A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Friday, 9 January 2009

Miracles, And The Glory Of The Commonplace

In 1855 an unknown American journalist, Walt Whitman, printed himself by hand (he couldn't find a publisher) a little book of 12 poems entitled Leaves Of Grass. It took America by storm. Some readers, like the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, loved it; others loathed it. Its form, its subject matter, its language - every aspect was quite unlike any other poetry that had gone before. Free verse had arrived and come to stay. Each new edition of Leaves Of Grass contained new poems until there were nearly 400 in the collection. This poem from Leaves Of Grass called Miracles is also contained in The Golden Treasury Of Poetry:


Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,
The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim - the rocks - the motion of the waves - the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?

For Whitman nothing was insignificant. In his poetry he witnessed and celebrated what he termed the glory of the commonplace. Some of my favourite blogs - such as Beating The Bounds, The Weaver Of Grass and Riverdaze - also attempt to do this; that is, they document and celebrate the "everyday" details of life in their own backyards (though what backyards - Morecambe Bay, the Yorkshire Dales and a river in Ohio!) Somehow, in describing day by day these local, backyard "miracles", these "miracles" are constantly being refreshed and renewed. The magical acts of writing about (and photographing) these daily "miracles" ensure they are remembered; in some miraculous way they become part of a world consciousness.

There are miracles all around us. We only have to step back occasionally from our busy, humdrum lives of deadline and routine, slow down for just a few minutes, control our breathing so that our breath is regular and even, and look...


forest wisdom said...

A great post, SW.

I don't really have the words to express the greatness of Whitman or his importance in the history of poetry. Certainly he has been a huge influence to me personally. Thank you, SW, for this reminder today of this shining poetic light, and of "the glory of the commonplace."

Rachel Fox said...

Yesterday I saw a red squirrel while out walking the dog. Today the frosty beach was glittering in the sun so it looked like the contents of every jewelry shop in the world was lying at our feet. I don't know if I'd use the word miracle but it's true that every day you can experience the most amazing things and moments and sights.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Robert. It is easy when you get to my somewhat advanced age to put on one's slippers and sit by the fire and do nothing. I would find that impossible. Doing my blog means that every day I have to think of something new, photograph it, write about it, research it - get off my bottom and do something about it. I can fully recommend it to anyone over the age of 21!!

The Solitary Walker said...

I think we should reclaim the word "miracle", wrest it away from the sectarianly religious. Sure, Whitman's use of the word comes from a religious background & culture, but he's using it more broadly - & pantheistically.

I like this word (and of course it's only meaningful within its context, like all words!) It means something different from, and is stronger than, any possible synonyms like wonder, marvel etc.

A bit like how Dylan Thomas used Biblically influenced rhetoric to bolster his own paeans to nature & childhood - "legends of the green chapels" & so on.

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...

Well, Solitary…you certainly put me on something of a temporary etymological fence with this Whitman poem and “miracle.”

Leaves of Grass was one of the first books of poetry I ever bought—a lovely fine-bound, oversized, limited press printing which I still have and enjoy. I think I paid maybe six dollars (how much is that in pounds?) for it about five thousand books (and what seems like years!) ago. A great buy. Whitman ought to be fundamental reading for every budding writer—especially those with outdoor/nature leanings.

Ol’ Walt, like many of us (you, certainly) heard the call of the open road, listened awhile, and set off. A kindred spirit, no?

But my copy of the OED defines “miracle” as being “a marvelous event not ascribable to human or natural agency…” which pretty much leaves only the supernatural; religious, whether sectarianly or pantheistically.

But that’s not my quandary. Because you’re right in that what I try to do on my blog (at least occasionally) and throughout my writing is find delight and meaning and story in the daily miracles of life, living, the world around. All the great life lessons can be learned on a stream bank, in a forest, beside the sea, or in an urban back yard. You don’t even need to live there, just visit and pay attention. Life’s mystery is laid out and explained daily, the great questions answered, if we only look and see with heart and mind.

Which is why I’m willing—as is the OED, by the way—to expand the definition of miracle to include “wonder.” What I certainly seek to convey via my writings—what Whitman so eloquently managed time and again—was wonder. Wonder, wondrous, wonderful…it is all there in even a blade of grass.

The world is indeed filled with wonder; or, as we have perhaps agreed, miracles.

Thank you sharing and causing me to think about this again.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Oh so true! I've been soaking this up all day! (I like to do that with your posts because there's so much to contemplate).

I've not read Whitman for many years, and this was so refreshing and inspiring. He describes so much what I feel - and I'm glad he includes 'sit at table at dinner with the rest' and travelling on transport too.

I love the phrase 'The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place'.

Reminds me of Gerard Manly Hopkins' nature poems in its sense of wonder. (He was etymologically experimental too, wasn't he!)

I love Grizzled's term 'temporary etymological fence' - sounds like something which could be used as an ecologically sound harm-free mole deterrent - must ask Weaver!

Anonymous said...

Wonder is the key. Blogging, writing, photography - all begin with observation and patient attention is rewarded with ...miracles, wonder...astonishment. I'm sure that it helps to be on the Ohio River or in the Yorkshire Dales, but perhaps any environment has its secrets to reveal to those who seek.
Forest Wisdom has been quoting Wendell Berry and these lines seemed apposite:

There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.

Now, I have a pencil stub somewhere - let me make a note: Walt Whitman and Wendell Berry. The reading list for this course is getting out of hand!

I've been mulling this over all day. Thanks for the food for thought.

The Solitary Walker said...

I can't thank everyone enough for these wonderfully interesting comments!

Grizzled, that was so beautifully reasoned and expressed - I could almost hear your meditative thought processes whirring away...

The Solitary Walker said...

I loved that line too, Raph - and had half a mind to try and elucidate it in my post. I think it brings together brilliantly and very satisfyingly all the seemingly disparate strands (city, country, the natural world, an ordinary dinner table) preceding it in a connective and holistic (a word that wasn't invented in Whitman's time!) way.

The Solitary Walker said...

Strangely enough, Hopkins' poem 'Pied Beauty' is on the page next to 'Miracles' in The Golden Treasury book!

The-Grizzled-But-Still-Incorrigible-Scribe-Himself! said...


I just need to correct something re. the riverine patch upon which I perch and ponder—and occasionally launch my long-winded missives upon the world. It is not located on the banks of THE Ohio River, but on the sycamore-lined banks of AN Ohio river…the difference being about the same as that between the hole in the earth you might dig to plant, say, a rose, and that hole in the earth called the Grand Canyon.

Well, perhaps I exaggerate, though only slightly. I can easily throw a rock across my river, or cast a fly; the Ohio is a half-mile or more from one side to the other—one of the world's truly great rivers.

The Solitary Walker said...

I stand corrected, Grizzled. A slight emendation will be made forthwith!