seeing sunshine for a substantial part of the day, I can’t help recalling Whitman, the last great poet who whole-heartedly affirmed life, in all its aspects, without irony, cynicism or restraint. Spring is no time for Eliot (who thought April the cruelest month, because he was always too old to even remember joy), so best to read aloud a poet who believed in the joy of spring (and who even in his greatest depths of despair could always remember lilacs blooming in the doorway). So here’s a few excerpts from his ode to joy:

From A Song of Joys
by Walt Whitman
(1881-82 ed.)

Know’st thou the excellent joys of youth?
Joys of the dear companions, and of the merry word, and laughing face?
Joys of the glad, light-beaming day, joy of the wide-breath’d games?
Joy of sweet music, joy of the lighted ball-room, and the dancers?
Joy of the friendly, plenteous dinner, strong carouse, and drinking?

 * * *

Yet, O my soul supreme!
Know’st thou the joys of pensive thought?
Joys of the free and lonesome heart, the tender, gloomy heart?
Joy of the solitary walk, the spirit bow’d yet proud, the suffering
and the struggle?
The agonistic throes, the ecstasies, joys of the solemn musings,
day or night?
Joys of the thought of Death, the great spheres Time and Space?
Prophetic joys of better, loftier love’s ideals, the divine wife,
the sweet, eternal, perfect comrade?
Joys all thine own, undying one, joys worthy thee, O soul.

* * *

O while I live to be the ruler of life, not a slave,
To meet life as a powerful conqueror,
No fumes, no ennui, no more complaints or scornful criticisms,
To these proud laws of the air, the water and the ground, proving
my interior soul impregnable,
And nothing exterior shall ever take command of me.

* * *

O to struggle against great odds, to meet enemies undaunted!
To be entirely alone with them, to find how much one can stand!
To look strife, torture, prison, popular odium, face to face!
To mount the scaffold, to advance to the muzzles of guns with
perfect nonchalance!
To be indeed a God!

* * *

O to sail to sea in a ship!
To leave this steady, unendurable land!
To leave the tiresome sameness of the streets, the sidewalks
and the houses;
To leave you O you solid motionless land, and entering a ship,
To sail, and sail, and sail!

* * *

O to have my life henceforth a poem of new joys!
To dance, clap hands, exult, shout, skip, leap, roll on, float on,
To be a sailor of the world, bound for all ports,
A ship itself, (see indeed these sails I spread to the sun and air,)
A swift and swelling ship full of rich words, full of joys.

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  1. Wondrous words – I go back to these often. thank you for reminding me!

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