1876 | Laurel Springs, NJ

Looking Up

Walt Whitman has a happy hour.

October 20

A clear, crispy day—dry and breezy air, full of oxy­gen. Out of the sane, silent, beauteous miracles that envelop and fuse me—trees, water, grass, sunlight, and early frost—the one I am looking at most today is the sky. It has that delicate, transparent blue, and the only clouds are little or larger white ones, giving their still and spiritual motion to the great concave. All through the earlier day (say from seven to eleven) it keeps a pure yet vivid blue. But as noon approaches, the color gets lighter, quite gray for two or three hours—then still paler for a spell, till sundown—which last I watch dazzling through the interstices of a knoll of big trees—darts of fire and a gorgeous show of light yellow, liver-color, and red, with a vast silver glaze askance on the water—the transparent shadows, shafts, sparkle, and vivid colors beyond all the paintings ever made.

I don’t know what or how, but it seems to me mostly owing to these skies (every now and then I think, while I have of course seen them every day of my life, I never really saw the skies before), have had this autumn some wondrously contented hours—may I not say perfectly happy ones? As I have read, Byron just before his death told a friend that he had known but three happy hours during his whole existence. Then there is the old German legend of the king’s bell, to the same point. While I was out there by the wood, that beautiful sunset through the trees, I thought of Byron’s and the bell story, and the notion started in me that I was having a happy hour. (Though perhaps my best moments I never jot down; when they come I cannot afford to break the charm by inditing memoranda. I just abandon myself to the mood and let it float on, carrying me in its placid ecstasy.)

What is happiness, anyhow? Is this one of its hours, or the like of it?—so impalpable—a mere breath, an evanescent tinge? I am not sure—so let me give myself the benefit of the doubt. Hast Thou, pellucid, in Thy azure depths, medicine for case like mine? (Ah, the physical shatter and troubled spirit of me the last three years.) And dost Thou subtly mystically now drip it through the air invisibly upon me?


Night of October 28

The heavens unusually transparent—the stars out by myriads—the great path of the Milky Way, with its branch, only seen of very clear nights—Jupiter, setting in the west, looks like a huge haphazard splash and has a little star for companion.

Clothed in his white garments,
Into the round and clear arena slowly
     entered the Brahman,
Holding a little child by the hand,
Like the moon with the planet Jupiter in
     a cloudless night sky.
(Old Hindu poem)


Early in November

At its farther end the lane already described opens into a broad grassy upland field of over twenty acres, slightly sloping to the south. Here I am accustomed to walk for sky views and effects, either morning or sundown. Today from this field my soul is calmed and expanded beyond description, the whole forenoon by the clear blue arching over all, cloudless, nothing particular, only sky and daylight. Their soothing accompaniments, autumn leaves, the cool, dry air, the faint aroma—crows cawing in the distance—two great buzzards wheeling gracefully and slowly far up there—the occasional murmur of the wind, sometimes quite gently, then threatening through the trees—a gang of farm laborers loading cornstalks in a field in sight, and the patient horses waiting.


Walt Whitman

From Specimen Days. At the insistence of a friend, Whitman cobbled together this two-part memoir of sorts, relying for the first section on the “lurid and blood-smutch’d little notebooks” the poet kept while working as a Union Army nurse during the Civil War. In a footnote at the beginning of the second section, Whitman expresses hope that, in contrast to the earlier half, “the pages now ensuing may carry ray of sun, or smell of grass or corn, or call of bird, or gleam of stars by night, or snowflakes falling fresh and mystic.”