Finding God around the Corners of Walt Whitman’s Poetry

November 2, 2020 | Sarah Rindner
About the author: Sarah Rindner is a writer and educator. She lives in Israel.

Perhaps the quintessentially American poet, Walt Whitman “mentions God frequently, but he is not a conventional believer,” writes Sarah Rindner. She goes on to subject the religious spirit she finds in Whitman’s best-known work, Leaves of Grass, to a Jewish reading:

I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.

These verses are from the section of Leaves of Grass titled “Song of Myself.” Rindner observes:

There’s a stereotype of religious life that it is obsessed with life after death, and perhaps also the creation stories that precede both. Whitman is not interested in the beginning or end, and he is right [not to be]. For Whitman, and, I think, for us all, the correct place to focus is the present: on our obligations, our blessings, and our opportunities to grow in the here and now. As the Psalmist reminds us, and is true every day, “This is the day that the Lord made; we shall exult and rejoice in it.”

And then there is Whitman’s description of grass itself as “the handkerchief of the Lord/ A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,/ Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say Whose?”—to Rindner, “a potent encapsulation of how a religious seeker might find meaning in nature.” Reading this poem, she confesses, “I see God’s name somewhere in the corners as well.”

Read more on Tradition:

Welcome to Mosaic

Create a free account to continue reading and you'll get two months of unlimited access to the best in Jewish thought, culture, and politics

Register Already a subscriber? Sign in now