It was my birthday yesterday, the unheralded number 38--after loving the fact that Whitman had begun his song in "Song of Myself" at 37--"I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,/Hoping to cease not till death...."
I'm reading Whitman these days, partly in preparation for a course, and partly because I like to go back to him on beginnings and anniversaries of all sorts--I recall, as a college student, bringing Whitman into a snowy Ryerson Woods on New Year's Day, as a way to welcome the year.
How they are provided for upon the earth, (appearing at intervals;)
How dear and dreadful they are to the earth;
How they inure to themselves as much as to any--
What a paradox appears their age;
How people respond to them, yet know them not;
How there is something relentless in their fate, all times;
How all times mischoose the objects of their adulation and reward,
And how the same inexorable price must still be paid for the same great purchase.
Thinking of Whitman writing those poems for his first edition of Leaves of Grass, essentially my age, I was struck by how much Whitman is the poet of the hale, and how remarkable that would have been in time (whether or not he was performing such healthiness!). (And how, again, Dickinson is the ideal counterweight to his magnanimity and brisk optimism, in her exploration of "pain" and its "element of blank.")
How happy I was, then, to find that the first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass was published on July 4th, 1855. On yesterday's Writers Almanac, I learned that "On this day in 1855, the first edition of Whitman's Leaves of Grass was printed. It consisted of 12 poems and a preface. The printers were friends of his, and they did not charge Whitman for their work. He helped set some of the type himself. 'Grass' is a printer's term; it refers to a casual job that can be set up between busy times."
(I had promised myself to read the first edition after reading Ron Silliman express his preference for it over the later editions, I'm committed.)
Whitman's excesses are, in small doses, delicious. They invite the grand permission, and even allow for self-conscious skeptics to say, perhaps under their breath: O Me! O Life!
How quickly it all seems to pass by.