I picked up Pragmatism by William James before heading out to a wedding ceremony at the Swan Club in Roslyn, Long Island, which is a lovely site for a garden wedding when you plan to bring lots of family and friends. “It is light to an already heavy bag, and I never did read it,” I thought to myself, as I plucked it from one of my shelves. In it, I encountered a poem by Walt Whitman I absolutely adore not only for its language — I am a classicist when it comes to writing — but for its sentiments. “Poem of You” invites readers to accept all that is immanent in the self in plurality. William James puts it this way: “…it encourages fidelity to ourselves.” The poem is an ode to the “higher self” or to “higher consciousness.” It feels very pantheistic, which echoes the romantic poets in general.
Something, some destiny or fate, might be inevitable, yet all is possible. Our agency, our perspective, is the mover. At the same time, the lines compel us to search and enact which is true and wise in ourselves in sympathy with the most honorable intentions.
I cannot wait to officiate a a ceremony –wedding, commitment, coming of age, baby welcoming — with this passage, as it is suitable for just about any rite of passage.
“Poem of You” by Walt Whitman (1819-1882)
Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams,
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your feet and hands,
Even now your features, joys, speech, house, trade, manners,
troubles, follies, costume, crimes, dissipate away from you,
Your true soul and body appear before me.
They stand forth out of affairs, out of commerce, shops, work,
farms, clothes, the house, buying, selling, eating, drinking,
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear.
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.
O I have been dilatory and dumb,
I should have made my way straight to you long ago,
I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing
I will leave all and come and make the hymns of you,
None has understood you, but I understand you,
None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to yourself,
None but has found you imperfect, I only find no imperfection in you,
None but would subordinate you, I only am he who will never consent
to subordinate you,
I only am he who places over you no master, owner, better, God,
beyond what waits intrinsically in yourself.
Painters have painted their swarming groups and the centre-figure of all,
From the head of the centre-figure spreading a nimbus of gold-color’d light,
But I paint myriads of heads, but paint no head without its nimbus
of gold-color’d light,
From my hand from the brain of every man and woman it streams,
effulgently flowing forever.
O I could sing such grandeurs and glories about you!
You have not known what you are, you have slumber’d upon yourself
all your life,
Your eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time,
What you have done returns already in mockeries,
(Your thrift, knowledge, prayers, if they do not return in
mockeries, what is their return?)
The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them and within them I see you lurk,
I pursue you where none else has pursued you,
Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the night, the
accustom’d routine, if these conceal you from others or from
yourself, they do not conceal you from me,
The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion, if these
balk others they do not balk me,
The pert apparel, the deform’d attitude, drunkenness, greed,
premature death, all these I part aside.
There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you,
There is no virtue, no beauty in man or woman, but as good is in you,
No pluck, no endurance in others, but as good is in you,
No pleasure waiting for others, but an equal pleasure waits for you.
As for me, I give nothing to any one except I give the like carefully
I sing the songs of the glory of none, not God, sooner than I sing
the songs of the glory of you.
Whoever you are! claim your own at any hazard!
These shows of the East and West are tame compared to you,
These immense meadows, these interminable rivers, you are immense
and interminable as they,
These furies, elements, storms, motions of Nature, throes of apparent
dissolution, you are he or she who is master or mistress over them,
Master or mistress in your own right over Nature, elements, pain,
The hopples fall from your ankles, you find an unfailing sufficiency,
Old or young, male or female, rude, low, rejected by the rest,
whatever you are promulges itself,
Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are provided, nothing
Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what you are
picks its way.