The Puzzle We Call Being: Walt Whitman on Listening to the Song of Existence, Animate
BY MARIA POPOVA
“Every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other,”the great naturalist John Muir wrote as he contemplated the interconnectedness of the universe not long after Walt Whitman issued his timeless, exquisite reminder that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” And yet, Muir recognized, “the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself.” To hear the song of existence — ours, or another, or the entire symphony of being — is the supreme task of life. But how do we listen to that song when it is drowned out by the ceaseless noise of daily distraction, muffled by apathy, or crowded out by a cacophony of demands?
That is what Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) explores with characteristic splendor of sentiment in the twenty-sixth of the fifty-two numbered section of Song of Myself included in the fourth edition of his revolutionary 1855 masterpiece Leaves of Grass (public library | free ebook).
Now I will do nothing but listen, To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it.
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clack of sticks cooking my meals, I hear the sound I love, the sound of the human voice, I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following, Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night, Talkative young ones to those that like them, the loud laugh of work-people at their meals, The angry base of disjointed friendship, the faint tones of the sick, The judge with hands tight to the desk, his pallid lips pronouncing a death-sentence, The heave’e’yo of stevedores unlading ships by the wharves, the refrain of the anchor-lifters, The ring of alarm-bells, the cry of fire, the whirr of swift-streaking engines and hose-carts with premonitory tinkles and color’d lights, The steam-whistle, the solid roll of the train of approaching cars, The slow march play’d at the head of the association marching two and two, (They go to guard some corpse, the flag-tops are draped with black muslin.)
I hear the violoncello, (’tis the young man’s heart’s complaint,) I hear the key’d cornet, it glides quickly in through my ears, It shakes mad-sweet pangs through my belly and breast.
I hear the chorus, it is a grand opera, Ah this indeed is music — this suits me.
A tenor large and fresh as the creation fills me, The orbic flex of his mouth is pouring and filling me full.
I hear the train’d soprano (what work with hers is this?) The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies, It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess’d them, It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick’d by the indolent waves, I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath, Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death, At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles, And that we call Being.