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Poems Every Child Should Know by  Mary E. Burt

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SONG OF MYSELF

"The Song of Myself" is one of Walt Whitman's (1819-92) most characteristic poems. I love the swing and the stride of his great long lines. I love his rough-shod way of trampling down and kicking out of the way the conventionalities that spring up like poisonous mushrooms to make the world a vast labyrinth of petty "proprieties" until everything is nasty. I love the oxygen he pours on the world. I love his genius for brotherliness, his picture of the Negro with rolling eyes and the firelock in the corner. These excerpts are some of his best lines.

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,

I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form'd from this soil, this air,

Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,

I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,

Hoping to cease not till death.


I hail for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,

Nature without check with original energy.


Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? have you reckon'd the earth much?

Have you practised so long to learn to read?

Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?


Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun (there are millions of suns left),

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the specters in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.


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 it is the handkerchief of the Lord,

A scented gift and remembrance designedly dropt,

Bearing the owner's name some way in the corners, that we may see and remark, and say, "Whose?"


Alone far in the wilds and mountains I hunt,

Wandering amazed at my own lightness and glee,

In the late afternoon choosing a safe spot to pass the night,

Kindling a fire and broiling the fresh-kill'd game,

Falling asleep on the gathered leaves with my dog and gun by my side.

The Yankee clipper is under her sky-sails, she cuts the sparkle and scud,

My eyes settle the land, I bend at her prow or shout joyously from the deck.

The boatman and clam-diggers arose early and stopt for me,

I tucked my trouser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time;

You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.


The runaway slave came to my house and stopt outside,

I heard his motions crackling the twigs of the woodpile,

Through the swung half-door of the kitchen I saw him limpsy and weak,

And went where he sat on a log and led him in and assured him,

And brought water and fill'd a tub for his sweated body and bruis'd feet,

And gave him a room that entered from my own, and gave him some coarse clean clothes,

And remember perfectly well his revolving eyes and his awkwardness,

And remember putting plasters on the galls of his neck and ankles;

He staid with me a week before he was recuperated and passed north,

I had him sit next me at table, my firelock lean'd in the corner.


I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,

And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,

And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.


I understand the large hearts of heroes,

The courage of present times and all times,

How the skipper saw the crowded and rudderless wreck of the steamship, and Death chasing it up and down the storm,

How he knuckled tight and gave not back an inch and was faithful of days and faithful of nights,

And chalked in large letters on a board, "Be of good cheer, we will not desert you";

How he followed with them and tack'd with them three days and would not give it up,

How he saved the drifting company at last,

How the lank loose-gown'd women looked when boated from the side of their prepared graves,

How the silent old-faced infants and the lifted sick, and the sharp-lipp'd unshaved men;

All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,

I am the man, I suffered, I was there.

The disdain and calmness of martyrs,

The mother of old, condemned for a witch, burned with dry wood, her children gazing on,

The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence blowing, covered with sweat.

I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs,

Hell and despair are upon me, crack and again crack the marksmen,

I clutch the rails of the fence, my gore dribs, thinn'd with the ooze of my skin,

I fall on the weeds and stones,

The riders spur their unwilling horses, haul close,

Taunt my dizzy ears and beat me violently over the head with whip-stocks.


Old age superbly rising! O welcome, ineffable grace of dying days!


See ever so far, there is limitless space outside of that,

Count ever so much, there is limitless time around that.

My rendezvous is appointed, it is certain,

The Lord will be there and wait till I come on perfect terms.

The great Camerado, the lover true for whom I pine will be there.


And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud.


And to glance with an eye or show a bean in its pod confounds the learning of all times,

And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero,

And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel'd universe.

And I say to any man or woman, "Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes."


I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four, and each moment then,

In the faces of men and women I see God, and in my own face in the glass,

I find letters from God dropt in the street, and every one is sign'd by God's name,

And I leave them where they are, for I know that wheresoe'er I go,

Others will punctually come forever and ever.


Listener up there! What have you to confide in me?

Look in my face while I snuff the sidle of evening.

(Talk honestly, no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.)

Who has done his day's work? Who will soonest be through with his supper?

Who wishes to walk with me?


I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.


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