Today is the Fourth of July: US Independence Day. So here’s one of the most beautiful songs about America: This Land Is Your Land, by Woody Guthrie. Here it is sung by Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen.
I just discovered that the Fourth of July was also the day Walt Whitman published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. Recalling that, the Writer’s Almanac says:
The first edition consisted of 12 poems, and was published anonymously; Whitman set much of the type himself, and paid for its printing. Over his lifetime, he published eight more editions, adding poems each time; there were 122 new poems in the third edition alone (1860-61), and the final “death-bed edition,” published in 1891, contained almost 400 poems. The first edition received several glowing — and anonymous — reviews in New York newspapers. Most of them were written by Whitman himself. The praise was unstinting: “An American bard at last!” One legitimate mention by popular columnist Fanny Fern called the collection daring and fresh. Emerson felt it was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” This wasn’t a universal opinion, however; many called it filth, and poet John Greenleaf Whittier threw his copy into the fire.
Leaves of Grass includes poems such as Song of Myself, I Sing the Body Electric and – tributes to Abraham Lincoln – O Captain! My Captain! and When Lilacs in the Dooryard Bloomed. Here is another poem from Leaves of Grass.
In Cabin’d Ships at Sea
By Walt Whitman
In cabin’d ships at sea,
The boundless blue on every side expanding,
With whistling winds and music of the waves, the large imperious waves,
Or some lone bark buoy’d on the dense marine,
Where joyous full of faith, spreading white sails,
She cleaves the ether mid the sparkle and the foam of day,
or under many a star at night,
By sailors young and old haply will I, a reminiscence of the land, be read,
In full rapport at last.
Here are our thoughts, voyagers’ thoughts,
Here not the land, firm land, alone appears, may then by them be said,
The sky o’erarches here, we feel the undulating deck beneath our feet,
We feel the long pulsation, ebb and flow of endless motion,
The tones of unseen mystery, the vague and vast suggestions of the
briny world, the liquid-flowing syllables,
The perfume, the faint creaking of the cordage, the melancholy rhythm,
The boundless vista and the horizon far and dim are all here,
And this is ocean’s poem.
Then falter not O book, fulfil your destiny,
You not a reminiscence of the land alone,
You too as a lone bark cleaving the ether, purpos’d I know not
whither, yet ever full of faith,
Consort to every ship that sails, sail you!
Bear forth to them folded my love, (dear mariners, for you I fold it
here in every leaf;)
Speed on my book! spread your white sails my little bark athwart the
Chant on, sail on, bear o’er the boundless blue from me to every sea,
This song for mariners and all their ships.
I love the poem’s exuberance, the delight it takes in the boundless sea, and the last verse, where the book is compared to the ship ploughing through the waves. “Sail on,” the poet says, wanting his book to cross “every sea”, in other words, reach every land. He got his every wish: Leaves of Grass is still read today; Whitman achieved fame and immortality — an American poet who published his book of verse on the US Independence Day.