Leaves of Grass (1881-82)

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BY blue Ontario's shore,
As I mused of these warlike days and of peace return'd, and the
         dead that return no more,
A Phantom gigantic superb, with stern visage accosted me,
Chant me the poem, it said, that comes from the soul of America,
          chant me the carol of victory,
And strike up the marches of Libertad, marches more powerful yet,
And sing me before you go the song of the throes of Democracy.

(Democracy, the destin'd conqueror, yet treacherous lip-smiles
And death and infidelity at every step.)



A Nation announcing itself,
I myself make the only growth by which I can be appreciated,
I reject none, accept all, then reproduce all in my own forms.

A breed whose proof is in time and deeds,
What we are we are, nativity is answer enough to objections,
We wield ourselves as a weapon is wielded,
We are powerful and tremendous in ourselves,
We are executive in ourselves, we are sufficient in the variety of
We are the most beautiful to ourselves and in ourselves,
We stand self-pois'd in the middle, branching thence over the
From Missouri, Nebraska, or Kansas, laughing attacks to scorn.

Nothing is sinful to us outside of ourselves,
Whatever appears, whatever does not appear, we are beautiful or
         sinful in ourselves only.

(O Mother—O Sisters dear!
If we are lost, no victor else has destroy'd us,
It is by ourselves we go down to eternal night.)



Have you thought there could be but a single supreme?
There can be any number of supremes—one does not counter-
         vail another any more than one eyesight countervails
         another, or one life countervails another.

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All is eligible to all,
All is for individuals, all is for you,
No condition is prohibited, not God's or any.

All comes by the body, only health puts you rapport with the

Produce great Persons, the rest follows.



Piety and conformity to them that like,
Peace, obesity, allegiance, to them that like,
I am he who tauntingly compels men, women, nations,
Crying, Leap from your seats and contend for your lives!

I am he who walks the States with a barb'd tongue, questioning
         every one I meet,
Who are you that wanted only to be told what you knew before?
Who are you that wanted only a book to join you in your nonsense?

(With pangs and cries as thine own O bearer of many children,
These clamors wild to a race of pride I give.)

O lands, would you be freer than all that has ever been before?
If you would be freer than all that has been before, come listen
         to me.

Fear grace, elegance, civilization, delicatesse,
Fear the mellow sweet, the sucking of honey-juice,
Beware the advancing mortal ripening of Nature,
Beware what precedes the decay of the ruggedness of states and



Ages, precedents, have long been accumulating undirected
America brings builders, and brings its own styles.

The immortal poets of Asia and Europe have done their work
         and pass'd to other spheres,
A work remains, the work of surpassing all they have done.

America, curious toward foreign characters, stands by its own at
         all hazards,

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Stands removed, spacious, composite, sound, initiates the true
         use of precedents,
Does not repel them or the past or what they have produced
         under their forms,
Takes the lesson with calmness, perceives the corpse slowly borne
         from the house,
Perceives that it waits a little while in the door, that it was fittest
         for its days,
That its life has descended to the stalwart and well-shaped heir
         who approaches,
And that he shall be fittest for his days.

Any period one nation must lead,
One land must be the promise and reliance of the future.

These States are the amplest poem,
Here is not merely a nation but a teeming Nation of nations,
Here the doings of men correspond with the broadcast doings of
         the day and night,
Here is what moves in magnificent masses careless of particulars,
Here are the roughs, beards, friendliness, combativeness, the soul
Here the flowing trains, here the crowds, equality, diversity, the
         soul loves.



Land of lands and bards to corroborate!
Of them standing among them, one lifts to the light a west-bred
To him the hereditary countenance bequeath'd both mother's and
His first parts substances, earth, water, animals, trees,
Built of the common stock, having room for far and near,
Used to dispense with other lands, incarnating this land,
Attracting it body and soul to himself, hanging on its neck with
         incomparable love,
Plunging his seminal muscle into its merits and demerits,
Making its cities, beginnings, events, diversities, wars, vocal in him,
Making its rivers, lakes, bays, embouchure in him,
Mississippi with yearly freshets and changing chutes, Columbia,
         Niagara, Hudson, spending themselves lovingly in him,
If the Atlantic coast stretch or the Pacific coast stretch, he stretch-
         ing with them North or South,
Spanning between them East and West, and touching whatever is
         between them,

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Growths growing from him to offset the growths of pine, cedar,
         hemlock, live-oak, locust, chestnut, hickory, cottonwood,
         orange, magnolia,
Tangles as tangled in him as any canebrake or swamp,
He likening sides and peaks of mountains, forests coated with
         northern transparent ice,
Off him pasturage sweet and natural as savanna, upland, prairie,
Through him flights, whirls, screams, answering those of the fish-
         hawk, mocking-bird, night-heron, and eagle,
His spirit surrounding his country's spirit, unclosed to good and
Surrounding the essences of real things, old times and present
Surrounding just found shores, islands, tribes of red aborigines,
Weather-beaten vessels, landings, settlements, embryo stature and
The haughty defiance of the Year One, war, peace, the formation
         of the Constitution,
The separate States, the simple elastic scheme, the immigrants,
The Union always swarming with blatherers and always sure and
The unsurvey'd interior, log-houses, clearings, wild animals, hunt-
         ers, trappers,
Surrounding the multiform agriculture, mines, temperature, the
         gestation of new States,
Congress convening every Twelfth-month, the members duly
         coming up from the uttermost parts,
Surrounding the noble character of mechanics and farmers, espe-
         cially the young men,
Responding their manners, speech, dress, friendships, the gait they
         have of persons who never knew how it felt to stand in the
         presence of superiors,
The freshness and candor of their physiognomy, the copiousness
         and decision of their phrenology,
The picturesque looseness of their carriage, their fierceness when
The fluency of their speech, their delight in music, their curiosity,
         good temper and open-handedness, the whole composite
The prevailing ardor and enterprise, the large amativeness,
The perfect equality of the female with the male, the fluid move-
         ment of the population,
The superior marine, free commerce, fisheries, whaling, gold-dig-
Wharf-hemm'd cities, railroad and steamboat lines intersecting all

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Factories, mercantile life, labor-saving machinery, the Northeast,
         Northwest, Southwest,
Manhattan firemen, the Yankee swap, southern plantation life,
Slavery—the murderous, treacherous conspiracy to raise it upon
         the ruins of all the rest,
On and on to the grapple with it—Assassin! then your life or
         ours be the stake, and respite no more.



(Lo, high toward heaven, this day,
Libertad, from the conqueress' field return'd,
I mark the new aureola around your head,
No more of soft astral, but dazzling and fierce,
With war's flames and the lambent lightnings playing,
And your port immovable where you stand,
With still the inextinguishable glance and the clinch'd and lifted fist,
And your foot on the neck of the menacing one, the scorner
         utterly crush'd beneath you,
The menacing arrogant one that strode and advanced with his
         senseless scorn, bearing the murderous knife,
The wide-swelling one, the braggart that would yesterday do so
To-day a carrion dead and damn'd, the despised of all the earth,
An offal rank, to the dunghill maggots spurn'd.)



Others take finish, but the Republic is ever constructive and ever
         keeps vista,
Others adorn the past, but you O days of the present, I adorn
O days of the future I believe in you—I isolate myself for your
O America because you build for mankind I build for you,
O well-beloved stone-cutters, I lead them who plan with decision
         and science,
Lead the present with friendly hand toward the future.

(Bravas to all impulses sending sane children to the next age!
But damn that which spends itself with no thought of the stain,
         pains, dismay, feebleness, it is bequeathing.)



I listened to the Phantom by Ontario's shore,
I heard the voice arising demanding bards,

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By them all native and grand, by them alone can these States be
         fused into the compact organism of a Nation.

To hold men together by paper and seal or by compulsion is no
That only holds men together which aggregates all in a living
         principle, as the hold of the limbs of the body or the fibres
         of plants.

Of all races and eras these States with veins full of poetical stuff
         most need poets, and are to have the greatest, and use
         them the greatest,
Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as
         their poets shall.

(Soul of love and tongue of fire!
Eye to pierce the deepest deeps and sweep the world!
Ah Mother, prolific and full in all besides, yet how long barren,



Of these States the poet is the equable man,
Not in him but off from him things are grotesque, eccentric, fail
         of their full returns,
Nothing out of its place is good, nothing in its place is bad,
He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither
         more nor less,
He is the arbiter of the diverse, he is the key,
He is the equalizer of his age and land,
He supplies what wants supplying, he checks what wants checking,
In peace out of him speaks the spirit of peace, large, rich, thrifty,
         building populous towns, encouraging agriculture, arts,
         commerce, lighting the study of man, the soul, health,
         immortality, government,
In war he is the best backer of the war, he fetches artillery
         as good as the engineer's, he can make every word he speaks draw
The years straying toward infidelity he withholds by his steady
He is no arguer, he is judgment, (Nature accepts him absolutely,)
He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a
         helpless thing,
As he sees the farthest he has the most faith,
His thoughts are the hymns of the praise of things,
In the dispute on God and eternity he is silent,

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He sees eternity less like a play with a prologue and denouement,
He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and
         women as dreams or dots.

For the great Idea, the idea of perfect and free individuals,
For that, the bard walks in advance, leader of leaders,
The attitude of him cheers up slaves and horrifies foreign despots.

Without extinction is Liberty, without retrograde is Equality,
They live in the feelings of young men and the best women,
(Not for nothing have the indomitable heads of the earth been
         always ready to fall for Liberty.)



For the great Idea,
That, O my brethren, that is the mission of poets.

Songs of stern defiance ever ready,
Songs of the rapid arming and the march,
The flag of peace quick-folded, and instead the flag we know,
Warlike flag of the great Idea.

(Angry cloth I saw there leaping!
I stand again in leaden rain your flapping folds saluting,
I sing you over all, flying beckoning through the fight—O the
         hard-contested fight!
The cannons ope their rosy-flashing muzzles—the hurtled balls
The battle-front forms amid the smoke—the volleys pour incessant
         from the line,
Hark, the ringing word Charge! —now the tussle and the furious
         maddening yells,
Now the corpses tumble curl'd upon the ground,
Cold, cold in death, for precious life of you,
Angry cloth I saw there leaping.)



Are you he who would assume a place to teach or be a poet here
         in the States?
The place is august, the terms obdurate.

Who would assume to teach here may well prepare himself body
         and mind,
He may well survey, ponder, arm, fortify, harden, make lithe him-
He shall surely be question'd beforehand by me with many and
         stern questions.

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Who are you indeed who would talk or sing to America?
Have you studied out the land, its idioms and men?
Have you learn'd the physiology, phrenology, politics, geography,
         pride, freedom, friendship of the land? its substratums and
Have you consider'd the organic compact of the first day of the
         first year of Independence, sign'd by the Commissioners,
         ratified by the States, and read by Washington at the head
         of the army?
Have you possess'd yourself of the Federal Constitution?
Do you see who have left all feudal processes and poems behind
         them, and assumed the poems and processes of Democracy?
Are you faithful to things? do you teach what the land and sea,
         the bodies of men, womanhood, amativeness, heroic angers,
Have you sped through fleeting customs, popularities?
Can you hold your hand against all seductions, follies, whirls, fierce
         contentions? are you very strong? are you really of the
         whole People?
Are you not of some coterie? some school or mere religion?
Are you done with reviews and criticisms of life? animating now
         to life itself?
Have you vivified yourself from the maternity of these States?
Have you too the old ever-fresh forbearance and impartiality?
Do you hold the like love for those hardening to maturity? for the
         last-born? little and big? and for the errant?

What is this you bring my America?
Is it uniform with my country?
Is it not something that has been better told or done before?
Have you not imported this or the spirit of it in some ship?
Is it not a mere tale? a rhyme? a prettiness?—is the good old
         cause in it?
Has it not dangled long at the heels of the poets, politicians,
         literats, of enemies' lands?
Does it not assume that what is notoriously gone is still here?
Does it answer universal needs? will it improve manners?
Does it sound with trumpet-voice the proud victory of the Union
         in that secession war?
Can your performance face the open fields and the seaside?
Will it absorb into me as I absorb food, air, to appear again in my
         strength, gait, face?
Have real employments contributed to it? original makers, not
         mere amanuenses?
Does it meet modern discoveries, calibres, facts, face to face?

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What does it mean to American persons, progresses, cities? Chi-
         cago, Kanada, Arkansas?
Does it see behind the apparent custodians the real custodians
         standing, menacing, silent, the mechanics, Manhattanese,
         Western men, Southerners, significant alike in their apathy,
         and in the promptness of their love?
Does it see what finally befalls, and has always finally befallen, each
         temporizer, patcher, outsider, partialist, alarmist, infidel,
         who has ever ask'd any thing of America?
What mocking and scornful negligence?
The track strew'd with the dust of skeletons,
By the roadside others disdainfully toss'd.



Rhymes and rhymers pass away, poems distill'd from poems pass
The swarms of reflectors and the polite pass, and leave ashes,
Admirers, importers, obedient persons, make but the soil of litera-
America justifies itself, give it time, no disguise can deceive it or
         conceal from it, it is impassive enough,
Only toward the likes of itself will it advance to meet them,
If its poets appear it will in due time advance to meet them,
         there is no fear of mistake,
(The proof of a poet shall be sternly deferr'd till his country
         absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorb'd it.)

He masters whose spirit masters, he tastes sweetest who results
         sweetest in the long run,
The blood of the brawn beloved of time is unconstraint;
In the need of songs, philosophy, an appropriate native grand-
         opera, shipcraft, any craft,
He or she is greatest who contributes the greatest original prac-
         tical example.

Already a nonchalant breed, silently emerging, appears on the
People's lips salute only doers, lovers, satisfiers, positive knowers,
There will shortly be no more priests, I say their work is done,
Death is without emergencies here, but life is perpetual emer-
         gencies here,
Are your body, days, manners, superb? after death you shall be
Justice, health, self-esteem, clear the way with irresistible power;
How dare you place any thing before a man?

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Fall behind me States!
A man before all—myself, typical, before all.

Give me the pay I have served for,
Give me to sing the songs of the great Idea, take all the rest,
I have loved the earth, sun, animals, I have despised riches,
I have given alms to every one that ask'd, stood up for the stupid
         and crazy, devoted my income and labor to others,
Hated tyrants, argued not concerning God, had patience and
         indulgence toward the people, taken off my hat to nothing
         known or unknown,
Gone freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young,
         and with the mothers of families,
Read these leaves to myself in the open air, tried them by trees,
         stars, rivers,
Dismiss'd whatever insulted my own soul or defiled my body,
Claim'd nothing to myself which I have not carefully claim'd for
         others on the same terms,
Sped to the camps, and comrades found and accepted from every
(Upon this breast has many a dying soldier lean'd to breathe his
This arm, this hand, this voice, have nourish'd, rais'd, restored,
To life recalling many a prostrate form;)
I am willing to wait to be understood by the growth of the taste
         of myself,
Rejecting none, permitting all.

(Say O Mother, have I not to your thought been faithful?
Have I not through life kept you and yours before me?)



I swear I begin to see the meaning of these things,
It is not the earth, it is not America who is so great,
It is I who am great or to be great, it is You up there, or any one,
It is to walk rapidly through civilizations, governments, theories,
Through poems, pageants, shows, to form individuals.

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.

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(Mother! with subtle sense severe, with the naked sword in your
I saw you at last refuse to treat but directly with individuals.)



Underneath all, Nativity,
I swear I will stand by my own nativity, pious or impious so be it;
I swear I am charm'd with nothing except nativity,
Men, women, cities, nations, are only beautiful from nativity.

Underneath all is the Expression of love for men and women,
(I swear I have seen enough of mean and impotent modes of
         expressing love for men and women,
After this day I take my own modes of expressing love for men
         and women.)

I swear I will have each quality of my race in myself,
(Talk as you like, he only suits these States whose manners favor
         the audacity and sublime turbulence of the States.)

Underneath the lessons of things, spirits, Nature, governments,
         ownerships, I swear I perceive other lessons,
Underneath all to me is myself, to you yourself, (the same monoto-
         nous old song.)



O I see flashing that this America is only you and me,
Its power, weapons, testimony, are you and me,
Its crimes, lies, thefts, defections, are you and me,
Its Congress is you and me, the officers, capitols, armies, ships, are
         you and me,
Its endless gestations of new States are you and me,
The war, (that war so bloody and grim, the war I will henceforth
         forget), wasyou and me,
Natural and artificial are you and me,
Freedom, language, poems, employments, are you and me,
Past, present, future, are you and me.

I dare not shirk any part of myself,
Not any part of America good or bad,
Not to build for that which builds for mankind,
Not to balance ranks, complexions, creeds, and the sexes,
Not to justify science nor the march of equality,
Nor to feed the arrogant blood of the brawn belov'd of time.

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I am for those that have never been master'd,
For men and women whose tempers have never been master'd,
For those whom laws, theories, conventions, can never master.

I am for those who walk abreast with the whole earth,
Who inaugurate one to inaugurate all.

I will not be outfaced by irrational things,
I will penetrate what it is in them that is sarcastic upon me,
I will make cities and civilizations defer to me,
This is what I have learnt from America—it is the amount, and it
         I teach again.

(Democracy, while weapons were everywhere aim'd at your breast,
I saw you serenely give birth to immortal children, saw in dreams
         your dilating form,
Saw you with spreading mantle covering the world.)



I will confront these shows of the day and night,
I will know if I am to be less than they,
I will see if I am not as majestic as they,
I will see if I am not as subtle and real as they,
I will see if I am to be less generous than they,
I will see if I have no meaning, while the houses and ships have
I will see if the fishes and birds are to be enough for themselves,
         and I am not to be enough for myself.

I match my spirit against yours you orbs, growths, mountains,
Copious as you are I absorb you all in myself, and become the
         master myself,
America isolated yet embodying all, what is it finally except
These States, what are they except myself?

I know now why the earth is gross, tantalizing, wicked, it is for my
I take you specially to be mine, you terrible, rude forms.

(Mother, bend down, bend close to me your face,
I know not what these plots and wars and deferments are for,
I know not fruition's success, but I know that through war and
         crime your work goes on, and must yet go on.)

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Thus by blue Ontario's shore,
While the winds fann'd me and the waves came trooping toward
I thrill'd with the power's pulsations, and the charm of my theme
         was upon me,
Till the tissues that held me parted their ties upon me.

And I saw the free souls of poets,
The loftiest bards of past ages strode before me,
Strange large men, long unwaked, undisclosed, were disclosed to



O my rapt verse, my call, mock me not!
Not for the bards of the past, not to invoke them have I launch'd
         you forth,
Not to call even those lofty bards here by Ontario's shores,
Have I sung so capricious and loud my savage song.

Bards for my own land only I invoke,
(For the war the war is over, the field is clear'd,)
Till they strike up marches henceforth triumphant and onward,
To cheer O Mother your boundless expectant soul.

Bards of the great Idea! bards of the peaceful inventions! (for
         the war, the war is over!)
Yet bards of latent armies, a million soldiers waiting ever-ready,
Bards with songs as from burning coals or the lightning's fork'd
Ample Ohio's, Kanada's bards—bards of California! inland
         bards—bards of the war!
You by my charm I invoke.

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