Manuscript Study: Walt Whitman
This article originally appeared in issue 36 of American Poet, the biannual journal of the Academy of American Poets. To subscribe to American Poet, become a member online.
Come, said my Soul Such verses for my Body let us write, (for we are one,) That should I after death invisibly return, Or, long, long hence, in other spheres, There to some group of mates the chants resuming, (Tallying Earth's soil, trees, winds, tumultuous waves,) Ever with pleas'd smiles I may keep on, Ever and ever yet the verses owning – as, first, I here and now, Singing for Soul and Body, set to them my name, Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman's handwritten rough drafts of "Come, said my Soul" appear on the facing page and the front and back covers of this issue of American Poet. The poem was first published individually and then as the title-page epigraph to later editions of Leaves of Grass.
The poem's evolution in these drafts is fascinating; it begins as an address to a him, shifts to addressing the soul, and then becomes a command to the self to create a poem that one can return to enjoy even after death. The first draft begins "Go," while the final version begins "Come." This transition captures so much of the sense of invitation in Whitman's work.
Although Whitman's handwriting in final versions of his poems is flowing yet readable, as one might expect from a former typesetter, here we can see action on the page – writing and then crossing out, linking and shifting images and thoughts – and maybe even guess at how it might have felt to struggle with the writing of this poem.
Whitman himself seemed to find interest in the way this poem shifted and changed in its various drafts. He saved the drafts, labeled them "Scraps of Rough Draft," and went so far as to glue a separate draft to previous ones.
On the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday, Whitman wrote a third-person biography of himself for a newspaper. After presenting the facts of his life, he wrote, "Though crippled permanently from his war paralysis, appearing at first sight much older than he is … he writes a little all the time and retains his buoyancy and cheeriness without the least discrimination ... loves the open air and the sights of active life, and manages to get out in them almost every day." If Whitman himself does not return to enjoy his verses, we still find him – his buoyancy, the drive to continue writing, and more – in his archives and his work.