“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field” the Old Testament….Isaiah 40:6
Grass and plant metaphors are deeply rooted, playing out in poetry, prose, and arts. No English writer however, more completely delved into the ways of leaves and grass than Walt Whitman, who may have spent his entire life reflecting on growth, circumstance, and rawly elemental nature.
“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars.”
His Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, a self-published volume of 12 poems, a dozen songs. The compilation was expanded, edited, even scoured over three decades, until the 1892 “deathbed” edition, which includes over 400 poems.
In culling my own bookshelves recently, I paged through an ancient copy of Whitman’s book, and in a moment of reflection it struck me that no botanist would use the English expression “leaves of grass.” We could, but don’t; we say “blades” of grass.
Whitman, I felt, was clued into plant lore and likely knew this, but decided to write “Leaves” instead. I first imagined his objecting to blade, as having meaning associated with knives and armor…. But reading his opening poem, that idea was cast aside; Whitman seldom shied away from hardy words. And he was good enough with “spear”….
I lean and loafe at my ease….observing a spear of summer grass.
Studying his opening poem (later titled Song of Myself), the botanist reads context others might ignore, everywhere finding echoes embracing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s immersion in contemporary natural history. Literate people in the 19th century grew up in comparatively-modern scientific context – minutes and seconds brought precision, temperature was measured by degrees, volume and pressure (even mass) defined air, electricity delivered power, oxygen stoked flames, and plants were understood to reproduce sexually.
Whitman’s embrace of Emerson’s lay science flows through his language, crafting real (albeit superficial) understanding into tirelessly rich and sincerely empathetic free verse. Being, my own self, a student who last worried about Transcendentalism in high school English, this poet’s use of Leaves and Grass is refreshed discovery. Who could imagine such ulterior meaning and passion woven around words that speak significantly but otherwise rather mundanely to the botanist.
Wikipedia is little help, giving the book’s title short shrift. We are told publishers in Whitman’s day referred to inconsequential literary material as “grass” – and of course, Whitman’s book is made of leaves, i.e. pages. This makes the title a joke – “Leaves of Grass” – a moment of pure humility and pun aimed at everyday deprecations of publishers. Perhaps. But Whitman was not gratuitously humble; the “Leaves” and “Grass” he relates reach well beyond puns:
"The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark colored seacocks, and of hay in the barn..."
"A child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child?….I do not know what it is any more than he.
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven...
Or I guess the grass is itself a child…the produced babe of the vegetation..."
"This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,
This is the common air that bathes the globe..."
"I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your bootsoles."
There’s more here than worn symbols. Whitman adopts leaves and grass in the sense of a biologist, not as symbols of fallen angels or emblems of life’s passage, or false humility, rather as cosmically organic and life giving. His viewpoint reflects understanding of the world that formed the intellectual basis of the era. Step with me through the following simple outline of events in the two centuries preceding Whitman’s composition, revelations that changed how Westerners understand the natural world.
Two Centuries of Changing Ideas:
- 1643 – Evangelista Torrecelli devised the first functional barometer, based on his contention that air has weight. Within three years, Blaise Pascal furthered that work, predicting and confirming that air weighs less at higher altitudes.
- 1656 – Christiaan Huygens devised a pendulum clock that could keep time to the second.
- 1657 – Gaspar Schott published his work on air pumps. By 1660, Robert Boyle, following on Schott, formulated his ideas on atmospheric pressure.
- 1665 – Robert Hooke published the first description of a cell, and by 1690 had contributed to design of the escapement mechanism in clocks, such that the minute hand began to appear commonly.
- 1694 – Camerarius published his experiments with flowers, the first trials demonstrating the sexual nature of plant reproduction.
- 1704 – Isaac Newton summarized four decades of studying and reconstructing our understanding of light in his English book Optiks
- 1712 – Elaborating on earlier work, Thomas Newcomen introduced the first working piston-run steam engine.
- 1714 – Daniel Fahrenheit introduced the sealed thermometer, including his familiar 212 º F scale, gauging temperatures from ice to vapor.
- 1727 – Stephen Hales demonstrated the movement of water through plants, and the loss (transpiration) of water vapor from foliage to the atmosphere.
- 1753 – Linnaeus used a binomial system for naming plants in Species Plantarum, the publication that remains the base for plant names worldwide.
- 1759 – The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew was established, at the moment plants would become instruments of imperialism.
- 1774 – Carl Scheele resolved existence of “fire air” (oxygen), just as Joseph Priestley (1775) was demonstrating the relationship between dephlogisticated air (oxygen) and plants in restoring breathable air, giving impetus to Lavoisier, who named and characterized oxygen in 1777.
- 1783 – Lavoisier recognized water as a compound of hydrogen and oxygen.
- 1783 – The first, working, lighter-than-air balloon was launched, in France.
- 1788 – Thomas Hutton, in his Theory of the Earth, re-invented the way geologists imagine tectonics and geomorphism.
- 1798 – Thomas Malthus projected ideas of population growth in the face of limited resources.
- 1800 – Volta introduced the battery.
- 1802 – Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac reasoned that volume and pressure of gases relate directly to temperature.
- 1803 – John Dalton described atoms as the smallest units of matter.
- 1804 – Following up on Senebier’s work, Nicolas-Théodore de Saussure examined and demonstrated the atmospheric source of carbon in plants.
- 1805 – Humboldt completed his environmental studies in South America and published the first ecological treatment.
- 1811 – Avogadro established the mole, by elaborating the concept that at equivalent temperature and pressure, a given volume of gas would contain the same number of atoms, regardless which element was sampled, while in 1813, Berzelius established the system of abbreviating elements that we continue to use today. (N for Nitrogen, O for Oxygen, etc.)
- 1828 – Friedrich Wöhler synthesized urea, an organic compound – demonstrating that technology exists to create the molecules of life in a laboratory.
- 1831 – Michael Faraday introduced concepts of electromagnetic induction, establishing the basis for generating electricity with spinning motors.
- 1835 – Henry Talbot established the basic principles of photographic negative-positive printing
- 1837 – Charles Wheatstone devised the telegraph, based on Faraday’s explanation of induction. Samuel Morse began a viable business the same year. London and Paris were connected telegraphically by 1854.
By the time Whitman turned 20 years of age, Justus Liebig had confirmed that Earth’s atmosphere is the world’s greatest food source. Using the sun’s energy, water, and elemental nutrients, plants convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into sugars, into glucose – the common denominator for all life on earth. This was news. For millennia, people had not questioned the nature of what was given. Earth, air, fire, water, metal were just present. However the gifts of nature might be categorized or named, the basic elements were, fundamentally, beyond analysis – mystical, mysterious, even spiritual. But calculations changed during the two centuries previous to Emerson’s Nature and Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.” The ocean of gases in which we live, sunlight that clocks our days, soil that harbors nutrients, water that is universally-required for life, had been measured, analyzed, and usefully deciphered: “This is the common air that globes the earth.” That newly unified appreciation of nature inspired poets, philosophers, and artists, and underlies cultural and societal sturm and drang ongoing today.
How did our poet, Whitman, come to knowing about science and technology? As an itinerate journalist, writer, editor, and typesetter he was clearly well-read, encountering and responding most pointedly to the works of Emerson, who had experienced nature anew on an 1833 visit to Paris’s Jardin des plantes.* From Emerson’s journals: “Moving along these pleasant walks, you come to the botanical cabinet, an enclosed garden plot, where grows a grammar of botany-where the plants rise, each in its class, its order, and its genus, (as nearly as their habits in reference to soils will permit,) arranged by the hand of Jussieu himself. If you have read Decandolle with engravings, or with a hortus siccus, conceive how much more exciting and intelligible is this natural alphabet, this green and yellow and crimson dictionary on which the sun shines and the winds blow.”** Emerson realized the book of life had changed. People no longer read leaves as records of past creation, but interpreted leaves as organic evidence of the present and future.
Empowering himself as naturalist, Emerson journaled in 1841: “The universe is represented in every one of its particles. Every thing in nature contains all the powers of nature. Every thing is made of one hidden stuff; as the naturalist sees one type under every metamorphosis, and regards a horse as a running man, a fish as a swimming man, a bird as a flying man, a tree as a rooted man. Each new form repeats not only the main character of the type, but part for part all the details, all the aims, furtherances, hindrances, energies, and whole system of every other. Every occupation, trade, art, transaction, is a compend of the world, and a correlative of every other. Each one is an entire emblem of human life; of its good and ill, its trials, its enemies, its course and its end. And each one must somehow accommodate the whole man, and recite all his destiny. The world globes itself in a drop of dew.”
The impact of contemporary understanding of atoms and air, of mice and men, pervades Emerson’s prose, voiced also by Whitman: “And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels….”
*Title: Dante invented the Latin word infrondarsi to express the green completeness that “enleaves” – i.e., throughly coats and envelopes Eden.
**Brown, Lee Rust, 1992. ‘The Emerson Museum’ Representations 40:57-80, U Calif Press.
Lee Rust Brown: Natural history showed Emerson the prospect of a new, more “commodius” kind of “book,” a book that would have to be written and read by unconventional means.
Dant, Elizabeth, 1989. “Composing the World. Emerson and the Cabinet of Natural History” Nineteenth-Century Literature 44(1): 18-44, U Calif Press.
Joseph Luzzi, 2010. “‘As a Leaf on a Branch….’ Dante’s Neologisms” PMLA 125(20; 322-336 JSTOR:
“as many as are the leaves that fall in the forest in the first chill of autumn” Virgil, Aeneid (VI)
“As the leaves fall away in autumn, one after another, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the ground” Dante, Inferno 3