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The entire universe, and a single blade of grass – what do they have in common? According to Walt Whitman, everything. Whitman believed that everything, even down to the smallest blade of grass, is as important and special as everything else, and he shows this through parts of many of his poems. Like the transcendentalist writers and poets that came before him, who believed in the concept of an “oversoul” that connected even the smallest, most insignificant things to everything else, Whitman had deep respect for the “little things” in life and in the world around him, which contributed to the development of his unique worldview and writing style, and this is displayed especially prominently in two of his poems: “Song of Myself and “On the Beach at Night.”
“Song of Myself,” arguably Whitman’s most well-known work, is a collection of scenes that Whitman weaves into a journey of self-discovery and self-identity, while “On the Beach at Night” tells the story of a young girl and her father stargazing on the beach. With these poems and others, Whitman puts forth the idea that even things that might seem insignificant at first are actually important pieces of the very fabric of the world.
Towards the middle of “Song of Myself,” Whitman devotes a section of the poem – Section 31 – to his idea of “equal importance” in nature, writing that:
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars,
And a pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren…
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery…
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.
In these lines, Whitman argues that the smallest, most insignificant things in life – a leaf of grass, a grain of sand, his hand, a mouse – are still miracles of the world on par with the very stars themselves. By comparing small things such as these to things that are typically thought of as grander or more impressive or important, such as machinery, sculptures, and the “parlors of heaven,” Whitman is able to more clearly emphasize his point and his beliefs. Few would typically even consider comparing a mere blackberry to the grand, magnificent parlors of heaven, yet that is exactly what Whitman does in this section of the poem – and that is what gives his words the power to bring his convictions to life for readers.
While this section is the most obvious example of the theme of equal importance in nature, it certainly isn’t the only place that the theme is conveyed in “Song of Myself.” Section 15, near the beginning of the poem, is another section devoted to this theme, though it is more veiled in this section than in the previously discussed one.
Most of this section is devoted to a long, extensive list of ordinary, seemingly unrelated people going about their daily lives:
The carpenter dresses his plank…
Coon-seekers go through the regions of the Red river…
The crew of the fish-smack pack repeated layers of halibut in the hold…
The floor-men are laying the floor, the tinners are tinning the roof, the masons are calling for mortar…
At the end of the section, though, Whitman ties all of these individuals and their lives together, writing that, “…These tend inward to me, and I tend outward to them, And such as it is to be of these more or less I am, And of these one and all I weave the song of myself.” With this, Whitman is putting forth the idea that each these ordinary, “plain” individuals, the working class of the world, plays an essential role in weaving the fabric of society – the “song of myself.” Without these seemingly unimportant, insignificant individuals, Whitman shows readers, the world cannot be what it is.
“On the Beach at Night” takes on a different tone initially from “Song of Myself,” and although it can’t be listed as among Whitman’s better-known poems, it still captures and displays Whitman’s philosophies through its words and stanzas. As opposed to “Song of Myself,” the theme of equal importance isn’t expressed as directly or forthrightly in this poem, but the theme – though masked – is there nonetheless. In the poem, a man and his young daughter are standing on a beach, looking up at the stars and the moon in the night sky.
When clouds obscure the sky and block out the scene, the girl begins to cry, but her father consoles her by revealing that, even though they are not visible, the moon and stars are still there, behind the clouds. In this midst of this, the father tells his daughter, “The great stars and the little ones shall shine out again, they endure…” By making this statement – that the great stars and the little ones will both shine again, that they both are equally important in the sky and in the minds of the man and the girl – Whitman manages to include this theme in the poem in a more veiled and masked way.
Throughout many of Whitman’s works and poems, even beyond only “Song of Myself” and “On the Beach at Night,” one can find hints and traces of his belief in the equal importance and significance of everything in the world. This philosophy greatly influenced Whitman and his writing style, causing him to pay attention to and care deeply about even the small things in his life and in the world around him.
The importance of this theme and idea extends even beyond Whitman, though – with this philosophy in mind, literature can gain new meaning and power, and authors can write with the conviction that every little thing they do is important and can have an impact, even if it’s just on a single day in the life of a single reader. And readers can know that a book, if they allow it to, can mean as much as all the stars in the sky.
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