BGMD: Whitman’s “This Compost”

I know this is a little long, but my next big article for Eric at Planet Natural is on composting, so it had to be done. If it's too long for you, read the first line of each stanza and the whole last stanza, especially the last line. And if the idea that I'm giving advice about how to skim a poem horrifies you, well, now you know the worst about me. 

This Compost


SOMETHING startles me where I thought I was safest;
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;  
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;  
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;  
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me.          5
O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?  
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?  
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?  
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?  
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?   10
Where have you disposed of their carcasses?  
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;  
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?  
I do not see any of it upon you to-day—or perhaps I am deceiv’d;  
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;   15
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.  

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!  
The grass of spring covers the prairies,  
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,   20
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,  
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,  
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,  
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,  
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,   25
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,  
The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,  
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,  
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the dooryards;  
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.   30
What chemistry!  
That the winds are really not infectious,  
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,  
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,  
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,   35
That all is clean forever and forever.  
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,  
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,  
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the
orange-orchard—that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them
poison me,
That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,   40
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.  

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,  
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,  
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,   45
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,  
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.

by Walt Whitman (1819–1892).  Leaves of Grass.  1900.

10 Responses to BGMD: Whitman’s “This Compost”

  1. I tried your skimming technique, IT DOESN’T WORK! My high school English teacher used to try such things to get us to read poetry, it didn’t work then either. The best way is to tell people they shouldn’t read it. That always works. If you want positive feedback to boost your ego, then tell them not to read it because it is crap. (not that what you wrote was crap!!!! I actually liked it, I was just commenting on your technique for getting people to read what you write. Whitman is too hard for most of us to without provocation.
    PS I’m still waiting for an email… It will make you famous (in a very small universe.)

  2. I think there were some parentheses I didn’t close in that last comment. That will bother the mathematicians in your world, but probably no one else, except me. Damn the post button!!!

  3. I’ll have to try that, Alan. Actually, I did try it, but not in this context. Back when I posted my potato harvest report (Potato Harvest in a Teacup), I e-mailed my friend Abdoulay, who figures in that post, with strict instructions NOT to read my blog. Of course, someone from Mali visited within a day. But I hadn’t thought of trying that here. Good idea. Glad you liked the poem.
    The e-mail is mailed–I get to be famous? Coo!
    “Damn the post button!” sounds like the title of a computer non-geek’s autobiography. Or is it just the latest version of “Damn the torpedoes”?

  4. What chemistry!
    Ah Whitman…
    Do you know PattiAnn Rogers’ poem “Geocentric” (at least, I think that I’m remembering the name right–it’s late at night as I type this…)? I think you’d get a kick out of it–it’s much like this Whitman poem, only juicier and messier. Plus, it is just wonderful to roll those words… ;-)

  5. Just checked, and it is Geocentric. I found a copy of the text by googling pattiann rogers geocentric poem. If you get a chance, check it out. It’s wonderful.

  6. Leave it to old Walt to make poetry out of compost!

  7. I got it by skimming but then I read a lot of books that way too. I recently read a garden writer’s blog who used so many descriptive words that I nearly gave up.

  8. I can see why Whitmen reminded you of that poem, Susan! (You could post it on some other Garden Blogges’ Muse Monday.)
    Indeed, Dorothy, indeed. But check out the poem Susan recommended; there’s a certain affinity.
    There’s a limit, isn’t there, Anna.

  9. is this real, or did you write it in the style of Walt?

  10. I just looked it up! It’s real! And it’s amazing. Thank you so much for this gorgeous poem I have sent it to my mum, aunts and godmother! Emma x

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *