Decay and Renewal: An Analysis of Walt Whitman’s “This Compost”

Some 16 months ago (about 60 posts in BlogTime), I feautured Robert Ingersoll’s eulogy of Walt Whitman, with a brief commentary indicating I would return to Whitman’s work, it being the inexhaustible centerpiece of American poetry that it is.

So, following the advice of reader Robby Miller at that time that I keep a copy of Leaves of Grass always handy and open it at random moments to a random page and read for a spell, I did just that the other night and landed on “This Compost.”

Such an ecological theme for these times, yes? Conjuring images of all those nice organic carrot peels and lemon rinds we lovingly transport to our backyard compost bins, there to mix with leaves and the miraculously multiplying worms to eventually create a teeming dark pile of life-giving soil.

But Whitman takes a different, slightly darker tack in “This Compost,” where there is not a carrot peel or zucchini tip in sight. Rather, he offers the more troubling imagery of rotting human bodies befouling the soils of the world, which he juxtaposes and attempts to reconcile with the grasses and trees that spring in such profuse and predictable resurrection from those same soils. (The poem is presented in full below, so jump to it now if you’re inclined.)

 

Truly, there is no end to the head-shaking mysteries of birth and death, decay and renewal. That life itself comes from death, that we owe the very procreative health of our soils to all the dying creatures that have littered our planet over the eons: this is the stuff of dreams…

“This Compost” is notable because it wrestles, most pointedly in the first stanza, with themes beyond Whitman’s familiars of earth-, nature- and body-celebration. It instead contains vexing imagery suggesting his unresolved tensions and even revulsion to the “sickened” and “distemper’d corpses” that litter the earth and leach into its precious soils. He alludes to human “carcasses, Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations…with their foul liquid and meat.”

Well!

For all his much-chronicled love and embrace of all things human and fleshly, Whitman is wrestling here with their shadow side: the illnesses, aging and decay that eventually fell every human body and make of them nothing more than stench-filled food for worms.

How can the pristine vegetative earth even accept and absorb such a rotting mass of protein? Whitman wonders. The question clearly troubles him.

O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?    
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?

 


Great questions, indeed, rooted in the mysteries
attending the death-and-rebirth that is everywhere and always around us. The Christian story of Jesus’s resurrection is but an extension of this universal theme that so absorbs pretty much every human being through the seasons: How can the dead leaves of fall turn into the bountiful bouncy grasses of spring? What mysteries abide in this elemental design!

By the second stanza, Whitman begins to provide his own answers to the thoughts that “startled” him at the beginning of the poem.

Behold this compost! behold it well!
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!
The grass of spring covers the prairies

He then goes on in the list-making mode that so reflects his poetic sensibilities. No rotting corpses in the second stanza, just the product of what those corpses help produce: “bean bursts…spear of the onion…apple buds…resurrection of the wheat…the potato’s dark green leaves…”

And oh!—“That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy”!!

 

Oenophiles sometimes speak rhapsodically of the terroir reflected in the particular wine they are sipping, claiming that they can taste the very soil from which the grapes are grown. That this soil springs from billions of living, crawling, copulating, defecating, urinating, regurgitating, dying, decaying organisms, ranging from the humans at the top of the animal chain to the microrganisms whose ongoing dance is visible only to the microscope, is miracle enough to sustain the likes of poetry that the Whitmans of the world are moved to commit to paper.

“What chemistry!” Whitman exclaims.

If there is a God of whatever form, surely its basic principle of life-creation is embodied there.

That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the orange-orchard—
that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,

That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.

 

Truly, there is no end to the head-shaking mysteries of birth and death, decay and renewal. That life itself comes from disease and death, that we owe the very procreative health of our soils to all the dying creatures that have fallen aground and littered our planet over the eons: this is the stuff of dreams, of some ridiculously fantastic design emitted from the fanciful brain of an artist in full command of both fantasy and the chemistry needed to make it spring to life.

That this is our planet, our cycles, our seasons, and that we have been bequeathed the consciousness with which to observe them, is a gift that the likes of Whitman help us attend to ever and again. Long as we keep him—or the thoughts he engenders—close at hand.

 

THIS COMPOST (1856)

Something startles me where I thought I was safest;    
I withdraw from the still woods I loved;    
I will not go now on the pastures to walk;    
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea;    
I will not touch my flesh to the earth, as to other flesh, to renew me.             
 
O how can it be that the ground does not sicken?    
How can you be alive, you growths of spring?    
How can you furnish health, you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?    
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?    
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?      
 
Where have you disposed of their carcasses?    
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations;    
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?    
I do not see any of it upon you to-day—or perhaps I am deceiv’d;    
I will run a furrow with my plough—I will press my spade through the sod, and turn it up underneath;      
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.    
 
2

Behold this compost! behold it well!    
Perhaps every mite has once form’d part of a sick person—Yet behold!    
The grass of spring covers the prairies,    
The bean bursts noislessly through the mould in the garden,      
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,    
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,    
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,    
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,    
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings, while the she-birds sit on their nests,      
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,    
The new-born of animals appear—the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,    
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,    
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk—the lilacs bloom in the door-yards;    
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.      
 
What chemistry!    
That the winds are really not infectious,    
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,    
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,    
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,      
That all is clean forever and forever.    
That the cool drink from the well tastes so good,    
That blackberries are so flavorous and juicy,    
That the fruits of the apple-orchard, and of the orange-orchard—
that melons, grapes, peaches, plums, will none of them poison me,    

That when I recline on the grass I do not catch any disease,      
Though probably every spear of grass rises out of what was once a catching disease.    
 
3

Now I am terrified at the Earth! it is that calm and patient,    
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions,    
It turns harmless and stainless on its axis, with such endless successions of diseas’d corpses,    
It distils such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,      
It renews with such unwitting looks, its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,    
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last. 

 

***

 

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Twitter: @AndrewHidas

Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/93289242@N07/

Much appreciation to the photographers!

Elizabeth Haslam, for the rotating banner photos at top of this page. Some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/

Compost in hand photo by Analia Bertucci for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/

Compost worms photo by crabchick, Bristol, England, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/crabchick/

Petrified wood photo by cobalt123, Phoenix, Arizona, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/people/cobalt/

4 comments to Decay and Renewal: An Analysis of Walt Whitman’s “This Compost”

  • Angela  says:

    And to quote John Keating (a huge fan of Whitman) from the wonderful film “Dead Poets Society” as he instructs a new class of students to view and ponder photos of the class that attended the same school 100 years earlier, now long deceased:

    “They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?

    Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – – Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      That’s worth a look, Angela! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vi0Lbjs5ECI
      Almost chilling, the raw power of the scene, combined with Robin Williams’s youth and then the denouement to his own life. Thank you!

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I sit on this Saturday aftermath of the horrors of Friday’s violence in Paris and reflect on this post in that context. Angela, your post briefly uplifted my spirits, and I thank you for that. Andrew, you and Whitman leave me searching for the hope that the horrifying violence can somehow, in some now unthinkable way serve as compost for life renewal and nourishment in what otherwise appears to be a very troubled planet.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Jay, thanks for sharing this. I like the notion of this outrage, too, like the illnesses and “foul liquid” that Whitman describes, ultimately going to the compost bin, there to be transformed and sprung into another, fresher life form.

      It feels like the events of Friday night leave us groping for a kind of life raft for a sinking spirit. I’m struck by my own rage and thirst for vengeance, mingling there with despair for the human project. A pox on its entire house, part of me sputters. And I am thus reminded of the centrality of intention, because times like this seem to require a willful reset and refocus, purposefully reminding myself that 99.999% of the human population was carrying on last night as it always does: tending to their families and friends, chatting with neighbors, being far more kind and convivial than not, trying their best to get along by projecting their flawed tender selves out to a flawed world. That essential goodness of humanity runs deeper, wider and more resoundingly than the hatred manifested by terrorists, despite their huge psychological impact in a mass media world, I think. (And then I willfully think it again, and again…)

      And another question intrudes: Does poetry matter at all in a world essentially at war? That’s worthy of a lot more words than I’ll take here, but I will say that I’m certain the terrorists have never read or even been exposed to the Sufi poets from their own Islamic tradition, for starters…My experience and summary of it, anecdotal as it is, is that it’s very difficult to be a regular poetry reader and walk around with hatred in your heart. To have read and marveled at Rumi or Hafez and then strap a suicide belt on to go kill people just doesn’t hold together. Great poetry, like their’s and Whitman’s, et al, creates too much beauty and internal reverence for life for its reader to become an agent of death.

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