Walt Whitman wrote a lot of his incredible poetry about the beauty of things in life too often taken for granted, or ignored in the context of preoccupied lives. In his own version of “shelter in place,” the result of old age at his home in Camden, New Jersey, he singled out such things and shared them with the world, augmenting their beauty with his own poetic gift.
In his short poem, The Commonplace, he wrote the following:
“The commonplace I sing; How cheap is health! How cheap nobility! Abstinence, no falsehood, no gluttony, lust; The open air I sing, freedom, toleration (Take here the mainest lesson — less from books — less from the schools), The common day and night — the common earth and waters, Your farm — your work, trade, occupation, The democratic wisdom underneath, like solid ground for all.”
Embodied in this poem is not only its subject matter, per se, but the accumulated wisdom and experiences of a long life of keen observation and insight. This entire life is veritably saturating from every word of this seemingly simple few lines. Oh, what he’d seen! This great and passionate lover of America and the energy and enthusiasm for its young democracy and the amazingly diverse forms its people’s activities took, all wondrous in his eyes.
He was a man who’d seen the worst during the Civil War, where he toiled as a nurse (too old by then to fight) and up close and personally encountered the incredible pain and suffering of the wounded after battles, and the subsequent deaths of so many, including so many young, mere teenagers. He tended to them in temporary, makeshift hospitals set up near the front lines of war, even in Northern Virginia, even amid church pews, a handful of miles from the nation’s capital.
This poet, whose works emanated so much empathy and compassion, found the strength to tend to the individual victims of the horror of war.
Little did he know even as he lay dying himself in 1892, that the horrors of wars to come would dwarf the terrible American Civil War and its loss of 600,000 young American lives. The Great War would break out in 1914, devastating the best of civilization of the most advanced human cultures on earth, subjecting so many to its degradations that, with the collapse of infrastructure and human health, the great Spanish flu pandemic would follow in its wake taking more millions of lives of far more than soldiers.
Then the misery forced on the losers of that war would set up the inevitability of an even greater era of human misery, the Great Depression, the rise of tyrannical fascist and communist states with their abject brutality and genocides, the onset of a new global war, so now the two wars combined went by World War I and World War II. Humanity allowed no alternative to the second one, as the world’s worst dictatorships sought to stamp out democracy on the entire planet.
By 1946, what had begun in 1914 had taken an estimated 200 million human lives in total.
In 2020, humanity faces yet another challenge, a coronavirus pandemic with the potential of ranking right up there with the ugliest periods of the past century.
As with the other great challenges to our civilization, this one will test as well humanity’s fitness to survive and progress. This one will tempt many to revert back to the days of tyranny and mass oppression, or days of wanton excess in reaction to that.
But it is, we must now begin to reflect, days of wanton excess which have brought us to this point now. We did not learn our lesson from the Great Recession of the previous decade. Indeed, we remained stuck as a “consumerist culture,” celebrating dystopia as offered by the elites to further tilt a dominating control of wealth in their favor and of the passive rest of us to eagerly soak it all in.
We’ve been fed and eagerly consumed sheer crap in the guise of culture. Whitman knew that from his time. He eschewed such tendencies in favor of the overlooked beauty of simple and productive living.