“We know that the secret of the world is profound, but
who or what shall be our interpreter...” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
When Walt Whitman sauntered through the streets of New York City, enjoying a conversation and drink at Pfaff’s, talking to omnibus drivers on Broadway, or attending an opera at the Park Theater, the sights, sounds, and multitude of experiences found expression in his collection of poems, Leaves of Grass. He published the first edition in 1855 with his own money and set much of the type himself at the print shop of some friends. To order the words of its poems, he chose letters from two wooden cases, one above the other. This process of typesetting gives us the words lowercase and uppercase letters, more formally known as minuscule and majuscule letters. The terms are fitting and elegant metaphors for Whitman’s poetic world that contains ideas ranging from the near and tangible:
“Touch me – touch the palm of your hand to my Body as I pass;
Be not afraid of my Body.”
To the elusive and intangible,:
This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death and the stars.
As metaphors, poets and other artists use minuscule and majuscule to translate thoughts we struggle to grasp.
William Blake typesets large and small ideas together like this:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
And in his poem “Christmas,” George Herbert speaks of the majuscule and minuscule of incarnation this way:
“O Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night’s mantle, stole into a manger;”
Whitman was adept at combining these two types to coalesce the world’s complexities. Composer Matthew Aucoin’s opera, “Crossing,” is based on Whitman’s book Memoranda During the War. Whitman’s hope in publishing it ten years after the Civil War was to remind the nation of the war’s carnage and sorrows. Through the book, Aucoin discovered that Whitman had an “insane tendency to find beauty in everything.” The book is written from notes Whitman kept when he volunteered his time to visit wounded soldiers on the battlefield and in hospitals around “Washington city” during the war. Just wading in a few pages is enough to distill Whitman’s empathy for these men who sacrificed health and wholeness to the war’s battles. Whitman would sit and talk with them, write letters for them, bring stationery, fruit, “sweet crackers,” and give them small amounts of money from his own pockets.
The poet who, 20 years earlier, first published Leaves of Grass as an American epic – celebrating the diverse races, religions, vocations, economic levels of all Americans –continued his Memoranda through the same lens. He wrote, “The brave, grand soldiers are not comprised in those of one side, any more than the other.” He (a Northerner) speaks of a Southern soldier who died defending his flag: “Perhaps, in that Southern boy of seventeen, untold in history, unsung in poems, altogether unnamed, fell as strong a spirit, and as sweet, as any in all time.”
Whitman began his career by combining the minuscule and majuscule to share and preserve his writings. And through them, he interprets for us the profound things of the world.