This Is What You Shall Do

“This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.”

—“Preface” to Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

On July 4, 1855, Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass. This first edition consisted of 12 poems and was published anonymously. It contained a preface, which Whitman left out of subsequent editions. Whitman set much of the type himself and paid for its printing. Over his lifetime, he published eight more editions, adding poems each time. He was continually revising Leaves of Grass. There were 122 new poems in the third edition alone (1860-61), and the final “death-bed edition,” published in 1891, contained almost 400. The first edition received several glowing — and anonymous — reviews in New York newspapers. Whitman wrote most of the reviews himself. The praise was generous: “An American bard at last!” One legitimate mention by popular columnist Fanny Fern called the collection daring and fresh. Praise for the work was not universal, however. Many called it filth, and poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy into the fire. Writing in The Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson said of Whitman’s book: “It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.”

Leaves of Grass has its genesis in an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson called “The Poet” (1844), which expressed the need for the United States to have its own new and unique poet to write about the new country’s virtues and vices. Reading the essay, Whitman consciously set out to answer Emerson’s call as he began working on the first edition of Leaves of Grass. However, Whitman downplayed Emerson’s influence, stating, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” Whitman sent a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass to Emerson. In a letter to Whitman, Emerson wrote, “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” He went on, “I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy.” Emerson’s positive response to the first edition inspired Whitman to quickly produce a much-expanded second edition in 1856, which saw the book grow from a meager 95 pages to 384 pages with a cover price of a dollar. This edition included a phrase from Emerson’s letter, printed in gold leaf on the spine of the book, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. R.W. Emerson.” Emerson later took offense that this letter was made public without his permission and became more critical of the work. Emerson once said, “Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” Whitman certainly had ambition, and Emerson should have recognized his own advice in Whiteman’s use of Emerson’s quote on the second edition’s spine.

While Whitman is not my favorite American poet, I am a great admirer of Emerson. The 1841 essay “Self-Reliance” by Emerson is one of my favorite literary works. It contains the most comprehensive statement of one of Emerson’s recurrent themes: the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency and follow your instincts and ideas. It is the source of one of Emerson’s most famous quotes: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” Emerson emphasizes the importance of individualism and its effect on an individual’s satisfaction in life. He stresses that anyone is capable of achieving happiness, simply if they change their mindset. Emerson focuses on seemingly insignificant details explaining how life is “learning and forgetting and learning again.” 

I think Emerson’s influence on Whitman is apparent in that Whitman often lived his life in his way. As a humanist, Whitman was a part of the transition between transcendentalism (Emerson) and realism (Mark Twain), incorporating both views in his works. Whitman is among the most influential poets in the American canon, often called the father of free verse. His work was controversial in its time, particularly Leaves of Grass, which was described as obscene for its overt sensuality. Whitman’s own life came under scrutiny for his presumed homosexuality. Yet, Whitman became one of America’s most influential poets. Critics have called him the first “poet of democracy” in the United States, a title meant to reflect his ability to write in a singularly American character. Whitman also believed in his own greatness and considered himself a messiah-like figure in poetry. Whitman became one of America’s most influential poets.

Pic of the Day

I Just Don’t Know

I had to go into the museum yesterday to give a virtual tour of the current exhibit. While I was there, I had an idea for what I wanted to write about in today’s post. Then I got distracted, as I often when I am at the museum, and when I finally had time to sit down and write my post for today, I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I wanted to write about. It was completely lost. It’s like when you walk into a room, and thou think, “Why the hell did I come in here?” Last night as I wrote this, I thought, “What the hell was I going to write about?” Just like when you forget what you walked into a room for, sometimes it comes back to you, then other times it’s lost in the ether. I still don’t know what I wanted to write about. Maybe it will come to me today, and I can write about it for tomorrow’s post, but for now, I just don’t know what it was.

By the way, I added an answer key to yesterday’s post question about if any of you could spot the Star Trek ornaments. I don’t think anyone could see them, or if they did, they didn’t comment. So, I added an answer key.

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O Christmas Tree 🎄

O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree
How lovely are thy branches…

…or so the song goes. I decided to take the advice of Patrick, VRC-Do You!, and Chris and put up some small Christmas decorations. I got a small artificial tree. I tried a real tree a few years ago. A real tree is just too messy, and Isabella kept trying to eat it. If I could get a tree made out of catnip, she’d leave it alone. She seems to hate catnip. Anyway, I got a three-foot tree that I put on a little table near my dining room window, well it would be the dining room if I ever actually bought a dining room table. By the time I got ready to buy a table and chairs, the pandemic began, and all the secondhand stores were closed. In essence, I decorated my living room and dining room with a few decorations. It’s not much, but I am not going to put too much effort into decorating just for me and Isabella. I did not get a poinsettia; they are poisonous to cats. I could have gotten a fake one, but I’ve never liked them. Back when I taught, one of the parents used to give me a huge poinsettia every Christmas. All they ever did was die and get ugly. So, a few artificial decorations will suffice. I did put a wreath on the door.

By the way, there are four Star Trek elements on and around the tree. Can you spot them in the picture below? I couldn’t resist hanging a few of my Hallmark Star Trek ornaments on the tree. I’ve been collecting them for years, but at the moment, I can’t remember where the others are, or you’d see more on the tree. I think my other ornaments are in Alabama.

While this Christmas will be a bit different, I hope we all have a wonderful holiday season.

Click below to see the answer to the above question.

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By W. H. Auden – 1907-1973

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Certainty, fidelity
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.

Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

W. H. Auden’s “Lullaby” is an example of a love poem, but there are several things worth noting about it. A lullaby is, of course, a song sung to soothe someone to sleep, especially a baby or young child. Immediately, in that famous opening line (“Lay your sleeping head, my love …”), Auden challenges our expectations of the lullaby: the person he addresses is a lover rather than a child, and he is addressing him while he is already asleep. Auden was a gay man when being gay was still criminalized in Britain, and the person Auden is addressing is another man. When Auden wrote “Lullaby,” he was trying to seduce the composer Benjamin Britten (who was also gay). Auden and Britten collaborated on several projects together, although it seems probable that Auden never managed to effect a partnership with Britten on a romantic plane. 

Whether or not Britten was the intended recipient, Auden challenges some of the conventions of a love poem in “Lullaby.” In that second line, He describes himself as “faithless,” suggesting he is someone who has lost faith in “love” as an idea but is nevertheless committed to living in this moment with his beloved. “Faithless” summons its opposite, “faithful,” which is confirmed when the poet says that both certainty and “fidelity” disappear at “the stroke of midnight.” This line suggests this might only be a casual fling between two lovers, but a fling whose passions are being intensely felt at the moment in time that the poem relates to us.

In the first stanza, Auden addresses his lover as he sleeps with his head on Auden’s arm. Auden knows that beauty is fleeting: time and illness destroy the beauty of youth, and death soon arrives to prove that the young are not young (“the child”) for long. Our life span is soon over. But what matters is the here and now. Auden then addresses someone else, a higher power, and asks that this “living creature” be allowed to remain in his arms until morning. Auden is aware that the “creature” he loves is but a mere mortal. His lover is not perfect but is “guilty’ of man’s sins and moral flaws. However, to him, his lover is beautiful.

In the second stanza, Auden turns to more supernatural and divine ideas of love. The syntax and punctuation are more complex here, but Auden is saying that lovers who lie upon the “slope” or hill of Venus are sent a “grave” vision by the goddess, who is a vision of “universal” love. Auden uses the word “grave” because it is deeply felt and deeply serious. For the poet, love is one of the most essential things in our lives. Even the “hermit,” living alone and cut off from society, is affected by love: the “glaciers” and “rocks” of his stone-cold heart can also be thawed and warmed by love’s power.

In the third stanza, Auden continues to elevate “this night” as significant and filled with meaning for him. Certainty and fidelity are both fleeting and pass like the tolling of a bell. Auden knows that everything that has to be paid will be paid. But what matters is this night, and he wants to set to memory every moment of it. The reference to the “pedantic boring cry” of “fashionable madmen” is not fully understood but is probably, given the poem’s 1930s context, an allusion to Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and other political leaders. In ‘The poem, “September 1, 1939,” Auden refers to Hitler as a “psychopathic god.” There’s also possibly a recollection of John Donne’s poem “The Sun Rising,” which begins with Donne lying in bed with his lover at the “break of day” and reprimanding the sun as a “saucy pedantic wretch” for shining through the curtains and telling him and his lover they have to get up.

In the final stanza of “Lullaby,” Auden continues the sentiment seen in the previous stanza in which all things must pass. He picks up on three things already explicitly mentioned: the “beauty” of his lover, the “stroke of midnight,” and the “vision” that Venus sends to lovers lying in post-coital bliss on her ancient hill. If morning must come—as he knows it must—Auden asks that it at least be the dawn of a day which offers hope and blessing to the two lovers. The poem is hopeful, but throughout, Auden remains aware of the fragility and impermanence of all human relationships. A person we care for deeply can be taken from us at any moment.

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My Birthday

I turn 43 today. Having a birthday during a pandemic, especially when there is a surge of cases in your state, means there won’t be any celebrating with friends this year. I won’t be going out for drinks or dinner with friends, but I may go on my own to a restaurant called The Wayside. The restaurant was opened in 1918 and is a legend in central Vermont. Their breakfast is out of this world good, especially the pancakes, even if they do serve it with maple syrup. In my opinion, maple syrup isn’t thick enough to stand up to pancakes. It just makes pancakes soggy. The restaurant also had some pretty good food for lunch and dinner. It’s a roadside diner, but it has good food. Today will be a pretty nasty, rainy weather day, so if I go, I will get up and most likely go for breakfast. We’ll see what my mood is when I wake up.

Honestly, it doesn’t feel like there is much to be celebrating right now. At least Joe Biden won the election, and the Trump administration is beginning to cooperate with the transition. However, we still have about seven weeks until the inauguration, and I am afraid Trump can do a lot of damage (out of spite) between now and then. He’s already done tremendous damage over the last four years. But this is not a political post; this is a birthday post.

I don’t plan to have a cake. I rarely have birthday cake anyway. Last year, I had crème brûlée for dessert. Crème brûlée is my favorite dessert, and I’d rather have it than cake anyway. I could get crème brûlée from J. Morgan’s Steakhouse, but that place is so expensive, even the dessert would cost an arm and a leg. I also don’t even know if they are open for indoor dining. I will probably just stay at home and do a lot of nothing today. However, if I was going to have a cake, the cake below is the one I’d request. It looks yummy, LOL.

Pic of the Day