Thursday, January 09, 2014

As ample as the earth, as deep as time


Before I abandoned my office at the college, along with a load of books, I owned a multi-volume set of the essays of the naturalist John Burroughs, published early in the last century. Most of the essays were about nature, but some were about Walt Whitman and some were about God. Burroughs had great admiration for the poet; less for the divinity.

I remember being a little surprised to discover that Burroughs championed Whitman at a time when many Americans were baffled (or scandalized) by Whitman's poetry, and hardly recognized him as a poet. Burroughs, after all, was the sort of fellow contented to sit alone in the woods listening to chickadees. Whitman enjoyed the hustle-bustle of the city where he could rub shoulders with his fellow men. An apparently unlikely alliance.

Both men had generous beards and unconventional religious beliefs. Burroughs was a firm agnostic; Whitman professed to admire all religions equally, but had a rather nebulous idea of God. No doubt each recognized in the other a kindred spirit. And both men recognized in Darwin one of the great minds of the century. Whitman told Burroughs that Darwin was "the first to open the door into Nature's secret senate chambers. His theory…is as ample as the earth, and as deep as time."

Pure poetry, thought Whitman.

Burroughs, too, was moved by Darwin's revelation: "Think of the beings that lived -– the savage lower forms -– that [man] might move here, a reasonable being!...a million years of unreason for his moment of reason! A million years of gross selfishness, that he might have a benevolent throb."

We can forgive the poet and the naturalist their hyperbole. They were keen enough to know that Darwin had provided a scientific underpinning for their unconventional religious views.