June 11, 2005

Line judge

In Dulwich Library this morning they were selling off some slightly-damaged stock, so I bought myself a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. I might take it away with me next week, as the Arctic Circle, as far away as I could reasonably get from the rest of humanity, might be a good place to read passages like this:

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain'd,
I stand and look at them long and long.

They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.

It is one of my favourite passages in poetry: I have it pinned up above my desk. It does not like God, nor Things, nor the effect on people of either. Nor, in fact, is it too fond of people in general. It prefers the company of cats. As, more and more, do I. And this is true however much I am inextricably "involved with mankind".

On taking it to the desk I was surprised to be asked to pay twenty pence for a non-fiction book rather than the ten pence they charge for fiction. Poetry is non-fiction? It would never have occurred to me to say so. "It's not something somebody made up", suggested the bloke beside me during the ensuing debate. Well, maybe not. Wordsworth probably did wander lonely as a cloud. But somehow I doubt that Kubla Khan did a stately pleasure dome decree. Not at any time and not in any place, and least of all in Xanadu. In fact, I think Coleridge may have made it up. But it's not a point worth arguing just to get a refund of 10p. It's either worth less, or a great deal more than that.


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