Small the theme of my chant, yet the greatest—namely, one’s self—
That wondrous thing, a simple separate person.
There is, in sanest hours, a consciousness, a thought that rises, independent, lifted out from all else, calm, like the stars, shining eternal,
This is the thought of identity—yours for you, whoever you are, as mine for me—
The mystery of identity, most curious mystery of all.
Behind all the faculties of the human being—sight, the other senses, and even the emotions and the intellect—stands the real power, the mystical identity, the real I or me or you,
Miracle of miracles, beyond statement, most spiritual and vaguest of earth’s dreams, yet hardest basic fact, and only entrance to all facts—
An eternal individuality, the pride and centripetal isolation of a human being in himself—identity, personalism.
I know that personality is divine, and gives life and identity to a man or a woman,
Once liberated and look’d upon, this simple idea expands over the whole earth, and spreads to the roof of heaven.
In the centre of all, and object of all, stands the human being, towards whose heroic and spiritual evolution poems and everything directly or indirectly tend—
The universe preparing us by giving us identity.
The human soul stands in the centre, and all the universes minister to it, and serve it and revolve round it,
They are one side of the whole and it is the other side,
The significant wonders of heaven and earth, significant only because of the me in the centre.
Underneath all, individuals,
I swear nothing is good to me now that ignores individuals.
It is not the earth, it is I who am great or to be great, it is you up there, or anyone,
It is to walk rapidly through civilizations, governments, theories, through poems, pageants, shows, to form individuals;
Even for the treatment of the universal, in politics, metaphysics, or anything, sooner or later we come down to one single, solitary soul.
There is a line beyond which even real art, refinement, education, poetry, etc. do deadly harm to the individual character;
In our times, refinement and delicatesse, infinitesimals of parlors, threaten to eat us up, like a cancer.
We see, in every polite circle, a class of accomplish’d, good-natured persons, (“society,” in fact, could not get on without them,) fully eligible to mix eggnog, to mend the broken spectacles, to decide whether the stew’d eels shall precede the sherry or the sherry the stew’d eels. But for real crises, great needs moral or physical, they might as well have never been born.
To prune, gather, trim, conform, and ever cram and stuff, and be genteel and proper, is the pressure of our conventional, over-corpulent societies;
Everybody here is so like everybody else—the shaved, blanch’d faces of orthodox citizens,
See how well dress’d, see how orderly they conduct themselves,
They all somehow allow themselves to be squeezed into the stereotype mould,
No one behaving, dressing, writing, talking, loving, out of any natural and manly tastes of his own, but each one looking cautiously to see how the rest behave, dress, write, talk, love,
Becoming stifled and rotten with polite conformity.
I know the fires, emotions, love, egotisms, glow deep, perennial—but the façade hides them well—they give no sign.
Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes, how curious you are to me!
The men of the times, a parcel of helpless dandies—some of them devout, some quite insane, some castrated—a mob of fashionably dress’d speculators and vulgarians, smirking and skipping along, kept on the rack by the old idea of respectability, how the rest do, and what they will say,
Doing the most ridiculous things for fear of being called ridiculous—the dread of saying or doing something not at all improper in itself, but unconventional, and that may be laugh’d at.
Uniformity! Why it’s the taste of the vulgar. Nature hath nought of it. The skies, the earth, the waters, and the woods laugh in your face at such tediousness.
Shall a man lose himself in countless masses of adjustments, and be so shaped with reference to this, that, and the other, that the simply good and healthy and brave parts of him are reduced and clipp’d away, like the bordering of box in a garden?
You can cultivate corn and roses and orchards—but who shall cultivate the mountain peaks, the ocean, and the tumbling gorgeousness of the clouds?
Piety and conformity to them that like!
A heroic person walks at his ease through and out of that custom or precedent or authority that suits him not.
It need not argue an absolute miracle, if a man differ from the present dead uniformity of society and still retain his grace and morals,
There are plenty of splendid specimens of men that, if they would let themselves be, and only make that better and finer, would beat the world.
Mind you the timid models of the rest, the majority?
Long I minded them, but hence I will not—for I have adopted models for myself,
I want no more of these deferences to authority, this taking off of hats and saying Sir,
I wear my hat as I please indoors or out.
Not youth pertains to me, nor delicatesse,
I cannot beguile the time with talk,
Awkward in the parlor, neither a dancer nor elegant,
I ventur’d from the beginning my own way, taking chances—and would keep on venturing.
I like advice, comment, criticism from all sides,
We surely learn deepest from a sincere opponent, from the light thrown even scornfully on dangerous spots and liabilities,
(Have you learned lessons only of those who admired you?
Have you not learn’d great lessons from those who reject you, and brace themselves against you? or who treat you with contempt?)
I call to the world to distrust the accounts of my friends, but listen to my enemies, as I myself do—
But after hearing all that is told me, then I like to demonstrate that I hold the reins, that I know the journey’s end and drive accordingly.
Come, now, I will give the first lesson for a young man:
Learn of the elements and animals,
Become one that dress and the criticisms of others and the usages of parlors cannot master,
One who does not condemn civilization and refinement but grows through them to be superior to them.
The friendly and flowing savage, who is he?
Is he waiting for civilization, or past it and mastering it?
Provision for a little healthy rudeness, savage virtue, justification of what one has in one’s self, whatever it is—the precious idiocrasy and special nativity and intention that he is, the man’s self, the main thing—is demanded.
O something pernicious and dread!
Something far away from a puny and pious life!
Negative qualities, even deficiencies, would be a relief.
The first inspiration of real wisdom in our souls lets us know that the self-will and wickedness we thought so unsightly in our race are by no means what we were told, but something far different, and not amiss, except to the spirit of the feeble and the shorn.
As the turbulence of the expressions of the earth, as the great heat and the great cold,
As the soiledness of animals and the bareness of vegetables and minerals,
No more than these were the roughs among men shocking to me.
To the real artist in humanity, what are called bad manners are often the most picturesque and significant of all,
As the freckles and bristley beard of Jupiter—to be removed by washes and razors under the judgment of genteel squirts, but in the sight of the great master, proportionate and essential and sublime.
I pick out some low person for my dearest friend, lawless, rude, illiterate,
Coarse, wild, sensual, and strong was this young man’s nature, for coarse, wild, and strong had been his life.
I never met a man that seemed to me more open, coarse, self-willed, strong, and free from the sickly desire to be on society’s lines and points. He seemed to feel a perfect independence, dashed with a little resentment, toward the world in general. The castrated goodness of schools and churches he knew nothing of.
I liked his refreshing wickedness, as it would be called by the orthodox;
Man of strong self-will, powerful coarse feelings and appetites, a thoughtless, strong, generous animal nature—large and ugly qualities enough, but self-complete, and his very grossness and dishonesty noble from their candor.
All the others were singing the distinctions, and what was to be preferred,
Therefore I thought I would sing a song of inherent qualities in a man,
Indifferent whether they are right or wrong;
Today and here personal force—the power of personality, just or unjust—is behind everything.
To man, to woman, what is there at last to each?
Out of politics, triumphs, battles, life, what at last finally remains?
Nothing endures but personal qualities,
The inherent soul, nativity, idiocrasy,
Free, highest-poised, soaring its own flight, following out itself,
Starting from one’s self and coming back to one’s self.
When shows break up what but one’s self is sure?
One’s self must never give way; that is the final substance, that out of all is sure.
Nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is.
NEXT: The Poet’s Identity