Whitman’s Urban Reverie: A Passionate Ode to the City from the Poet Laureate of Nature
By Maria Popova
New York City is not want for homages and celebrations — the deeply personal, the illustrated, the photographic, the cartographic, even the canine and the feline. But the most beautiful are invariably the poetic.
From the wonderful 1987 collection New York Observed: Artists and Writers Look at the City (public library) — a compendium of lore and perspectives on Gotham dating back to 1650 and featuring such luminaries as Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and dozens more, edited by Barbara Cohen, Seymour Chwast and Steven Heller — comes a succulent love letter to the city from 48-year-old Walt Whitman. Penned in 1867, more than a decade after his iconic Leaves of Grass was published, the short poem compresses in a few lines Whitman’s boundless capacity for exaltation and embodies the “expression of primal joy” that defines his writing.
GIVE ME THE SPLENDID SILENT SUN
Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling,
Give me autumnal fruit ripe and red from the orchard,
Give me a field where the unmow’d grass grows,
Give me an arbor, give me the trellis’d grape,
Give me fresh corn and wheat, give me serene-moving animals teaching
Give me nights perfectly quiet as on high plateaus west of the
Mississippi, and I looking up at the stars,
Give me odorous at sunrise a garden of beautiful flowers where I can
Give me for marriage a sweet-breath’d woman of whom I should never tire,
Give me a perfect child, give me away aside from the noise of the
world a rural domestic life,
Give me to warble spontaneous songs recluse by myself, for my own ears only,
Give me solitude, give me Nature, give me again O Nature your primal
These demanding to have them, (tired with ceaseless excitement, and
rack’d by the war-strife,)
These to procure incessantly asking, rising in cries from my heart,
While yet incessantly asking still I adhere to my city,
Day upon day and year upon year O city, walking your streets,
Where you hold me enchain’d a certain time refusing to give me up,
Yet giving to make me glutted, enrich’d of soul, you give me forever faces;
(O I see what I sought to escape, confronting, reversing my cries,
see my own soul trampling down what it ask’d for.)
Keep your splendid silent sun,
Keep your woods O Nature, and the quiet places by the woods,
Keep your fields of clover and timothy, and your corn-fields and orchards,
Keep the blossoming buckwheat fields where the Ninth-month bees hum;
Give me faces and streets—give me these phantoms incessant and
endless along the trottoirs!
Give me interminable eyes—give me women—give me comrades and
lovers by the thousand!
Let me see new ones every day—let me hold new ones by the hand every day!
Give me such shows—give me the streets of Manhattan!
Give me Broadway, with the soldiers marching—give me the sound of
the trumpets and drums!
(The soldiers in companies or regiments—some starting away, flush’d
Some, their time up, returning with thinn’d ranks, young, yet very
old, worn, marching, noticing nothing;)
Give me the shores and wharves heavy-fringed with black ships!
O such for me! O an intense life, full to repletion and varied!
The life of the theatre, bar-room, huge hotel, for me!
The saloon of the steamer! the crowded excursion for me! the
The dense brigade bound for the war, with high piled military wagons
People, endless, streaming, with strong voices, passions, pageants,
Manhattan streets with their powerful throbs, with beating drums as now,
The endless and noisy chorus, the rustle and clank of muskets, (even
the sight of the wounded,)
Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus!
Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.
Published July 1, 2014