“but they are like the chaff, which the wind drives away” Psalm 1
In “Out of a Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” Walt Whitman sings a kind of ode to death, an unlikely subject. Don’t look for selected quotes to appear on greeting cards any time soon. Actually, I think the poem is memorable—really unforgettable, as in haunting. And it springs to mind now, when I think about the chaff the wind blows away.
The poem is really about Whitman, about a moment in his life when, as a boy, he witnessed the disappearance of a mockingbird, “a solitary guest from Alabama,” as he puts it, one of a pair of mockingbirds he’d been watching as two nested near his seaside home in New Jersey.
Much of the poem is in song, an aria, the doleful lament of the one mockingbird left behind when his mate doesn’t return. There on the ocean’s edge, the boy hears this mockingbird’s every mournful note, an aria that he’s never forgotten.
Strangely enough, Whitman claims that hearing that sad melody marks his birth as a poet because it introduces him to a single word he claims is “stronger and more delicious than any,” a word he learned in lament.
And that word, simply, is death.
I don’t know that in all my years of teaching American literature either Whitman or I have ever changed a kid’s life by using that poem. We come to Walt Whitman right before Christmas, when exams and going home for the holidays loom before them like the
Just about then, college students don’t have time for death. Olympia Range
And, for goodness sake, they’re kids. “No young man thinks he shall ever die,” William Hazlitt once wrote. How can I expect to enchant them with the grieving aria of some
mockingbird? I wonder whether any of them, honestly, will
ever remember that poem. New Jersey
No matter. Life itself will teach them the truth of what Whitman claims to have learned that moment on the beach, because sooner or later every one of them will experience the death of someone beloved. And when they do, they’ll know a level of reality they may well never have considered. Whitman wasn’t wrong. The reality of death changes us, makes us far less enchanted with the chaff that the wind drives away.
This psalm, an old poem by a storied old king, makes reality television look like the silliness it is. It defines the wicked by their shallowness, less by their sheer depravity than their insipid inanity. Because the wicked are not planted by rivers of life, they simply blow away after their fifteen fickle minutes of fame.
We’ve now officially changed course in Psalm One. With the third verse, the farm boy king focuses on those with whom the blessed shouldn’t seek counsel; and his first description is not venality but banality. The wicked are chaff. They’re insubstantial as paper dolls, their values thin as gruel, their terrain of their lives mostly wasteland.