Saturday, August 6, 2011

City Nested in Bays

In the introduction to the 150th anniversary edition of Leaves of Grass, literary critic Harold Bloom wrote, ‘If you are American, then Walt Whitman is your imaginative father and mother, even if, like myself, you have never composed a line of verse.’ Later in the essay Bloom expanded his praise of the poet. ‘Whitman, the American bard, our Homer and our Milton, broke the new road for the New World…Whitman’s full aesthetic achievement is still undervalued and misunderstood. He is the greatest artist his nation has brought forth. Indeed, no comparable figure in the arts has emerged in the last 400 years in the Americas…’

Powerful words indeed, coming from the Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, and one who has written an endless list of books and articles on literary criticism. If it is about romantic literature of the nineteenth century and Harold Bloom said so, I tend to believe him. That said, I will confess that the writing of Walt Whitman has given me a few headaches in the past. So many times have I tried to make an orderly reading of the Whitman classic, Leaves of Grass, and so many times have I fallen short. In its entirety it is a difficult read—at least that is one unscholarly opinion on this mega-work that appears on half a million college reading lists.

But have you read “Mannahatta” which appears somewhere in the middle of Leaves of Grass? Here is the Whitman that sends a chill rippling across the shoulders in painting a great city’s portrait, though one we latter-day observers can no longer see, perhaps no longer imagine. Early in the poem we read…‘Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,’ As well as island and city, this might just as well describe the writer. Mannahatta is an Indian word meaning ‘land of many hills’ or in some translations, ‘large island’ and refers to the island of Manhattan. Here is the full poem:


I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,

Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.

Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly,

musical, self-sufficient,

I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,

Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb,

Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an

island sixteen miles long, solid-founded,

Numberless crowded streets, high growths of iron, slender, strong,

light, splendidly uprising toward clear skies,

Tides swift and ample, well-loved by me, toward sundown,

The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands,

the heights, the villas,

The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the

ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers well-model’d,

The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses

of business of the ship-merchants and money-brokers, the


Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,

The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the

brown-faced sailors,

The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds


The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river,

passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,

The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-

faced, looking you straight in the eyes,

Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and


A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—

hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men,

City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!

City nested in bays! my city!

“Mannahatta” is included in Leaves of Grass, as well as Walt Whitman: The Complete Poems.


  1. I've always loved "Leaves of Grass" and have the book. Happy to read what you've written today.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America