Title: Sun-Down Papers
Creator: Walt Whitman
Date: October 20, 1840
Publication information: Long-Island Democrat 20 October 1840: .
Source: Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.
Whitman Archive ID: per.00309
Contributors to digital file: Vince Moran, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen
cropped image 1
SUN-DOWN PAPERS.—[No. 8]
From the Desk of a Schoolmaster.
On a pleasant, still, summer evening, I once took a walk down a lane that borders our village. The moon was shining with a luscious brightness; I gazed on the glorious evidences of divinity hanging above me, and as I gazed strange and fitful thoughts occupied my brain. I reflected on the folly and vanity of those objects with which most men occupy their lives; and the awe and dread with which they approach its close. I remembered the strife for temporary and puerile distinctions—the seeking after useless and cumbersome wealth—the yielding up the diseased mind to be a prey to constant melancholy and discontent; all which may be daily seen by those who have intercourse with the sons of men. But most of all, I thought on the troubles caused under the name of Truth and Religion—the dissensions that have arisen between those of opposing creeds—and the quarrels and bickerings that even now prevail among men upon the slightest and most trivial points of opinion in these things. While such imaginings possessed my mind, I unconsciously seated myself on a grassy bank; weariness, induced by the fatigues of the day, overpowered me; I sank into a tranquil sleep, and the spirit of dreams threw his misty veil about my soul.1
* * I was wandering over the earth in search of TRUTH. Cities were explored by my enterprise; and the mouldy volumes which for years had lain undisturbed, were eagerly scanned to discover the object of my labours. Among the pale and attenuated votaries of science, I mixed as with kindred spirits; and the proudest of the learned were my familiars. My piercing gaze penetrated far down into the mines of knowledge, endeavouring to reach that jewel fairer, and brighter, and more precious than earthly jewels; but in vain, for it eluded my sight. Through the crowded ranks of men who swarm in thickly peopled places, I took my way, silent and unobserved, but ever on the alert for a clue to guide me towards the attainment of that which was the hope of my soul. I entered the gorgeous temples where pride, dressed in rich robes, preaches the doctrine of the holy and just Nazarine: I waited at the courts of powerful princes, where pomp, and grandeur, and adoration combined to make a frail mortal think himself mighty: I stood in the presence of the youthful and the gay—beauty, flashing in its bloom—strength, rearing itself in pride—revellers, and dancers, and feasters. But my heart turned comfortless from them all, for it had not attained its desire, and disappointment was heavy upon it. I then travelled to distant and uncivilized regions. Far in the north, among mountains of snow and rivers of ice, I sought what alone could gratify me. I lived, too, with the rude Tartar in his tent, and installed myself in all the mysteries which are known to the Lamas of Thibet. I wandered to a more southern clime, and disputed with the Brahmins, who profess to believe in a religion that has existed for more centuries than any other one has years. The swarthy worshipper of fire made known to me his belief; and the devotee of the camel-driver of Mecca strived for my conversion to his faith.2 But useless was all my toil, and valueless were all the immense stores of learning I had acquired. I was baffled in all my attempts, and only began new projects to find them meet with as little success as the former.
Sick and disheartened, I retired far from the inhabited portions of earth, and lived in solitude amid a wild and mountainous country. I there spent my time in reflection, and the pursuit of various branches of learning, and lived upon the frugal produce of the neighbouring fields. I had one day travelled to some distance from my usual retreat, and kept insensibly wandering onward and onward, till I found myself suddenly brought to a stand by an immense ledge of rocks which rose almost perpendicularly in front of me, and reaching far away on each side, effectually closed up my advance. The top of this stupendous pile was hidden in the clouds; and so steep was it that it seemed impossible to ascend. I stood perplexed and wondering, incited by curiosity to explore it heights, and warned by prudence to return to my cell, when I heard a low but clear and silvery voice pronounce there words, as if from the cloud over my head:
"Mortal, thou hast now an opportunity of seeing what has been the search of thy life. From the top of the mountain which rises before thee, thou mayest behold on the opposite side of the holy altar of Truth. Ascend, and refresh thine eyes with the picture of its loveliness."
Amazed and transported with this assurance, I immediately began to climb the precipice. The ascent was rugged and difficult, but perseverance and incessant vigour enabled me to surmount every bar. I succeeded in reaching the top, and threw myself, panting and covered with sweat, on the stony sand. When weariness had at length given way before the power of repose, I walked onwards over the mountain, which was composed of sterile black rocks and sand, with not a spot of verdure to relieve its gloomy appearance, and at length arrived at the brow of the precipice. On this side, the mountain appeared still more steep, and to advance to the edge was evidently attended with great danger. I did so, however, and my dazzled eyes fell on a sight more beautiful than was ever before revealed to mortals. Far below stretched a country exceeding the imagination of the seeker after pleasure, and more lovely than the dreams which benignant spirits sometimes weave around the couch of youth and innocence. The surface of the land was covered with soft grass, and with fragrant trees, and shrubs, and flowers, far fresher and fairer than those of our world. Here and there it was decked with sparkling streams of water, sweet as the tear which falls in behalf of sorrow from the eye of virtue, and fair as snow-drops in the tresses of beauty. These brooks broke occasionally into little cascades, which gushed forth joyously, and seemed to murmur their happiness in sounds of thankful gratitude to heaven.
But it was not the flowers, or the rich verdure, or the babbling waters that attracted my attention. The scene was delightfully variegated with rolls and slight elevations of land: on the highest of these I beheld a white marble base, on which were raised several columns, and over the whole was thrown a roof of the same material, presenting an edifice of singular appearance, but of the most exquisite finish. I could not at once make out its proportions, for there appeared around it something like a mist, which was the more singular, as in every other place the light was of a radiant clearness. In fact, when I first viewed the spot, though I was on the alert, this temple, if it may be so called, did not strike my eye at all; but now, by dint of the most intent gazing, I could perceive its various parts with tolerable accuracy. While I was communing with myself in what manner I should endeavour to reach the ground below, and explore the very recesses of the marble temple, the silence around me was suddenly broken, and I heard the voice which had once before addressed me at the foot of the mountain, speaking in tones which sounded like the notes of a flute breathed through groves of spicy flowers:
"Seek not, O child of clay," it said, "to discover that which is hidden by an all seeing God, from the knowledge of mortals! Wert thou to attain thy desire, thou wouldst still be impotent, for thine eyes, covered as they are with the dark web of mortality, would be unable to comprehend the awful mysteries which Nature veils from thy mind. But turn thy gaze to the left, below the hill on which the temple stands, and learn a lesson of instruction which will repay all thy fatigue."
The voice ceased, and struck with awe, I looked in the direction it had pointed out to me. I beheld a country different entirely from the one I have just described, and in almost every respect like that earth on which we live. It was not far from the temple of Truth, which could be perceived from it, but the two were divided by an impassable vacuum. Upon the small spot of ground which resembled our native planet, I beheld many people, of all classes, and nations, and tongues and dresses, constantly passing, with their attention directed toward the temple. Each one seemed to view it with the utmost care, and wish to penetrate the surrounding veil of mist that dimmed its clearness. There was one thing, however, which astonished and at first somewhat bewildered me. I observed that each one of these inquirers after Truth held in his hand an optical glass, and never gazed at the temple but through its medium. Upon observing closely, I saw that these glasses were of the most incongruous shapes and forms, and exercised singular and amazing power over the appearance of whatever was beheld through them. With some they were narrow and contracted, making the temple appear insignificant and mean. Some had them of one colour, and others of a different. Many of the glasses were of so gross a texture, that the temple was completely hid from view. Some of them distorted it into the most grotesque shapes and forms: others again would make it appear an ordinary edifice; and few were so true as to give a view of the temple nigh to its correct representation. But of whatever correctness were these glasses, each individual persisted in looking at the object of his attention through their aid. No one, or at least very few, was seen to examine the temple with the clear and undistorted organs which nature had given him: and that few, I found, were scoffed at and persecuted by all the others, who, though they differed to the utmost in their manner of viewing Truth among themselves, yet they united to a man in condemning those who endeavoured to see what little could be perceived of the temple without the false assistance of some glass or other.
I stood gazing on these things, perplexed, and hardly knowing what to think of them, when I once more heard the voice which had twice addressed me. It had lost none of its sweetness, but there was now in it an admonishing tone which sank into my soul as the rich stores of learning penetrate the open ears of attention.
"Behold!" thus it spoke, "and learn wisdom from the spectacles which have been this day unfolded to thine eyes. Thou has gazed upon the altar of Nature; but hast seen how impossible it is to penetrate the knowledge which is stored within it. Let pride therefore depart from thy soul, and let a sense of the littleness of all earthly acquirements bow down thy head in awe before the mighty Creator of a million worlds. Thou hast seen, that whatever of the great light of Truth it has been deemed expedient to show to mortals—can be most truly and usefully contemplated by the plain eye of simplicity, unaccompanied by the clogs and notions which dim the gaze of most men—and hast with wonder seen how all will still continue to view the noblest object of desire through the distorted medium of their own prejudices and bigotry.3 The altar of Truth is immutable, unchangeable and firm; ever the same bright emanation from God, and ever consistent with its founder. Though worlds shoot out of existence—though stars grow dim, and whole systems are blotted out of being by the hand of the mighty conqueror, Change—yet will Nature and Truth, for they two in one, stand up in everlasting youth and bloom, and power. Thou seest then, how miserable are all the creeds and doctrines prevailing among men, which profess to bring down these awful mysteries, things which they can fathom and search out. Kneel, then, oh! insect of an hour, whose very formation is subject enough for an eternity of wonder—and whose fate is wrapt in the black shroud of uncertainty—kneel on that earth which thou makest the scene of thy wretched strife after corruptible honors—of thy own little schemes for happiness—and of thy crimes and guilt—kneel, bend thy face to the sand, spread out the puny arms with which thy pride would win so much glory—and adore with a voiceless awe, that Unknown Power, the very minutest idea of whose abode and strength, and formation, and intentions, it would be more difficult for thee to comprehend, than for a stroke of thy hand to push out of their orbits the suns and systems which make the slightest evidence of his strength."
Speechless and trembling, I listened to the sounds of this awful voice. I had sunk to the earth in fear, for a strange and pervading terror had filled my frame, while the unseen spirit had given utterance to his words. But at length I arose, and endeavored to return the gratitude of my soul for the priceless treasures which had been showered upon my mind.
* * * * * * *
The agitation of my thoughts, however, broke my slumbers. I awoke and found that the moon had long raised her radiant face, and was throwing down floods of light to illuminate the earth. The cold mists of night had stiffened my limbs, and were falling heavy around on the wet grass. I slowly wended my way homeward, my soul improved in knowledge, and determined to treasure during life, the instruction I had gained from the vision of that night.
1. Compare to, "I loafe and invite my soul,/ I lean and loafe at my ease . . . . observing a spear of summer grass," Leaves of Grass (1855) [back]
2. Compare to "Salut au Monde," in the 1860 edition of Leaves of Grass [back]
3. Whitman means religious bigotry in this case. [back]