A mouse is miracle enough

 
 
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Draft in Earliest NotebookI am the poet of little things…
Of each gnat in the air, and of
     beetles rolling balls of dung,
Afar in the sky was a nest
And my soul flew thither, and 
     squat, and looked out,
And saw the journeywork of
     suns and systems of suns,
And that a leaf of grass is
     not less than they
And that the pismire is equally 
     perfect, and all grains of 
     sand, and every egg of the
     wren …
And the cow crunching with 
     depressed neck surpasses every 
     statue,
And pictures great and small crowd the rail-fence, and hang on its
     heaped stones and elder and poke-weed.
I am the poet of Equality.
 
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger trillions of infidels.

Neither the gnat nor the beetles made the final cut, at least within these two verses, while the poke-weed, the elder and the stones sprung up on pages before and after. But the mouse who could stagger a million million infidels remained here it seems in every single draft. These were the earliest extant scribblings of lines that appear in Leaves of Grass, America’s most famous poem by America’s most influential poet.

“Song of Myself,” originally untitled, was Walt Whitman’s propulsive meditation, an extension of who he was as the country’s idealized self. In an undated notebook prior to 1855 the power of nature over art, revealed in the small and the humble and the oft neglected, that Walt Whitman felt was unwavering as evinced in the revisions he made to the work; the mouse was not just able to stagger a handful of non-believers but trillions of them, and in the published poem this tiny creature would go on to astound more than sextillion.

Whitman was, according to scholars, a constant tinkerer of every single word, every single image; he scrambled the lines, “substantively” we’re told, as if they were leaves of grass blown by the wind—so much so that even as Leaves of Grass was being typeset in 1855, he was making last minute changes.[1] Between 1855 and 1881 he revised Leaves of Grass over and over; the Civil War too transformed his thoughts about purpose as a writer and transformed his book, which ultimately resulted in six consecutively thicker editions.

This, his final version, which do you prefer?

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels

 

.


[1] Kenneth Price, Ed Folsom, Re-Scripting Walt Whitman: An Introduction to His Life and Work, Wiley, 2005.

Additional sources: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: His Original Edition, with an Introduction by Malcolm Cowley, ed., Penguin, 1976; The Walt Whitman Archive.

(Image: Page 83 of Notebook #80, Library of Congress, reprinted for non-commercial use from the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Fall 2002.)


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