Contributor: Sean Morrissey
First published in 1855, the following (known most commonly as “This is What you Shall Do”) served as preface to American poet Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Whitman, whose ethos of compassion and humanity would coincide with a most inhumane period of history in the United States, speaks to our enduring need for community.
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
There is a repetitious, incantatory quality here, as if the poet were giving a sermon on the righteous life; one full of love, introspection, and freedom. These are inalienable human rights, and a far-away privilege for those millions living through war, poverty, and famine around the world: it is for those we must fight and give alms every day.