James Earl Jones Reads from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”
By Maria Popova
Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) is widely celebrated as the father of free verse, his 1855 poetry collection Leaves of Grass (public library | public domain) enduring as one of the most influential works in the American literary canon. He wrote in the preface to the 1855 edition, which he self-published in a limited edition of about 800 copies and which included the acclaimed fifty-two-section poem “Song of Myself”:
The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.
Indeed, it was “Song of Myself” that best encapsulated the heart of Whitman’s poetic vision and his conviction that the poet and the public are inextricably, symbolically linked. In this exquisite reading from New York’s 92Y, the great James Earl Jones brings his formidable dramatic prowess to sections 6, 7, 17, 18, and 19, breathing explosive new life into Whitman’s timeless verses:
A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any
more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may
see and remark, and say Whose?
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the
Or I guess it is a uniform hieroglyphic,
And it means, Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,
Growing among black folks as among white,
Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I
receive them the same.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.
Tenderly will I use you curling grass,
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon
out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps.
This grass is very dark to be from the white heads of old mothers,
Darker than the colorless beards of old men,
Dark to come from under the faint red roofs of mouths.
O I perceive after all so many uttering tongues,
And I perceive they do not come from the roofs of mouths for
I wish I could translate the hints about the dead young men and
And the hints about old men and mothers, and the offspring taken
soon out of their laps.
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and chil-
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the
end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Has any one supposed it lucky to be born?
I hasten to inform him or her it is just as lucky to die, and I
I pass death with the dying and birth with the new-wash’d babe,
and am not contain’d between my hat and boots,
And peruse manifold objects, no two alike and every one good,
The earth good and the stars good, and their adjuncts all good.
I am not an earth nor an adjunct of an earth,
I am the mate and companion of people, all just as immortal and
fathomless as myself,
(They do not know how immortal, but I know.)
Every kind for itself and its own, for me mine male and female,
For me those that have been boys and that love women,
For me the man that is proud and feels how it stings to be
For me the sweet-heart and the old maid, for me mothers and the
mothers of mothers,
For me lips that have smiled, eyes that have shed tears,
For me children and the begetters of children.
Undrape! you are not guilty to me, nor stale nor discarded,
I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,
And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless, and cannot be
These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they
are not original with me,
If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next
If they are not the riddle and the untying of the riddle they are
If they are not just as close as they are distant they are nothing.
This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This the common air that bathes the globe.
With music strong I come, with my cornets and my drums,
I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for
conquer’d and slain persons.
Have you heard that it was good to gain the day?
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in
which they are won.
I beat and pound for the dead,
I blow through my embouchures my loudest and gayest for them.
Vivas to those who have fail’d!
And to those whose war-vessels sank in the sea!
And to those themselves who sank in the sea!
And to all generals that lost engagements, and all overcome heroes!
And the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes
This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp’d slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.
This is the press of a bashful hand. . . .
Complement Leaves of Grass with this fantastic homage to the cosmos in a mashup of Whitman and NASA.
Published May 31, 2013