Ed Folsom, University of Iowa
WHITMAN'S CRUNCHING COW
We know that one of the earliest lines Whitman wrote in "Song of Myself" contained the odd image of the cow crunching the grass. It's a line we find in two early manuscript versions, in contexts quite different from that in which it later appears. In what appears to be a fragment of the proto-version of "Song," Whitman has labeled a section "25," and in the second line of the section Whitman has made a note to himself to "ins[ert] here page 34," so we could surmise that instead of a section number, the "25" is actually the page number of the manuscript. On the back of this manuscript are Whitman's instructions to the printer about how to arrange the first edition of Leaves of Grass, and those notes indicate his manuscript of "Song" at that time had 62 total pages. What this page contains are facsimiles of both the early manuscripts which contain the "cow crunching" image, and are suggestive about Whitman's early notions of "Song of Myself." You will find transcriptions of the manuscripts along with the related passages as they were published in the 1855 Leaves of Grass. You will also find some materials that indicate how resonant an image like the "cow crunching" could be for Whitman as he returns to itin many different contextsduring the decades following the publication of the first edition.
First Manuscript (from Humanities Research Center, University of Texas) [The verso of this manuscript contains Whitman's printing instructions for the first edition of Leaves of Grass; to see it, and to read about its significance, click here]:
And to me each minute of the night and day is
chock with something
vital and visible as
vital live as flesh isins in here page 34 And I say the stars are not echoes
And I perceive that the
salt marsh sedgy weed has delicious
And potatoes and milk afford a fit
breakfast dinner of state,
dare not say guess the the bay mare
is less than I chipping bird mocking
bird sings as well as I.
although she reads no newspaper; never learned
And to shake my friendly right hand governors
and millionaires shall stand all day,
waiting their turns.
on to me each acre of the earth
land and sea, I behold exhibits to me
They fill the worm-fence, and lie on the heaped stones
and are hooked to the elder and poke-weed;
And to me each every minute of the night and day is filled with a [illegible] joy.
And to me the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses
These lines contain many images that work their way into the 1855 version of "Song of Myself" (then untitled). The remarkable thing is how elements of this section get scattered throughout the poem by the time Whitman reaches the final draft of "Song." The suggestion of an entire proto-"Song" manuscript is staggering when we consider how essentially different this section sounds from the published poem.
Consider line by line where the various images and ideas in this section end up in the later published version of the poem. Click on the highlighted words to trace some of appearances of those images in the 1855 Leaves.
Second Manuscript (from Library of Congress):
In Whitman's now-famous "albot Wilson" notebook, the Library of Congress Notebook #80, generally thought to contain the first stirrings of "Song of Myself," a there is a two-page passage in which the "cow crunching" line reappears, this time in the context of a catalogue demonstrating that Whitman is "the poet of little things." This notebook has generally been considered the earliest of Whitman's manuscript drafts, but in fact the lines here are much closer to the arrangement Whitman ended up with in the first edition of Leaves. Is this notebook draft, then, actually a later revision of the apparently extensive draft of the proto-"Song" evidenced in the manuscript page above, or did Whitman distribute the images in this notebook into an extensive draft of the poem that he later abandoned, after which he returned to his early notes to write his final draft?
And that the pismire
Here is the section of the 1855 poem later entitled "Song of Myself" that corresponds to the two-page manuscript above. When Whitman eventually divided his poem into numbered sections, the following passage formed Sections 30 and part of 31:
All truths wait in all things,
They neither hasten their own delivery nor resist it,
They do not need the obstetric forceps of the surgeon,
The insignificant is as big to me as any,
What is less or more than a touch?
Logic and sermons never convince,
The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul.
Only what proves itself to every man and woman is so,
Only what nobody denies is so.
A minute and a drop of me settle my brain,
I believe the soggy clods shall become lovers and lamps,
And a compend of compends is the meat of a man or woman,
And a summit and flower there is the feeling they have for each other,
And they are to branch boundlessly out of that lesson until it becomes omnific,
And until one and all shall delight us, and we them.
I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journeywork of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect, and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'ouvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depressed head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels,
And I could come every afternoon of my life to look at the farmer's girl boiling her iron tea-kettle and baking shortcake.
Now let's consider some of the wider implications of the crunching cow image. First, consider George Hutchinson's argument (in The Ecstatic Whitman ) that the "riddle of the grass" is the central mystery that Whitman deals with in the first edition of Leaves: "The riddle of the grass and the riddle of death are fully entwined in Whitman's conception, binding all the other riddles of 'Song of Myself' together. . . . To get to the bottom of the riddle of the grass is to get to the bottom of death and democracy, and to be renewed with supreme power. The dead are absorbed into the earth, their bodies broken apart to feed the grass, which in turn feeds usas Whitman would feed us after he departs at the open end of his poem, 'and filter and fibre [our] blood.' Thus 'the smallest sprout shows there is really no death, / And if ever there was it led forward life.' The way Whitman leads us toward a solution of the riddle of the grass by enacting its germination (and, metaphorically, his own) is the process of the poem." Thus, suggests Hutchinson, the image of the cow eating grass is at the center of the riddle-structure of the poem: "'How is it I extract strength from the beef I eat?' (answer: because the cattle eat grass, which grows from soil well-manured by death. Notice that this hidden 'answer' only implies an endless succession of further insoluble questions unfolding from the symbolism of grass.)"
Early reviewers sometimes focused on Whitman's apparent obsession with and identification with animals, and the following reviewer in 1856 suggests one way the cow image could be read (note the pun on "behooves"):
Mr. Whitman thinks, however, he would like to turn and live awhile with the animals. Well, one's associates should certainly be determined according to one's tastes. Every one to his liking, as remarked the venerable dame in the proverb when she kissed her cow. De gustibus, &c. Mr. Whitman, it is true, can plead royal example and ancient precedent in defence of his "passional attraction" towards the dumb animals. King Nebuchadnezzar, many years before him, consorted with the oxen of the field and went to graze after the most approved style of the bovine quadruped. . . . In the "Golden Ass" of Apuleius we have also another record of life among the animals. We need not repeat the story of Fotis's ill-starred lover and his magical transformation into an ass, with the long series of misfortunes, the cudgellings and flayings which, sad to tell, befell him in that condition. Are they not all written in the "golden" book aforesaid?a book which Mr. Whitman, we are sure, would find very much after his own heart in its freedom from anything like sentimental refinement or prudish delicacy, while it is to be hoped that its faithful portraiture of life among the graminivors [grass eaters] would cure him of his disposition to herd awhile with the quadrupeds, and render him willing to content himself with his present advantages in the privilege of "standing and looking at them half the day long." It behooves him also to bear in mind that according to all accounts the condition of the Irish peasantry is not greatly elevated over "the rest of mankind" by their hereditary custom of assigning to the "placid" porker and domestic cow a cozy corner in the cabin along with its other inmates. If much good was to be expected from turning and living with the animals, Ireland would have convinced the world of it long before Mr. Whitman's day, and if he had properly studied her history we question whether he would have considered it a matter worth boasting of that he feels himself"Stucco'd with quadrupeds and birds all over." ("Notes on New Books," Washington Daily National Intelligencer, February 1856; Price, 39).
Whitman, throughout his life, reverted to the cow-eating-grass image repeatedly, in a variety of contexts, from reveries about rural life to harangues about American politics. Here are some occasions when Whitman uses the image in particularly evocative ways:
Mid-afternoon.One of my nooks is south of the barn, and here I am sitting now, on a log, still basking in the sun, shielded from the wind. Near me are the cattle, feeding on corn-stalks. Occasionally a cow or the young bull (how handsome and bold he is!) scratches and munches the far end of the log on which I sit. The fresh milky odor is quite perceptible, also the perfume of hay from the barn. The perpetual rustle of dry corn-stalks, the low sough of the wind round the barn gables, the grunting of pigs, the distant whistle of a locomotive, and occasional crowing of chanticleers, are the sounds. (Specimen Days, PW, 159)
A calm, pensive, boundless landscapethe perpendicular rocks of the north Arkansas, hued in twilighta thin line of violet on the southwestern horizonthe palpable coolness and slight aromaa belated cow-boy with some unruly member of his herdan emigrant wagon toiling yet a little further, the horses slow and tiredtwo men, apparently father and son, jogging along on footand around all the indescribable chiaroscuro and sentiment, (profounder than anything at sea,) athwart these endless wilds. (Specimen Days, PW, 220)
Writing of Millet's paintings: "I shall never forget the simple evening scene, 'Watering the Cow.'" (Specimen Days, PW, 268)
Let us not be deceiv'd by flatulent fleeting notorieties, political, official, literary and other. In any profound, philosophical consideration of our politics, literature &c., the best-known leaderseven the Presidents, Congresses, Governors, &c.are only so many passing spears or patches of grass on which the cow feeds. (Memoranda During the War, PW, 327)
Severely view'd, one cannot think very much of American Political Parties, from the beginning, after the Revolutionary War, down to the present time. Doubtless, while they have had their useshave been and are "the grass on which the cow feeds"and indispensable economies of growthit is undeniable that under flippant names they have merely identified temporary passions, or freaks, or sometimes prejudice, ignorance, or hatred. ("Abraham Lincoln," PW, 603)
Even at the end of his life, this cow-crunching image still has a special resonance for Whitman, wrapped up in his very sense of what Leaves of Grass is all about. In 1890, he told Horace Traubel:
"Leaves of Grass is an iconoclasm, it starts out to shatter the idols of porcelain worshipped by the average poets of our agenot ruthlesslynot wantonlybut to do it seriously, as having a great purpose imposed. I love to go along through the land, taking in all natural objects, events,noting them. For instance, watching the cow crunching the grassI can hear its melodious crunchcrunchits bovine music: the lips, soul, of song as much there as anywhere. And the mother at home knitting her children's stockings: not forgetting the yarnnot omitting the needle. The poet would not have thatit would lack in sound, elegance, what he calls poetic evidence. But for me it is my necessityit is all musicthe clef of thingsto discriminatenot so much to produce an effect, or that at allbut to state the casethe case of the universe: to seize upon its typical phasings." Traubel notes that "This was all said with a great vehemence as if it came of deep and long rumination." (6:343; 3/28/90)
It is also noteworthy that Whitman highlighted a passage in his edition of Martin Tupper's Proverbial Philosophy, the poem entitled "Are You a Great Reader?": "I am untamed, a spirit free and fleet, / That cannot brook the studious yoke, nor be / Like some dull grazing ox without a soul, / But feeling racer's shoes upon my feet / Before my teacher starts, I touch the goal." Compare Section 13, "Song of Myself": "Oxen that rattle the yoke and chain or halt in the leafy shade, what is that you express in your eyes? / It seems to me more than all the print I have read in my life."