On April 9, 1865, Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War — not officially, I know. Less than a week later, Abraham Lincoln was murdered. What does this have to do with National Poetry Month?
Walt Whitman, the great poet of America, lived through the times and conflicts leading up to that war, served as a nurse for wounded soldiers during the war, and saw the aftermath of the assassination of Lincoln. Some of Whitman’s most dramatic poetry had its roots during this time.
A poem placed at the end of “Memories of President Lincoln” ends the two books of his Civil War poems in his epic collection, Leaves of Grass. Whitman felt the life drain from many wounded soldiers, both Union and Confederate, as he held them or looked into their eyes; he felt the very last breath they took. Walt believed in the cause of preserving the Union and was enthusiastic in that support because he believed that the foundations of America were unique in the history of the world.
However, he in part recognized that the founding principles and their preservation and extension were idealistic. He became the poet of America, promoting that idealism — and let me make this clear, crystal clear, right here and now — America, as it was intended will not work without the reality of this idealism being lived by a significant part of this country.
That idealism? Knowing and living one’s true self, which means that we accept, appreciate, and even love those who don’t live their true self or who don’t agree with us. How to decide national policy based on idealism becomes nearly irreconcilable to those following their hearts.
Let’s turn to Walt’s words now in “By Blue Ontario’s Shore.” Near the end of the poem, he writes these words:
Underneath all, individuals,
I swear nothing is good to me now that ignores individuals,
The American compact is altogether with individuals,
The only government is that which makes minute of individuals,
The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one
single individual — namely to You. (Section 15 — emphases are mine)
He comes to see that America’s founding compact, the base principle, is to allow individuals to realize and live their greatness — “…Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” All. All. All — each individual. AND this is the edict not of a government but of the whole Universe. A government is designed not to control and subjugate but rather to free and enable individuals to know self, live self, and prosper with one another in that atmosphere.
Following this, he says, “Underneath all is the Expression of love for men and women… .” He accepts all in their failings and foibles. He knows that this kind of democracy is a messy business, but to change the focus to the nation rather than individuals destroys it. He accepts the ugliness with the beauty and says that we cannot lose sight of the individual.
I cannot convey the depth of spirit that moved Walt Whitman and that moves me. I would ask you, though, when faced with difficult current issues, do we just listen to loud-mouthed politicians who have little sense of these sorts of sentiments? Do we consider the quiet but insistent and persistent voice of our own hearts? Do we consider legislating against whole sections of society or discriminating against sub-cultures who don’t fit our mold? Do we consider increasing government’s size that will limit the heart and growth of individuals? Do we wish to legislate morality?
Messy questions, a messy nation, a messy process is democracy — but a spirit that was envisioned from the beginning. Don’t wish it away. The answer is to know self, love self, love others, live Self — “The whole theory of the universe is directed unerringly to one single individual — namely to You.”
Without You, without Me, it’s nothing! Let’s put this in the affirmative: You, Me — we are everything. It’s all for us!
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Questions to consider:
How many times have you asked yourself or simply thought about the following questions?
Who am I, really?
What is my truth?
How do my actions reveal what I really feel and believe?
What would I do with my life if I could do anything?
What is my passion?
Why am I here?
How can I discover answers to any of these questions?
If you have considered any of these questions, I hope that my experiences and writing will give you some guidance. Please read my blog and comment and share your thoughts. I would love to hear from you!