This Is What You Shall Do

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul; and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

—Walt Whitman, preface to Leaves of Grass, 1855

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Categories: Great Quotes, Spirituality, Writing | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “This Is What You Shall Do

  1. indigobunting

    Thanks for the reminder.

  2. Whitman is nearly my favorite poet, second only to Wallace Stevens, who drove me to poetry as an educational choice and means of expression. Love of life for and of itself just floods from Whitman’s pages, and I’m always astonished by how much his words have in common with the Buddha’s. This quote is actually advice to poets specifically, but it certainly has wider applications, and I doubt Whitman himself would have disliked that.

  3. Sublime. There’s a poem of his, I think it was called “For a Child on a Beach” or something like that. I’ll have to look it up, and I should memorize it.

  4. While I can read this again and again, while I can take this to my soul, I admit to having trouble with this line: stand up for the stupid. Perhaps stupid meant something different then. Perhaps i am thinking of ignorance. Yes, I think I am. He said nothing about standing up for those who close their eyes and chose not see, close their ears and choose not to hear.

    Among the songs I sing to myself, among those I have committed to memory is “This of Beauty” by Dave Nachmanoff. A Ph.D. in philosophy (is that redundant?), he left his professorial post to play music. I MCed his last show in South Florida, fresh from the Kennedy Center. One song stuck with me. Here are the lyrics:

    Thing of Beauty

    I’d like to make a sculpture out of glass
    So beautiful, that it could make you cry
    But when I look out at the snowflakes
    That fall against my window
    I cannot seem to bring myself to try
    I just can’t seem to bring myself to try

    Chorus:
    To make a thing of beauty
    Just one thing of beauty
    Only for an instant
    With truth and with love
    To make a thing of beauty
    Just one thing of beauty
    A single thing of beauty
    And that would be enough

    I’d like to weave a tapestry of yarn
    So intricate, that it could break your heart
    But when I look out at that web
    As it’s shining in the sunlight
    I cannot seem to bring myself to start
    I just can’t seem to bring myself to start

    Repeat chorus

    I’d like to sing a song of breath and air
    So wonderful, that it could touch your soul
    But when I listen to the robin
    As he’s heralding the springtime
    I cannot take the first step towards my goal
    I just can’t take the first step towards my goal

    Chorus:
    But I can try to live a life
    That makes an honest story
    With challenges adventures
    With truth and with love
    And that would be a thing of beauty
    A single thing of beauty
    A human thing of beauty
    And that would be enough

    It is my hope, my desire and my effort that those who know me recognize this as my goal. And when I am done, if this one goal I have met, then I have done all right by myself and the world, done well with the Universe and, if there is a creator, well by that being, I am sure.

  5. As far as Whitman sounding like a Buddhist, the American Transcendentalists were the first to bring Buddhism to the new continent. Thoreau made a study of it. If Whitman had been older, had been able to pal around with Emerson and Thoreau, had been, perhaps, better formally educated, there would be no doubt of him as a Transcendentalist. Instead it is debated: was he or was he not? I thought it always rather clear he was.

  6. Of course Whitman was a Transcendentalist. Anyone who thinks otherwise can’t see the forest for the trees.

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